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Naso(Numbers 4:21-7:89)

Divine Abundance

This week's Torah portion describes the continuation of the counting of the tribes with emphasis is on the tribe of Levi. Then various laws are introduced, including the consequences of embezzlement from the Temple, the laws of sotah, a woman suspected of adultery, and the laws of the nazir, a man who decides to live by certain severe strictures.

But the bulk of Parshat Naso deals with the offerings brought by the heads of the various tribes, when the Tabernacle was consecrated. Immediately preceding the list of the offerings is this instruction:

And God spoke to Moses saying: 'Speak to Aaron and his children saying, "Thus bless the children of Israel, say to them: 'May God bless you and guard you. May God's face shine on you, and may He find favor in you. May God lift His face toward you and give you peace.'" They shall put My name on the children of Israel and I shall bless them.' (Numbers 6:22-27)

This section is known as the "Priestly Blessing." As it is the last injunction given prior to the completion of the consecration of the Tabernacle, obviously it must have an intrinsic relationship with the section that follows.

* * *

THE PRIESTLY BLESSING

In a sense a more fundamental question arises: What is the purpose of the Priestly Blessing? If God wishes to bless the people then why doesn't He do it Himself?

Nachmanides alludes to this issue when he states in his commentary:

The true understanding (generally a euphemism for Kabbalistic doctrine) is, the blessing comes from above. (Ramban Commentary to 6:24)

The comments of the Nachmanides seem obvious -- of course blessing comes from above -- but what is the meaning of this Kabbalistic teaching to which he refers? Furthermore, if the blessing indeed comes from above why is Aaron and his sons commanded to bless the Jewish people?

Nachmanides continues in his comments:

May you find favor in His eyes, as our Rrabbis said, "My world, my world, if only I could find favor in you all the time." (Midrash Rabbah, Breishit 9:4/Ramban Commentary to 6:24)

Here Nachmanides is citing from a Midrash which describes a prayer which God utters upon the completion of creation. This suggests an interesting parallel; just as God prays when the world is completed and about to go on its own way, God commands the Kohanim to pray as the Tabernacle is completed and the Jews are about to continue on their march toward their destiny.

This further confirms an idea that we had seen in Parshat Shmot that the Jews leaving Egypt marked a reconstruction of the world. Here at the final step prior to the Tabernacle's completion the Kohanim are to bless the people continually, as God blessed his creation all those years before, at the dawn of history.

However, a larger question emerges, if God "prays" then why is that not sufficient? What sense is there in man giving over God's blessing? This question is strengthened by the comments of Rashi:

"May God lift his face toward you," that is, control his anger. (Rashi 6:26)

Rashi is saying that the blessing that the Kohanim are called upon to give is that God control his anger in His relationship with us. The idea of God's face being directed toward us, is the opposite of hester panim, the "concealed face," when God hides His face from us as an expression of anger.

* * *

GOD'S ANGER

According to Rashi the meaning of this blessing is that we are praying for God to control His anger toward us. This too is connected with the idea of God praying as indicated by the following passage in the Talmud:

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosi: "How do we know that the Holy One blessed be He prays? Because it says 'I will bring them to My holy mountain, I will cause them to be happy in My house of prayer. (Isaiah 56:7)' It does not say 'their house of prayer' but 'My house of prayer' from here we see that the Holy One blessed be He prays. (Talmud Brachot 7a)

From this passage we see that the Talmud is willing to entertain the idea of God praying; the Talmud continues and asks the obvious question:

What does He pray? Rav Zutra son of Tuvia said in the name of Rav: "Let it be My will that My mercy suppresses my anger, and that My mercy prevail over My other attributes, and that I deal with My children with the attribute of mercy, and that I deal with them beyond the letter of the law." (Talmud Brachot 7a)

