Our Torah portion for this week is the source of the so-called “Birkat Kohanim” – the priestly blessing:
“May God bless you and keep you, may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you, may God lift up God’s face to you and give you peace.”
It’s a beautiful blessing that God gave to the priests that we, in turn, give to one another. While the first part of it speaks of blessing and being protected, the second part has this idea of God’s face shining and then being gracious to us. The final part initiates this intimate nearness with God, creating a real sense of peace and belonging. In this way, we might see that the blessing itself elevates and gets bigger and bigger so that ultimately, the final blessing is firstly for God to see us, and secondly for us to see God.
As a rabbi, I have the opportunity to offer the Birkat Kohanim in many contexts. For example, I give this blessing to our B’nei Mitzvah, during a wedding, and I share this blessing with various other people who come up to the bimah marking moments of transition in their lives. And of course, this blessing is part of our Kiddush when we bless the children on Erev Shabbat.
The divine power of this blessing is revealed by the Torah in the verse that follows directly after. There it says, “and they shall put my name upon the people of Israel and I will bless them.” In this way, when we give this blessing, not only do we share in this history stretching back to Aaron and his sons, and firmly associate ourselves with God, as God places God’s name upon the people of Israel, but also receive a blessing in return for doing so.
It is wonderful to receive a blessing, but it is even more powerful to be able to give and share that blessing with others. God is there to protect us and to grant peace, but the verses in our parashah also remind us to put God’s name upon the people of Israel in order to receive God’s blessing in return.
May we all have many opportunities to share our blessings with one another.
One constant theme in Shabbat observance across time and territory is the centrality of home life with family members and guests. Preparation for Shabbat begins as early as mid-week in some households, and its arrival is marked by the spiritual illumination of a candle-lighting ceremony. Family meals are occasions for singing, studying, and celebrating together, as well as for sharing blessings with our children, partners and loved ones.
Often parents bless their children and each other, concluding with the priestly blessing of our weekly Torah portion (Numbers 6:24-26). As the parents say the blessing, they place their hands on the children’s heads. Many couples also bless each other, or say a few loving words. Traditionally a man recites a passage from Proverbs 31:10-31… known as Eyshet Chayil (woman of valor) to his wife and women can offer Psalm 112. But what ever you choose, a traditional text, a poem, a song or words from your heart, to share a blessing with your loved ones is a wonderful moment to acknowledge one another and the special gift(s) you have received from the Eternal in your life.
Here is the traditional blessing for the children:
Y’simeich Elohim k’Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, v’Leah. May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
Y’simcha Elohim k’Efrayim v’che-Menasheh. May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.
Y’varechecha Adonai V’yish’m’recha.
Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.
Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom. May God Bless you and guard you.
May the light of God shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you.
May the presence of God be with you and give you peace.
Being in business these are words I hear almost daily. Certainly if they are not said, they are implied. It seems that it is really difficult for people to own up to their mistakes, and to take responsibility for the consequences. And when one tells the other what the result of their mistake is, ‘sorry’ still does not come easily. And sometimes ‘sorry’ can be a painful word to say, depending on the severity of the result.
It’s the same in any relationship, whether business or personal. No-one likes to admit they’re wrong because they feel that this somehow diminishes them, but if one doesn’t admit ones mistake life cannot go on with any normality.
There’s a children’s story entitled “The Hardest Word; a Yom Kippur story” which brings this point home in a beautiful way. The story describes God commanding a giant bird to search the world for the “hardest word” a person can say. In a first attempt, the bird proposes “Goodnight” — since no child likes going to bed. God just smiles. Next, the bird suggests, “Spaghetti.” Cute but wrong. Only later, after many unsuccessful guesses, the bird reflects on his own life, looks into his own heart, and realizes that the hardest word must be “Sorry” (Jacqueline Jules, Kar-Ben, 2001).
The story rings true as much for us as it does for children “Sorry” is indeed one of the hardest words we can say. But when we do say ‘sorry’ and we do accept that we are in the wrong, we create a just society. We remove blame from the other and both parties can be assured that even though a mistake has been made efforts have been made to repair the damage.
This weeks Parasha, Naso, reads in part “The Eternal said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Eternal is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.“
Rashi commented that this injunction is similar to the one in Leviticus ch. 5. He say that the words “and must confess the sin” stresses that repentance cannot be effective without a proper confession of wrongdoing.
Interestingly, requiring confession from the guilty seems to have been one of Rashi’s particular concerns. Elsewhere, in his Talmud commentary, Rashi writes that a person cannot achieve true repentance without admitting guilt: “One does not offer compensation or a sin sacrifice without making confession” (Rashi on Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 108b, s.v. m’shalem keren).
So our Parashah teaches us that, just like there is belief that Israel and Palestine can only live peacefully with a two state solution, justice can only be achieved by a two step solution: when the guilty party makes confession and then follows this with restitution.
Admitting guilt is a sacred act. It’s difficult but in order to repair the world it is necessary. Maimonides wrote a lot about the concept of confession going so far as to say that confession should be a public act.
At the end of The Hardest Word, the giant bird reflects on recent events and remembers when he “accidentally” fell from the sky and destroyed a vegetable garden beside a synagogue. He determines that he will return to the scene of the crime bearing a basket of fruits and vegetables from his own garden because, “It was time to say the hardest word.”
It’s time for all of us, to learn how to say the hardest word too.
Torah Reading Shabbat Naso
Numbers 4:21—7:89 Reading Num 6:1-27
Plaut p.928; Hertz p.592
Haftarah Judges 13:2-25 Plaut p.947; Hertz p.602
In our Torah portion:
*A census of the Gershonites, Merarites, and Koathites between the ages of thirty and fifty is conducted and their duties in the Tabernacle are detailed.
* God speaks to Moses concerning what to do with ritually unclean people, repentant individuals, and those who are suspected of adultery.
* The obligations of a nazirite vow are explained. They include abstaining from alcohol and not cutting one’s hair.
* God tells Moses how to teach Aaron and his sons the Priestly Blessing.
* Moses consecrates the Sanctuary, and the tribal chieftains bring offerings. Moses then speaks with God inside the Tent of Meeting.