Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 22 May 2021 / 11 Sivan 5781

Parashat Naso

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

The priestly Blessing

Speak to Aharon and his sons as follows: Thus shall you bless the Children of Israel…May G-d bless you and keep you. May G-d illuminate His Countenance for you and favor you. May G-d turn His Countenance toward you and establish peace for you. (Bamidbar 6:23-26)

The priestly blessing speaks to three layers of blessing. The first — blessing and keeping — refers to the possessions that require safeguarding; the blessing alone without protection not be sufficient — they must remain in our possession to prove to be a true blessing. This is the blessing of prosperity and material possessions.

But there is more to life than prosperity and comfort — these alone leave a soul unsatisfied. The next blessing showers upon us G-d’s illumination and favor. This illumination and grace refer to spiritual gifts; when granted, they endow us with spiritual wisdom whereby the aims of G-d are illuminated and revealed, so that we may understand our history and task in life.

Finally, there is one more layer of blessing. Material and spiritual blessings have already been pronounced. The final blessing — the crown of all three — is G-d turning His Countenance toward us. The meaning of this blessing is G-d’s closeness. We will attain it if we properly utilize all the material and spiritual assets granted to us. After our eyes have been enlightened to recognize His will, we are to channel our material and spiritual assets toward the fulfillment of the Divine aims revealed to us. We do not yearn for G-d’s closeness in order to attain through it material and spiritual blessing. Rather, we seek material and spiritual blessing in order to do with it G-d’s Will — so as to be worthy of His closeness. That closeness is the absolute good.

The “Countenance” of G-d are His aims. If G-d illuminated those aims and we properly utilized our G-d-granted spiritual abilities and material means to achieve those aims, then this final blessing will vest: He will direct to us all the aims of His rule in nature and history. Because G-d is interested in the formation, continuance and development of a G-d serving people and community, the purpose of His rule will be focused on those people — they will be the object of His providence.

This, in turn, will lead to peace and harmonious accord. In the words of Rav Hirsch, “Every breath drawn by an individual who truly serves G-d will elicit a responsive chord from the universe around him.”

When these blessings were recited in the Sanctuary, they were merged into one sentence, rather than three separate pronouncements followed by a congregational “amen.” In the Sanctuary, no “amen” was recited at all. Instead, the people pronounced “Blessed be the Name of His glorious Kingship for eternity.” Additionally, the Kohanim held their hands over their heads instead of at shoulder level, as they would do when blessing a congregation outside of the Temple.

All of these differences express the universal and far-reaching blessing emanating from the Sanctuary. “Amen” is an expression of personal acceptance and taking to heart. If “amen” were to be recited by only the fraction of the people standing in the Sanctuary at the time of the blessing, the blessing would be limited in its reach. Instead of saying “amen” and acting as recipients of the blessing, the people present are considered as if they pronounced the blessing along with the Kohanim. In this manner they are preserving the character of the blessing for the entire community.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 6:23-26

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