Not only does the Talmud conclude that God Himself prays, but the essence of His prayer is that He control His anger. If this is the case, we have to ask: Why would God command us to say a blessing which He has already said? Moreover, if this is the prayer which God says, how is it that at times God does hide His face from us and treat us with anger? These questions become even stronger when we see the continuation of the passage in the Talmud:

It was taught; Rabbi Yishmael the son of Elisha said: "I once entered into the inner most [part of the sanctuary], to offer incense, and I saw Akatrie-l K-ah (a name referring to the crown of God), the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne, He said to me, 'Yishmael my son, bless Me!' I said, 'May it be Your will that that Your mercy suppresses Your anger, and that Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, and that You deal with Your children with the attribute of mercy, and that You deal with them beyond the letter of the law.' And He nodded to me with His head. (Talmud Brachot 7a)

In the conclusion of the passage not only does God pray, but He asks Rabbi Yishmael, son of Elisha, for a blessing! If God Himself prays, why would He need, or desire man to bless Him, in effect pray for Him?

One of the most basic concepts in Judaism is the fact that God is infinite and therefore unchanging, God does not need our prayers, nor is God changed by them. This question becomes even stronger when we consider the context of this passage.

* * *

LETTER OF THE LAW

Rabbi Yishmael son of Elisha was the High Priest, that was the reason that he was in the inner most part of the sanctuary -- the Holy of Holies -- offering the incense, the rite of Yom Kippur. The blessing which he offers, is that God treat man with kindness and compassion, beyond the letter of the law, and God nods in approval. It would seem that the world was now guaranteed forgiveness, and future success. Yet we find the following passage in the Michilta:

Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon (ben Gamliel) were taken out to be executed. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Yishmael: "Master, my heart is broken, for I do not know for what offense I am being executed." Rabbi Yishmael said to Rabbi Shimon: "Did it ever happen that someone came to you with a case to be adjudicated, or with a question, and you had them wait until you finished your drink, or until you tied your shoe, or put on your cloak? And the Torah says, '[If you abuse the widow or orphan] if you abuse them at all, if they scream to Me I will surely hear their cry. And my anger shall be inflamed and I will kill you with a sword -- and your wives will become widowed and your children orphaned!'" (Exodus 22:21-23) He said to him, "Master you have comforted me." (Michilta Mishpatim Neziken section 18)

In this amazing passage we find two of the great sages of the generation about to be executed for being rabbis; (they are two of the ten sages who were martyred). Rabbi Shimon asks the classic almost impossible question of theodicy, and Rabbi Yishmael has a possible response -- you might have been inadvertently cruel to someone. Rabbi Shimon accepts the response and they go to their deaths with dignity. When we consider the explanation of Rabbi Yishmael, we understand that their deaths are the result of God treating them with the strictest possible judgment imaginable.

This is a far cry from the blessing that the same Rabbi Yishmael gave God -- to treat man beyond the letter of the law, with compassion, controlling His anger!

How ironic that the very same man received such strict justice, and that he accepted it with such equanimity, yet he knew precisely what blessing to say to God. If God accepted the blessing then why was it not effective? Our original questions returns, with a vengeance.

* * *

THE RULES OF THE SPIRITUAL UNIVERSE

In order to understand this entire idea we need to become familiar with rules of the spiritual universe. Rabbi Chaim of Volozshin, in his masterpiece "Nefesh Hachaim" explains that God for His part has a desire to give man all the blessings in the world -- to cause the Divine abundance to rain down on man. But in order for this to transpire man must create a world which is deserving of such a blessing.

This idea may be explained by an obscure comment of Rashi. The Talmud teaches that if a man eats without saying a blessing, it is as if he stole from God and the community of Israel. The implication of this teaching is, that if one does not say a blessing then one has no right to the food. Rashi tells us:

Stolen from God, meaning His blessing was stolen.(Rashi Brachot 35b)

Why would Rashi abandon the obvious explanation, that the thing which is stolen is the food when consumed without a blessing? Why does he say that it was the blessing that was stolen?

Rashi is teaching a profound idea. When a person eats without saying a blessing, God does not miss the food. God created this physical universe as a place where man can develop a relationship with God, and, when man does that, the Divine Abundance flows. When man leaves God, the result is that God becomes distanced from man and the Divine Abundance becomes more scarce. This is the meaning of the words of Rashi, the person who eats without saying the blessing, has stolen the blessing, and hence the opportunity for God to shower us with His blessing.

Therefore we can posit, that although blessing truly flows from above as Nachmanides said at the outset, but the amount of blessing which comes from above is dependent on man's actions below.

* * *

AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

We saw above that despite the prayer/blessing of Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest, he was treated with strict Divine justice. This is now understood based on a passage in the Talmud:

For Rabbi Yochanan taught: "Jerusalem was destroyed because the people judged with Torah law." (Bava Metziah 30b)

The Talmud finds this suggestion strange, why should using Torah law be bad? What better alternative exists? The Talmud concludes:

"Rather say, they judged according to the law of the Torah, and never went beyond the letter of the Law" (Bava Metziah 30b)

The terrible action which caused the fall of Jerusalem, was that everyone firmly stood up for their rights -- according to the letter of the law. Consequently, God treated them in an identical manner -- according to the letter of the law. And Jerusalem fell.

Rabbi Yishamel understood this idea, the symbiotic relationship between man's behavior and God's judgment.

When God asked for a blessing Rabbi Yishmael knew exactly what to say, and, indeed when he was taken out to be killed he knew that he and his generation had failed, because they had been so strict with one another.

God in turn would mirror this behavior, and be just as strict with them, and their leaders, who had the responsibility to set the example of an existence which transcends the letter of the law. Perhaps this is what the passage means when it says that God nodded toward Rabbi Yishmael. The nod meant, "It's up to you."

The Talmud commenting on the Priestly Blessing poses the following question:

The angels said to Holy One blessed be He, "Master of the Universe, it says in your Torah, [You are a God who] does not favor anyone nor takes a bribe (Deut. 10:17). But you favor Israel as it says May God turn His face toward you and grant you peace." He answered them, "I shouldn't favor Israel? I wrote in my Torah You shall eat and become satiated, then bless your Lord God (Deut. 8). Yet they are careful [to bless] even on [the smallest morsel of food]." (Talmud Brachot 20b

We see the same idea being expressed about the Priestly Blessing -- the blessing which God gives us from above, is directly related to the behavior of man below on earth.

Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest, would say the Priestly Blessing daily; he knew that all blessing comes from heaven, but he also knew that the mandate to create an elevated world was given to man.

Thus, the blessing of the people was given over to the Kohen, in the final preparation for the Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle was designed as a place from whence blessings flow, after all it is the place where the Shechinah rests. Only once the blessing was given over to Aaron and his sons, could the Tabernacle be complete.

But the Shechinah can only rest in a place -- where man allows it to rest. May we all help create a world where the Divine Abundance flows as per God's true desire.

May we create a world where God's mercy is allowed to prevail over His other attributes.

Published: May 23, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Anonymous, May 27, 2007 9:01 PM

My understanding has been opened.

I am truly happy that I read this article. I have never thought about the need for prayer over my food. I have been guilty of not blessing the food that G-d has given me the ability to buy and prepare for myself and my family. I thank you for the clarity of insight that you and other's have giving to the wordl. Shalom

(2) Leo, February 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Writing a study about the German writer Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (1763-1825), a student and admirer of the Talmud and Jewish lore, I found him mentioning in one of his novels the strange fact that God himself is praying for us. I eagerly searched for some references to this and so stumbled across your marvelous article, which is one of only a few in the entire net dealing with the topic. Thank you very much, you helped me a lot.

(1) frankie, February 16, 2004 12:00 AM

I was very much impressed by this article. I have much to learn from this. Well, it's really true that all things come from God including our meal or whatever we eat. Thanks that I am reminded to say the blessing always.

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