Parshat Nasso (2012)

Parshat Nasso
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The Priestly Blessing: What Does It Mean to Have Favor?

Last year we explored the ritual of the Sotah the ancient ceremonial practice for a suspected adulteress. This parsha also talks about the almost ascetic Nazarite vow. And among these seemingly otherworldly mitzvot is the command of the Birkat Kohanim – the Priestly Blessing.

In our tradition few things are considered more sacred than the Birkat Kohanim, and probably nothing is more loved. That is because this ritual is one of the deepest rooted traditions in all of Judaism. Those who are critical of biblical representation of history have had to concede to the ancientness of this traditional blessing after finding it partially preserved on a silver scroll dating from the 7th century BCE, which is the latter part of the Assyrian exile. This predates the previously presumed authorship in the post-exile period in the days of Ezra the prophet. The item was a personal amulet, showing that already in those days this blessing was a considered deeply endearing and culturally pervasive.

The ethereal nature of this benediction comes from the honored place that it has in our tradition as being the height of blessing during the Temple service in ancient times. This was pronounced during the hight of the day and immediately after the priests would emerge from sacrificing in the Holy of Holies.

In order to distinguish and honor the Birkat Kohanim it became common Ashkenezi tradition that it be recited by the Kohanim – the living descendants of the priesthood – on high holidays when one was in a mindset of joy and expectation. The priests are called up during the Musaf service, to remove their shoes, wash their hands, lift hands to the sky and recite the ancient blessings presented to us here in this parsha. Though Sephardim (Jews from Spain through the Middle-east) have maintained the older custom of it being recited on weekdays as well during the Mincha prayer service; thus Jews in Israel and Sephardim worldwide are accustomed to recitation of the Priestly Blessing daily.

Though today in modern Israel nothing is more spectacular than watching the recitation of the Birkat Kohanim said from the Kotel – the Western Wall in Jerusalem, outside of the site of the Holy Temple. The entire plaza filled with Kohanim lifting their hands, spread out under their tallitot, fingers spread uniquely and widely to represent the windows of heaven. It makes the scripture come alive for us, “Behold, He stands behind our walls, He looks in through the windows, peering through the lattices.” (Song of Songs 2:9) We reckon G-d peering down to us from the windows of heaven to send us blessing. We cover our eyes in reverence, and do not attempt to peer knowing that we cannot comprehend such greatness anyhow; but as we stand facing the priests we look inwards to G-d and accept blessing into our lives.

And that is precisely the point that needs to be stressed about this blessing. Even though we call it the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, it is actually not a blessing from the priests. Notice how our parsha begins:

“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying:

This is how you shall bless

the children of Israel,

saying to them…”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor.

| Daber el-Aharon ve’el-banav lemor

| koh tevarachu

| et-benei Yisra’el

| amor lahem…

Numbers 6:22-23

Let us follow the Rashi, and some other pieces of commentary to help us interpret this text. Though this blessing is short and simple, the meaning of these few words runs very deep.

What we notice first-off is that G-d is speaking to Moses, to tell Aaron and his sons to bless the people in this manner; and with these words. It is not something they thought up themselves, nor was it merely the advice of Moses. This is a mandate from G-d. Not just in that generation, but for all generations; as Rashi points out that it commands the Kohanim to “amor / say” in the infinitive tense, just like when we are commanded to “zachor / remember” (Exodus 20:7) and “shamor / keep” the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:11); meaning it is a perpetual commandment to do so from that time on to the present. This blessing is to be pronounced loudly and clearly, so that all can hear. It is to be said patiently and with full intention and concentration; as Rashi says “u’b’lev shalem / with wholeheartedness.” Even though they are pronouncing the blessing, it is G-d who is providing the blessing. This is made obvious to us from the first words of the blessing:

“May Hashem bless you

and safeguard you:

| Yevarechecha Hashem

| veyishmerecha

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהֹוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ:

There are three lines of blessings that are pronounced by the priests. It is the tradition that after each verse is said the congregation responds “amen” and “kein, yehi ratzon” in agreement and acceptance. This is our first blessing, that G-d should protect us, and keep us. That he should watch and guard over us.

Now one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, “why should these blessings start this way?” Why do we start with this concern first? Any of us who have taken basic psychology in college will quickly see why, once we consider Rashi’s commentary. Despite the clearly and simply meaning being that G-d should bless and guard us, it does not just apply in extreme cases of G-d saving our lives. He does not watch over us like a superhero. It means G-d watching over and protecting us and our needs on all levels.

Bless: that your assets be blessed


Safeguard you:

that robbers should not come

and take your money…”

יברכך: שיתברכו נכסיך |


וישמרך: |

שלא יבואו עליך שודדים |

ליטול ממונך… |

Rashi on Numbers 6:24

The first blessing that G-d wishes to bestow upon us is for our physical needs, and also to grant us security. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where our needs are laid out like a pyramid as it is theorized, we as human tend to rate our needs from most fundamental to the auxiliary. Our basic needs are our first needs and foundation of the others, with our more abstract feelings and self-actualizing at the top. But in this theory of human behavior we cannot move on to other luxuries of healthy, higher human behavior until we get our most essential needs met. The first of these is our physiological needs; shelter, food, water, and sleep, and the like. What we need to live. Then second, closely tied to the first comes the need for safety; only when our physical needs are met can we even begin to consider our personal safety. For example, one doesn’t even have the luxury of consider the quality and safety of your home or food until they have those type of provision met. G-d seems keenly aware that He needs to start with what we need the most first! The rest of the blessings nicely follow this same patters.

Rashi begins to further explain this verse to us through a parable of sort in the latter part of his commentary to verse 24. He says its like if a master was to was to give a servant a gift, sadly you are not able to watch the gift once it is handed over so anyone can steal it from him. Rashi comments that this would be terribly sad. Quiet frankly it would be better if he had never gotten the gift at, if he never got any enjoyment out of it himself. Rashi thus explains that for this reason G-d not only gives us blessings, but the Almighty also protects those things He blesses us with as well.

Our second blessing continues the pattern:

“May Hashem cause His face to shine on you

and be gracious to you.”

| Ya’er Hashem panav eleicha

| vichuneka

יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ:

In this we see the “face” of G-d, meaning the attention and consideration of the Divine, focused on us, radiating on us in pleasantness. G-d shinning His face upon us means to convey the mental picture of G-d turning to us with smile and laughter, aglow with happiness as He looks down upon us from heaven. But how Rashi literally describes it in his words is as smiling, breaking out into laughter, and “yellow-faced;” meaning radiating with pleasantness, instead of flushed with anger.

Now the second part of this blessing here is one of the parts of the Birkat Kohanim that I find the most interesting, as it’s probably one of the least understood parts. Actually its just a one-word phrase. “Vichuneka / and be gracious to you.” That is because most of us are more used to using this phrase poetically; “and deal kindly with you,” “have pity on you,” and more commonly “have mercy on you.” It is the last of these meanings that most properly conveys the literal and simple understanding of this word; as to chanan means to pardon someone, or grant them amnesty. It means to show merit-less mercy to a person. One does not presume to be worthy of G-d blessing them, but we do have full trust in the concept that G-d is gracious enough to want to bless us.

Rashi and our sages also break it down even more precisely for us to consider.

And be gracious to you:

Give you favor.”

ויחנך: |

יתן לך חן: |

Rashi on Numbers 6:25

Rashi’s interpretation gets to the heart of the word. Chen means grace; a noun. It is charm and etiquette, a beauty that comes with refinement and good form. When one shows another grace they mercifully look down upon someone with an attitude that is favorable.

This is not to say that we are expecting G-d to play favorites. Though it might appear so to outside people, this just isn’t the case. But what it does mean is that G-d, who is on a higher level of compassion and understanding, chooses to look down on us humble people in a kind way. It’s like the poise that one shows when they interact with a silly or confused child; you do not yell at them in their folly, but instead react with laughter and smiles. So should it be for us that Hashem should look upon us this way.

The Ohr haChaim explains it this way:

Be gracious to you, etc.:

Which should be interpreted by us to mean

grace and favor.

The reference of this interpretation

is from the verse:

‘And Hashem was with Yosef

and showed kindness unto him,

and gave him favor

[in the sight of the keeper of the prison].’

(Genesis 39:21)”

ויחנך וגו‘: |

פירוש יתן לך |

חן וחנינה, |

ועיין מה שפירשת |

י בפסוק: |

ויהי ה’ את יוסף |

ויט אליו חסד |

ויתן חנו |

וגו’: |

(בראשית לט, כא) |

Ohr haChaim on BaMidbar

The Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim ben Mosheh Ibn Attar z”l

of Morocco and master Kabbalist of Jerusalem

In this explanation we are shown the example of Yosef haTzadik – Joseph the righteous patriarch. He asks us to call to remembrance the situation in which Joseph was unjustly imprisoned in an Egyptian jail. He was in the most lowly situation possible, sold into slavery and then further humiliated by being wrongly incarcerated. But even in that situation G-d was with him, by providing a person that would do kindly for him. G-d gave him favor in the sight of the prison warden, who lightened his suffering as much as he could. May it be that G-d should do likewise for us, placing people above us who choose to look kindly upon us.

But G-d does not just wish to look down at us. He also wishes to look up at us! This is expressed in our final line of the Birkat Kohanim:

“May Hashem raise His face to you

and grant you peace.”

| Yisa Hashem panav eleicha

| veyasem lecha shalom.

יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Even during this most grandiose of religious rituals, when we are considering G-d and reverencing Him as the awesome and transcendent One in order to receive blessing from Him, G-d does not ask us to humiliatingly grovel before Him. Instead G-d takes a remarkably accessible and demure position when considering us for this final blessing.

“May Hashem raise His countenance toward you:

by suppressing His wrath.”

ישא הפניו אליך: |

יכבוש כעסו: |

Rashi on Numbers 6:26

G-d restrains any inclination to react towards us in a way that appears to bear anger or scorn. G-d says He wishes to restrain and hold back His wrath; and unlike us humans, not become overcome by rage. Instead His will is to level His anger, and look up towards us to grant us peace. Amein, so should it be for us and all Israel.

Again, this is not just our wish for ourselves, nor just an extension of the good wishes of the Kohanim. This is G-d’s wish for us. For this reason it calls back to remember who is really doing the blessing here, it is G-d through the benediction of the Kohanim:

“And so shall you bestow My Name

upon the Children of Israel

and I shall bless them.”

| Vesamu et-shemi

| al-benei Yisra’el

| va’ani avarachem.

Numbers 6:27

The blessing is a way for G-d to connect with the people, to attach His essence with them. The priests would bless them with His explicit Name, Havayah (יהוה). They stand as witnesses to this blessing and partners in the mitzvah of pronouncing it, but the blessing is G-d’s insomuch as He is the one to actually bring it to fruition in our lives. This blessing is the Birkat Kohanim because they stand as witnesses, but it is G-d’s Holy Name that endorses this blessing.

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