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Kehillatsrael Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.


Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

Naso' - Blessings


Numbers 4:21-7:89

“Adonai spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: Adonai bless you and protect you! Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you! Adonai bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace! Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” - Numbers 6:22-27


P’shat – Explanation

This is one of the most widely quoted passages in the Torah, as it contains words of blessing that have been used at practically every lifecycle event, service, and celebration in both Jewish and Christian traditions for thousands of years. Jews call these words of blessing “The Priestly Blessing,” because the priests in ancient Israel were considered God’s agents of blessing for the entire community.

A careful reading of the text reveals a profound insight. The traditional image of God is a supernatural being who is omnipotent and omniscient, and therefore has the power to free us from enslavement, feed us when we are hungry, and heal us from illness. If this were the case, though, why would such a God require human intervention by means of priests in order for us to be blessed?

The words in this passage suggest instead that God blesses us is through the agency, actions, and words of other human beings, in this case the priests. God commands Moses to command the priests to use these particular words to bring blessings to the people, and when these words are invoked, God says, “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” This process is in itself a recognition that we are partners with God in bringing blessings into the world—that God actually needs us to speak and act to advance the connection between the community and the Divine.       


D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“When we speak of God’s attributes, we should mean not that God has those attributes but that God is those attributes.” – Mordecai M. Kaplan


Kaplan’s idea of God is expressed in a similar vein. Rather than understand God as a “being” with specific attributes, he taught that we are to understand the attributes themselves as Godly and cultivate them to experience the Divine. Rather than assert that God is just, we are to understand justice as holy. Rather than believe that God is compassionate, we are to see compassion as divine.

When we can view the world in such a way that the qualities we have traditionally associated with God imbue our lives with divinity, the traditional three-fold priestly blessing takes on a new and ever-more potent meaning. “Adonai bless you and protect you” means that to experience security and protection is holy. “Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you” means kindness and grace are sacred attributes to be sought after and welcomed into our lives. “Adonai bestow favor upon you and grant you peace,” attests that the experience of feeling complete, and the peace that comes from granting others the same dignity we seek for ourselves, is an essential requirement for bringing godliness and shalom into the world.

Similarly, Kaplan affirmed: “The difference between God’s having and God’s being His attributes is the difference between the popular but mistaken conception of God as a distinct entity and the difficult but tenable conception of God as process.”[i]  God as “process” allows us to perpetually encounter God within the attributes of holiness themselves.


D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Being the Source of Blessings

I remember the day of my rabbinic ordination more than forty years ago as if it were yesterday.  I had spent five years studying at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), first in Jerusalem, then in Los Angeles, and lastly in New York.  Finally, I was standing on the ornate marble bimah of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El about to be ordained as a rabbi. Approaching the enormous carved ark in this awesome cathedral-like sanctuary, I stood before the illustrious HUC-JIR President Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk. Stretching out his hands and placing them on my head, he then uttered the exact words of this Torah passage, the same words of blessing that have echoed for thousands of years from biblical times to this day.

As those rabbinic hands stretched over my head, I imagined generation after generation of Jews, young and old, throughout the world, in front of open arks, under huppahs at their weddings, swathed in baby blankets in their new homes…all listening as these very words of blessing are invoked over their heads as well. “...And I will bless them,” it says in the Torah, and standing in that sacred setting on that auspicious day I, too, felt the power of that blessing, heard the still, small voice of God whispering within, “...v’yasem lekha shalom,” “and grant you peace.” 

After all the power God demonstrates throughout the Torah in so many different settings and ways, it is almost incongruous that when it comes to blessing the people, God needs human beings to bring God’s blessing to reality. This is truly an incredible notion – that God needs us to bring blessings into each other’s lives. On that day of my ordination, I felt that calling too, and understood my role. For the rest of my life, I was to do my best to be an agent of blessing in other people’s lives.

In the Talmud, Hullin 49a. Rabbi Ishmael points out: “We observe here a blessing for Israel at the mouth of the priests, but we know of no blessing for the priests themselves.” He then continues: “When the verse adds: ‘And I will bless them,’ it means to say that the priests bless Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, blesses the priests.” Blessings are reflexive; to those who give, blessings are given in return.

Throughout my career as a rabbi devoted to giving blessings, I have received in return blessings that far outnumber any I could ever have imagined. Indeed, for this privilege I have truly been blessed.


(Excerpted from Rabbi Reuben’s new book: A Year with Mordecai Kaplan – Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion)


Mon, June 17 2019 14 Sivan 5779