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06/12/2019 06:35:01 PM


Sam Shnider

The Parshah this week, Naso, ("Lift Up") contains one of the oldest of biblical texts that have still survived to this day - the priestly blessing, of Numbers 6:23-27. The Israel museum in Jerusalem has on display a tiny scroll, discovered by a thirteen year old Israeli schoolboy, who accidentally fell into a hidden cave in an excavation site headed by Gabriel Barkay at Ketef Hinnom in 1979. The tiny scroll took three years to unfurl with great care, and seven years to decipher. Once deciphered, the archaeologists found that it contained only the three verses of the priestly blessing - the same verses that we recognize. The scroll dates four centuries prior to the dead sea scrolls, to the times of Jeremiah.

This priestly blessing is at the core of all Jewish prayer - it is often recited to the bride and groom at the Huppah, it is recited to a newborn child at a bris, it is recited as a blessing for the children each Friday night, and in many communities it is recited on Shabbat and Holidays as part of the repetition of the silent prayer, by the priests (Cohanim) as a blessing for the community.  
It is a simple and powerful blessing: 

The LORD spoke to Moses:
Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
May the LORD bless you and protect you!
May the LORD shine his face upon you and give you grace!
May the LORD lift up his countenance towards you, and bestow you with peace.
Thus they shall place My name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

In the verses, the role of blessing the people is given to the priests, who are agents of peace - bringing peace to the world through their service in the temple. Aaron the high priest is called a "a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, a lover of people who brings them closer to the Torah" (Mishnah Avot 1:12). Through their service of love, the priests are given the power to channel blessing.

But the power of blessing is given to each and every one of the people of Israel. It is a reminder that the power of the people of Israel is to bless, as in the original promise to Abraham: "and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing." Genesis 12:2. 

For both the priests, and the people, the blessings must come from love. The priests are given the power to bless, because they are spiritual teachers to the people, and have love for them. Before they bless, the Cohanim say "“Blessed are you … who has made us holy with the holiness of Aaron and has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love.”

It is this same love that is embodied in the blessing itself - using the metaphors of God's "face" and "countenance" to remind us that God has an intimate relationship with each and every one of us, and he cares for us like a parent caring for a child, turning his face towards his child and watching his every movement with delight.

By giving this blessing to our own children, in a moment of love and parental affection, we are reminded of the source of all blessing. To bless, we must also open ourselves up to channeling the divine affection for our own selves. 

This is what is meant by the words "And they shall place my name upon the people of Israel, and I shall bless them." This is an ambiguous statement: Is "them" the priests, who are giving the blessings, or "them" the people of Israel, who are receiving the blessings?

It is both. The person performing the blessing becomes like God, to be able to place the Divine name on the person being blessed. In the moment of blessing, the person giving the blessing is able to bless by channeling God's love. But in so doing, the person who is blessing is also receiving the blessing at the same time. 

May we all merit to give this priestly blessing to our children, to celebrate this moment of affection at the beginning of Shabbat, and to be a source of blessing to our community around us. 

Fri, August 14 2020 24 Av 5780