PARSHAT NASO (Numbers 4:21 -7:89)

PARSHAT NASO (Numbers 4:21 -7:89)

A D’var Torah for AJRCA Alumni Shabbaton, May 26, 2018

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Dear Colleagues,

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Naso, the longest of the parshiyot, covers a variety of obligations related to communal behavior and the service of God. First of all, a census is taken by collecting the names of those males between 30 to 50 years of both the Gershonite tribe, and the Merarite tribe, totaling 5, 560 men, in relation to the performance of specific tasks such as labor and porterage for the Tent of Meeting, encamped in the desert. Specific duties were assigned to each of these tribes. Similarly, all male Levites in the same age group were assigned particular duties for service and porterage.

There are further instructions: Unclean people, like lepers, are to be sent out of the camp. Sins, it is decreed, must be acknowledged and retribution made. The case of the Sotah, the trial by water of the unfortunate woman who does or does not commit adultery, and the ritual obligations of the ascetic Nazir, who temporarily elevates himself to a strict, priestly way of living, are discussed. But it is what follows next that is most meaningful to me – and perhaps, to this particular Shabbaton. What follows are instructions about bestowing a sacred blessing, the priestly blessing.

First of all, the priestly blessing that Aaron is commanded to give to the Israelite people is a very old prayer, perhaps our oldest physically surviving prayer, and it was originally connected to the dedication of the Tabernacle in Leviticus (9:22-23). An interpretive version was found in the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “[This ancient Dead Sea Scroll version] expands the biblical text to more clearly define the particulars of God’s blessing,” claim Berlin and Brettler (p. 297, Jewish Study Bible). In addition, two silver amulets “attesting to the antiquity of the blessing “were discovered hidden beneath the floor of a burial cave [just outside the walls of Jerusalem] in 1979. The tiny amulets, each about an inch long,] are incised with slightly shorter versions” of the priestly benediction in Naso. So the amulet versions contract the biblical text.

“These amulets were so fragile,” explains my favorite Torah commentator, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “that it took three years to work out a way of unrolling them without causing them to disintegrate. When they were “scientifically dated to the sixth century BCE, the age of Jeremiah and the last days of the First Temple,” they were found to be four centuries older than the ancient biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Today the amulets can be seen in the Israel Museum, testimony to the ancient connection of Jews to the land and the continuity of the Jewish faith itself.” (Shabbat Announcements, Great Neck, N.Y., June 3, 2017).

So with this background in mind, as we return to the biblical days of our parsha, Naso, God tells Moses to have his priestly brother, Aaron, bless the people of Israel with this beautiful, simple prayer that has remained with us through the ages and is recited today at the conclusion of our synagogue services. The ancient blessing has also been preserved in Jewish liturgy, as part of the ‘Amidah.’

Actually, the Priestly blessing consist of three blessings, one sentence each:


May the Lord bless you and protect you.  “Ye’varechcha Adonai ve’yeeshmerecha” in Hebrew, 3 words).

May the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. “Yaer Adonai panaiv elecha vikhunecha,” 5 words).

May God turn his face toward you and establish peace for you. “Yisa Adonai panaiv elecha v’yasem l’cha shalom,”(7 words).

The first blessing – actually a double blessing — “bless and protect” is meant, as the medieval scholar, Ibn Ezra explains, to confer material blessings and extra life upon you. The accompanying word “protect” or “keep” you is meant to protect you against those who may conspire to rob you of those very material blessings that often lead to jealousy on the part of others. Or, as in the psalms, it’s meant to protect you from all evil. “Thus the first of the blessings, comments Michael Carasik (p.43, citing Bekhor Shor), is that Adonai will grant you everything good and protect you from everything evil.”

The second blessing, that God’s light, God’s spirit will shine upon you and favor you with grace, is a spiritual blessing. According to Gersonides, to give graciously means to give, not because one is obligated, but by grace, chen (43).

