This week’s Sedra, Naso, is the second section of the book of Numbers, and is about setting the scene for living in the desert. Remember that in parashat Bemidbar last week, it was stated that the Israelite population included over 600,000 men, which might indicate possibly more than two million people in total. However, that count did not include the Levites. So Naso starts in Chapter 4 with a census of the Levites, and allocates specific tasks – to look after the tabernacle and the tent of meeting to the descendants of Levi’s three sons: the Gershonites, Merarites and Kohathites. Each group has specific responsibilities: the Gershonites to look after the hangings of the Tabernacle, the Merarites to look after the solid parts of the tabernacle, and the Kohathites to serve within the tabernacle.
The Sedra continues with Moses explaining how to seek forgiveness for wrongdoing, and what to do if a husband suspects his wife of ‘going astray’ meaning having sex with another man. In today’s world this makes rather uncomfortable reading, as the woman is the subject of punishment or cure by means of a trial of drinking holy water mixed with holy earth. A man who commits the equivalent crime seems to receive no punishment. Torah does not actually use the word adultery; the suggestion is vaguer, and the Rabbis have developed a word to describe the woman in such a situation, which is sotah.
Chapter 6, from which Laurie read today, is all about the laws of the Nazirites. The word Nazir, from the root nun-zayain-raish means to “dedicate” or to “set aside”. A Nazir is thus an individual, man or woman, who dedicates themselves to God. They set themselves apart from the rest of the Israelites, they abstain from wine and any other intoxicant, or even vinegar. They do not eat grapes or raisins. They don’t cut their hair and they avoid any contact with a dead person, even a parent or a sibling. Perhaps today in this strange time of the lockdown we may have gained a little understanding of what it is like to separate ourselves from those around us, though I’m not so sure about the teetotal part!
In the book ‘Torah – A Woman’s Commentary’ an implicit relationship is suggested between the sotah and the nazir – I quote:
”Both are marginal and set apart from the community at large. However, while the Nazir chooses to distinguish herself or himself, the sotah is at the mercy of her husband. Placed together, these figures represent a typology, albeit extreme, of women within Israelite society that issues a message. A disciplined woman who controls her wildness and dedicates herself to God may become a n’zirah. One who does not discipline her wildness may become a sotah.”
The Haftarah that we read today deals with the birth of Samson, who was a lifelong Nazarite, in fact his mother became a n’zirah during her pregnancy. Another well-known Nazarite was Samuel, and we read about Samuel’s mother Hannah and how she came to the Temple to pray for a son in our Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah.
At the end of Chapter 6, after a description of the lamb sacrifice that is to be made after a nazirite is consecrated, the full priestly blessing appears in verses 24 to 26.
This blessing, also known as the Threefold Blessing, affirms that God blesses and protects, deals kindly and graciously, bestows favour, and grants peace. Each of its verses actually contain two blessings, and the three verses increase in length from three to five to seven words, adding to the drama of the message and implying that God’s blessing expands.
Rashi offered the following explanation for the text. The first verse “May God bless you and keep you” is about material protection. God will watch over us, so that our property may increase, and will protect us from harm, so that robbers will not come and steal it away.
The second verse, “May God deal kindly and graciously with you” promises enlightenment and spiritual fulfillment. A literal translation of the beginning of this verse is “make God’s face to shine on you” or “be directed towards you” perhaps asking for God to enlighten us with Torah.
The third, “May God bestow divine favour upon you and grant you peace” hopes that God would suppress divine anger and retribution towards the people and so with God’s anger averted, the people could be granted a life of physical and spiritual balance that would make them, and now us, whole, bringing us into peace.
According to other Rabbinic commentators, each of the three lines expresses two separate desires. The first, in each line, is one idea of earthly benefit; material goods in the first, finding favour among other people in the second, and peace in the third. The second desire in each line concerns the relationship to the Divine: God’s protection, God’s Torah and God’s mercy. Perhaps this explains why the blessing is so compelling, because the words recognize that we need to be fulfilled in both the practical and spiritual parts of our existence.
Archaeologists in Jerusalem discovered two small silver scrolls some twenty-six hundred years old, inscribed with a text nearly identical to the Priestly Blessing. Although the function of these silver scrolls remains unknown, they are the earliest known parallel to a biblical text and probably served as protective amulets.
The use of this threefold benediction has varied with times and circumstances. At one time all Levites, not only the priests, were entitled to speak the blessing. Before the First Temple was built, David blessed his people, as did Solomon after he finished building the Holy of Holies.
In the days of the Second Temple, the priests intoned the sacred formula every day at the morning sacrifice. Within the Temple, the High Priest would use the divine name of God, whereas out in the countryside in local places of worship, the word ‘Adonai’ was substituted, as we read today. Today in orthodox Ashkenazi practice, the words are spoken by those who consider themselves descendants of the priests, the Cohanim.
This ancient blessing is regarded as very powerful, but we must not think of it as magical. On our own, we do not have the power to make what we want happen, nor do we have the power to compel God to make something happen through the force of our prayer or request. Blessings are aspirational. We can express in word and gesture our deepest desires and hopes.
The act of blessing is not dependent on the fulfillment of its words, but rather the act of blessing is realized in the faith, care and love that are expressed in the words and gestures. In many homes on a Friday night, it is customary for parents or grandparents to bless the children and grandchildren present with the priestly blessing. One of the things I am missing most about our Zoom services is our custom here in Beth Shalom, of gathering the children under our special Tallit – given in memory of Joseph Gross and Peter Lipton – to bless them at the end of each service.
Although we cannot fully understand or explain the ultimate significance of this act, to many people it is very moving, and blessing our children in this way has become an important part of our service ritual. I hope that we can do this again in the not too distant future.
This Shabbat I cannot completely ignore the fact that this weekend marks the 64th anniversary of the car accident in which my mother died. My parents fled to England from Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1939 with my sister and brother, then aged respectively 5 and 3 years old. Our parents worked incredibly hard to establish new lives here and when I was born in 1948, just after the family had moved into their first purchased home, it was a time of optimism and looking to the future after the tribulations and dark days of the War. And in so many ways we have been blessed, we survived and all three of us children have children of our own and grandchildren. We can only thank our parents for their bravery and foresight.
As Vaclav Havel, a past President of the Czech Republic, wrote in his book: ‘Disturbing the Peace’: “The performative speech of blessing, I have come to believe, is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons”.
Blessing acknowledges holiness, so the blessing of the whole community helps us to become a kehilah Kedoshah, a holy community, encouraging personal growth for the sake of the whole, teaching that the sum is greater than the parts, guiding each person towards the most important goal of all – a better world for all, not just for some.