Naso: Blessing Inside and Out

May 27, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Naso | Leave a comment
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May God bless you and protect you.

May God shine its face toward you and be gracious to you.

May God lift its face toward you and grant you peace. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:24-26)

This “Priestly Blessing” or “Threefold Blessing” moves the hearts of many Jews when it is chanted in services today. It first appears in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), as God gives Moses instructions on the way the priests should bless the Israelites.  After the three lines of blessing, the Torah concludes:

They shall place My name upon the Children of Israel; and I, Myself, will bless them. (Numbers 6:27)

In other words, the priests are charged with reciting the correct formula in front of the people.  Then God, not the priests, will bless them. God’s blessing is triggered not by the benevolence of the priests, but by the people hearing the words.

The words sound particularly moving in Hebrew because they follow a pattern. The first sentence has three words in Hebrew, the second has five words, and the third has seven words.  Chanting these lines out loud, with a pause after each sentence, produces the effect of increasing blessing.

But what do the words in the Threefold Blessing mean?

I offer one possible literal translation at the beginning of this post. A more standard translation would read “His face”, but Hebrew is a gendered language; there is no separate word for “it”.  When English speakers would use the words “it” or “its”, Hebrew uses a masculine or feminine pronoun (as a prefix or suffix). While all translations from Hebrew to English refer to a house (bayit) or a hand (yad) as “it”, most translators persist in referring to God as “he”. I think this tricks some English speakers into thinking God is male. So I prefer to use “it” for everything except humans and other animals.

On the other hand, I retained the word “face” in the opening translation, even though it is an anthropomorphism. The poetic ideas of God shining its face and lifting its face deserve attention.

Ya-eir, God, its face toward you, and be gracious to you.

ya-eir (יָאֵר) = may it/he shine, may it/he illuminate.

Some commentators interpret “May God shine its face” as “May God smile”. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) handed down a tradition that the phrase means “May He show you a smiling countenance, a radiant countenance.” In English, we say people’s faces “light up” or “beam” when they express happiness. It makes sense that if God is beaming with happiness at the Israelites, God would feel inclined to be gracious and grant them favors.

Other commentators have focused on the meaning of ya-eir as “may it illuminate”, i.e. light up something so it is visible—literally or figuratively. The 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno interpreted the phrase as meaning: “May He open your eyes through the light of His countenance to see wonders from His Torah.” More generally, this part of the blessing might mean: May God enlighten you.

The third line of the Threefold blessing mentions God’s face again:

Yissa, God, its face toward you, and grant you peace.

yissa (יִשָּׂא) = may it/he lift up.

In the Hebrew Bible, lifting up your face to God means that you not ashamed or guilty. Ezra says: My God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you. (Ezra 9:6) And twice Job’s so-called comforters tell him that after he has repented for the sin they assume he committed, then he can lift up his face to God.

Rashi wrote that May God lift his countenance to you means May God suppress his anger.  This opinion is supported by the story of Cain and Abel. The Torah says that when God does not welcome Cain’s offering, Cain became very hot with anger, and his face fell. (Genesis/Bereishit 4:5)

A fallen face also indicates a frown when God tells Jeremiah to reassure the northern kingdom of Israel that it is on the right track. Jeremiah is to say: Continue turning back [to me], declares God; I will not make my face fall at you, because I am kind, declares God. I do not hold on forever. (Jeremiah 3:12)

If a fallen face is an angry frown, then a lifted face might be a kind smile. Therefore this part of the Threefold Blessing might mean May God be kind to you.

Now we have the following translation:

May God bless you and protect you.

May God enlighten you and be gracious to you.

May God be kind to you and grant you peace.

If we imagine an external being called God, who bestows gifts like a good king or a loving parent, then this Threefold Blessing expresses what we want God to give us in the world. We want the universe, personified, to bless us with success; to protect us from harm; to illuminate how the rules work; to give us the things we need in life graciously, in abundance; to treat us kindly regardless of what we deserve; and to arrange for us to live in peace.

However, there is plenty of evidence that our universe does not work that way. Many people are hapless, harmed, confused, starved, judged harshly, and/or miserable. That makes the Threefold Blessing either a fantasy, or a prayer that the universe will change.

On the other hand, if we imagine an internal God, a divine spark inside each of us, then the Threefold Blessing expresses the changes we want within ourselves. We want our deepest soul to bless us with joy and contentment; to protect us from our own undesirable impulses; to enlighten us so we grow in wisdom and understanding; to make us gracious to ourselves and to other people; to teach us kindness; and to give us peace of heart and mind.

May every one of us receive these blessings.

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