The third blessing for peace, shalom, is a combination of the first two – since peace in Hebrew signifies completion, a reference to the completion of the world in Genesis. In this blessing, then, we have six words plus the Tetragrammaton, which makes seven. By the way, the priests did pronounce the Tetrgrammaton, but only in the Temple. According to Bachya, the 13th -14th century rabbi, the number seven here also refers to the mystic’s seven heavens. And according to the great Italian 19th -20th rabbi, Cassuto, the numbers 3, 5, 7 refer to an ascent (p. 943, Plaut). Still other rabbinic commentators say that 3 refers to the 3 prophets or the 3 ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; that 5 refers to the 5 books of the Torah; they agree that seven refers to Creation.

In other words, there is a very special rhythm, a sequential 3-5-7 literary structure, to this priestly prayer, world), each blessing with two words more than the previous blessing, an abundance more of blessing. This poetic cast is, of course, more apparent in the Hebrew than in the English. In fact, the Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos, who lived in Tannaic times, did not want to translate this prayer from Hebrew into Aramaic, then the vernacular. And even though it is often translated in various creative ways in English today, in an unexplainable, deep-down way, this priestly blessing needs its original Hebrew formulation. Note that the Tetragrammaton is mentioned in each of the three blessings. It conveys a completeness that links together all the other components of this parasha.

And then, after the Three Blessings, as the Torah portrays, God says:

Thus they shall link My Name with (literally, “place My name upon”) the people of Israel: “and, as for Me, I shall bless them.” (The verse actually says “I will bless you,” avarachem,” perhaps meaning the people of Israel, or, as some rabbinic scholars think, it may refer to the priests. The priests bless Israel, and then God blesses the priests for blessing Israel.)

In fact, this Priestly Benediction is so meaningful a prayer, so moving, that it sent shivers down my spine when I was first mandated at my ordination – only three years ago — to transmit this blessing to others. Unbelievable. I could now form my hands in the shape of the shin, symbolically the shema, and pass this blessing on. I still remember how I felt, my knees quivering, as the officiating rabbi placed his hands gently at each side of my head and blessed me. And I remember my too-good-to-be-true-but-it-is” moment when my sponsoring rabbi, Rabbi Finley, called me “Rabbi” in a whisper as we descended the stairs from the bimah.

And after that, as brand new clergy, if a lot older than my classmates in terms of actual years, I could bless other people. First I had to master placing my somewhat arthritic fingers in the shape of a shema. Perhaps it’s not the outward form of the prayer that really matters today when there are so many variations, although in orthodox synagogues, cohanim the liturgy has empowered to recite this prayer during the repetition of the Amidah since ancient times still cover their heads and eyes completely with their prayer shawls for intense concentration while doing so.

However, as a trans-denominational rabbi – I prefer to call myself pluralistic — what matters to me personally is that the prayer should not simply be a “by rote” recitation clergy can say in their sleep, but rather a deeply felt blend of the material, spiritual, and peaceful for the recipient. The blessings hold a completeness that also links together the other components of Parasha Naso.

As a rabbi, over time I began to internalize this blessing sincerely, to reach ever deeper inside myself to lift up the chesed and rachamim within me, so that I could transmit this loving-kindness and compassion to others. I was discovering what it really meant, not just to be blessed, but to bless someone else with God’s protection and grace and peace. And then, as I realized how much my own words would mean to people when they confided not only their turmoil and troubles but also their hopes and dreams, that I needed more than myself to truly help them, to inspire them. And I learned – and keep on learning — to reach further than inward, to reach upward and outward as well to the forces for good in the universe, to concentrate on making myself a channel of those divine forces in transmitting blessings to others. And, to be aware, as our Haftarah from Judges concerning Samuel’s excesses makes clear, this feeling of divine connection must used with “self-limitation and restraint for the benefit of others,” as Michael Fishbane puts it, rather than to boost one’s own ego or status.

On Monday, as alumni, together we will bless a new cohort of clergy prior to their ordination or certification. From my own experience, it promises to be not only a beautiful moment for them, but also a beautiful moment for us, as alums. At this moment, we are empowered not only to give but to be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom!