What Does a Blessing Require?

Naso By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Jun 11, 2005 / 5765

At the core of Parashat Naso, one finds the Priestly Blessing.

Associations abound with these simple and precious words: a sentimental vignette of one’s grandfather removing his shoes, enwrapping himself wholly in his tallit, and proudly echoing the words of this biblical formula; or perhaps it is a memory from one’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah in which the rabbi graciously placed his or her hands on you and recited these words; or maybe your personal association is with the blessing of children recited each Shabbat evening. And while our images connected to the Priestly Blessing may abound, rarely do we think about the profound meaning behind these words that play such a central role in our tradition.

Numbers 6:22-26 teach, “God spoke to Moses saying, ‘speak to Aaron and his sons saying, thus shall you bless the children of Israel: say (ahmor) to them, ‘may the Lord bless you and guard you; may God cause God’s face to shine on you grant you grace; may God lift up God’s Face toward you and grant you peace.'”

The medieval commentator Rashi identifies four compelling aspects connected to this Priestly Blessing. To begin, Rashi focuses on God’s command ahmor, which means say. Typically, this word is written in shorthand, aleph-mem-reish; in this instance, the Torah spells out the word in its entirety, aleph-mem-vav-reish. Regarding this spelling, Rashi comments that this is a warning to the Priests, “you shall not bless the people hurriedly but rather you shall bless them with the utmost of intent and with a full heart.” Second, Rashi turns to the opening of the Priestly Blessing, “may God bless you and guard you.” Based on a midrash, Rashi explains that this opening third is a blessing for material prosperity. “While humans typically give gifts but are unconcerned about their protection (guarding those same gifts), God gives and protects.” We pray then, that God will increase our material wealth and protect that wealth from thieves. Third, with respect to the second part of the blessing, “may God cause God’s face to shine on you grant you grace,” Rashi explains that we desire God’s happiness and favor – that which comes as a result of being attentive to our spiritual needs. Fourth, Rashi concludes by commenting on the final portion of the blessing, “may God lift up God’s Face toward you and grant you peace.” Here, we pray for God to overwhelm God’s anger with mercy.

Rashi’s commentary is profound in distilling the many dimensions of blessing. When blessing others, either explicitly or implicitly, we must bless with genuine intent and a full heart. Blessing is meaningless if done in a hurried fashion. Similarly, Rashi teaches us the importance of balance in our lives. We must be attentive to both material and spiritual needs. Offering a prayer for one’s material health is just as important as praying for one’s spiritual self. Finally, to be a source of blessing, one must be able to control one’s emotions and give others the benefit of the doubt. Optimism and self-discipline lead to blessing – for one’s self and for others.

The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.