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  • Writer's pictureAyelet HaShachar

Nasso and the Priestly Blessing

This Dvar Torah on Parshat Nasso was delivered by Steph Zwi at our Kabbalat Shabbat service on 21 May 2021.

Hi everyone, it’s a pleasure to be giving a Dvar Torah tonight. This week’s parsha is Parshat Nasso. It is the second parsha in the book of Bamidbar / Numbers.

The parsha starts in a similar way to last week’s. Moses is ordered to take a census, to lift the heads of the Israelites and count them, from which we get the name of the book: Numbers.

After the census, we get into a series of very specific rules about very specific people, who I think can be grouped together as the deviant in society. The rules go something like this:

Rule #1: The lepers and everyone who has come into contact with the dead shall be sent away, outside of the camp. Remember, the Jews are in the desert, they’ve left Egypt a while back and they’re wondering for a really long time, bonding, creating a sense of identity and giving us things to talk about tonight.

Rule #2: Any person who has committed a sin, shall incur guilt and should acknowledge and make restitution for their sin – basically the earliest historic reference to ‘Jewish guilt’.

Rule #3: Then there’s this curious one: If a man suspects that his wife has gone astray sexually with another man, then the husband may bring his wife to the priest and make a meal offering of jealousy, and a meal offering of remembrance that recalls the wrongdoing. When the woman acknowledges her sin, she shall be made to drink bitter water that shall make her belly swell and her thighs sag and she shall become a curse-word among her people. But if the woman is still pure and has not forfeited her purity, she shall be blessed with offspring – it’s essentially a Biblical witch hunt.

Rule #4: Finally, a person can resolve to take the vow of a Nazir, to elevate oneself to a position akin to that of a priest, then they must fulfil many obligations. They cannot drink wine, nor anything prepared from grapes. They cannot cut their hair, or trim their beard if they have one, nor shall they come into contact with the dead.

After these rules are given, there is a final order: God tells Moses and Aaron, the original Kohanim or Priests to bless the Israelites with what we now know as Birkat HaKohanim: The Priestly Blessing.

This ancient blessing has worked its way into many Jewish traditions. We say it on chaggim, it’s in the Bedtime Shema, and especially relevant for tonight, it’s the blessing that parents make over the children on a Friday night. At Ayelet, we have a variation of this blessing, it’s the one where you put your hand on the head of the person next to you.. back in the old days. But it’s the original prayer, the one that is written in the Torah that I’d like to discuss tonight.

This is how it goes:

May God bless you and protect you.

יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ

May God shine divine light upon you and be gracious unto you.

יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ

May God look at you with favour and grant you peace.

יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Now, I’m not much of a God person myself, but I find this prayer incredibly beautiful. It’s unique in that it’s not praising God, telling he or she or they how great they are, nor is it apologising for our wrongdoings and begging for forgiveness, or declaring our commitment to a higher power over and over again, which many prayers do. It’s simply a blessing said by one person over another, or perhaps yourself, for safety, protection, happiness and peace. I also love how it's not conditional on anything - no “May God bless you if you do this or that…”. It’s simply a wish for effortless, unconditional favour and peace.

A quick Wikipedia search shows that this is the oldest known Biblical text that has been found archaeologically. Amulets with these versus written on them were found in graves at Ketef Hinnom, southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem, dating from the First Temple Period.

So let’s dissect it a little.

Yivarechicha: May you feel blessed. To feel blessed is to have abundance, everything you need, in this moment, right now.

Vayishmirecha: May you feel safe. The ability to let down your guard, relax in your body. The rare feeling of being completely, and utterly, safe.

Yaer Adonai panav elecha: May you feel luminous. The feeling of a bright warm light shining down upon you. Filling you, surrounding you. You are bathed in this light.

Vichuneka: May you feel loved. The word used here for love, chen, means the kind of love that is given without reason. It is chinam, free. It’s not a love you need to earn.

Yisah Adonai panav aylecha: May you feel happy. Not happiness dependent on things being perfect in your life. Rather, a kind of, in the moment happiness.

Yasem licha shalom: May you feel peaceful. Now, I didn’t want to relate this parsha to the current situation in Israel and Palestine, but after the declaration of a Ceasefire this morning, I think these ideas are particularly relevant.

Now I mentioned before, that I’m not super into God. My idea of Judaism, while spiritual, is not necessarily religious. It centres around community, connection to others and to nature. So, I hope you don’t mind, that I’ve taken the liberty to reword this blessing, as some other Ayelet blessings have done, centring it on ‘olam’, rather than Adonai, God.

In modern Hebrew, we might translate ‘olam’ as ‘world’. But this prayer was first penned before Galileo and Copernicus, before humans had any idea that we were standing on a ball of rock suspended in the void of space. So the word ‘olam’ took on more meanings, including ‘universe’ and ‘eternity’, combining both everywhere and always. Olam, like this blessing, is without time and place and is totally unconditional.

So with that in mind, let me repeat it for you, and this time, I extend the blessing to each of you:

May the world bless you and protect you.

יְבָרֶכְךָ עוֹלָם, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ

May the world shine divine light upon you and be gracious unto you.

יָאֵר עוֹלָם פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ

May the world look at you with favour and grant you peace.

יִשָּׂא עוֹלָם פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Shabbat shalom.

Steph is a medical student, reptile enthusiast and member of the Ayelet HaShachar leadership team.

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