Naso: Enlightenment

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso.

Naso finishes the story of the census in the wilderness, and continues with various laws covering suspicions of adultery; special vows of Divine service; and priestly duties. The portion concludes with the princes of the tribes bringing gifts to the Sanctuary.

Dear Friends:

Ah well, I didn’t keep up the “get-the-drasha-out-early-in-the-week” trend going for very long, but we did have a holiday this week. . . well, on to Naso.

Among the most famous verses in the Torah is the “priestly blessing,” a three (or six, depending on how you count) part blessing that is commanded to Aharon and his sons as the way they will bless the Israelites:

“The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

The Lord bless you and protect you!
The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!’
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

(Bamidbar/Numbers 6:22-27)

This ancient prayer is almost the paradigmatic blessing of one person for another, and is found in the daily liturgy as a reminder of the ancient priestly service as well as many life-cycle events and happy occasions. Yet the precise meaning of these verses has been the subject of much interpretation; for example, what is rendered as “deal kindly” above is literally “shine God’s face upon you” [ya’er panav], or, as one line of interpretation goes, “may God enlighten you.” This works with our English understanding “enlighten”- that is, may you reach a higher level of wisdom, knowledge, depth and discernment. Hirsch says “enlighten” is a reference to Torah- again, a prayer that someone should grow spiritually.

What is rendered as “graciously” in the second line probably has the simple meaning of “may God be generous with you,” but it can also be understood as: may God grant you the gift of grace- that is, in your own being. May God “grace” you- fill you with generosity, empathy, and kindness. Seen this way, the priestly blessing is not so much about Divine providence in the realm of the material world but a wish that we should be transformed into exemplars of Divine qualities.

This is not the only way these verses can be understood, and we’ll save a discussion of lines 1 and 3 for another day. For now, let’s merely note that we can understand our most ancient prayer for each other as expressing the Jewish idea that what is most precious is also priceless- for it is something that can’t be bought. Opening up one’s heart to spiritual enlightenment arises out of prayer, out of relationship, out of willingness to change- this is the grace we hope for ourselves and others.

Shabbat Shalom,


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