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Parasha Naso (Elevate): The Lord Bless You and Keep You …

Naso (Elevate)
Numbers 4:21–7:89; Judges 13:2–25; Ephesians 1:1–23

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take a census of the sons of Gershon also, by their fathers’ houses and by their clans.’”  (Numbers 4:21–22) 

Reading the Torah in the synagogue

Reading the Torah in the synagogue

Last week, in Parasha Bamidbar, a census was taken of the Israelite men of draftable age.  The Levites who were given the duty to serve in the Sanctuary in the place of Israel’s firstborn, were excluded.

The title of this week’s Parasha, Naso, means lift up or elevate.  It was the term used to take a head count (census) of the children of Israel.  In the Hebrew it reads, “Lift up the heads(נָשֹׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ — naso et rosh).

This week, the headcount of the Israelites is completed with a census of the Levites who are between the ages of 30 and 50.  They are to do the work of transporting the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

Besides discussing the duties of the Levites, this Scripture portion also provides the law of the nazir, or Nazirite, and the Aaronic Benediction (Birkat Kohanim — ברכת כהנים), more commonly known as the Priestly Blessing. 

The High Priest Blessing Israel (Photo by the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life)

The High Priest Blessing Israel (Photo by the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life)

The Nazirite Vow

“When a man or a woman utters a Nazirite vow… he shall abstain from new and old wine… grape-beverages, grapes and raisins…”  (Numbers 6:2)

A man or woman who vows to abstain from cutting their hair, touching a corpse, and eating grapes and grape products, including drinking wine, is called a Nazirite, or Nazir (נָזִיר) in Hebrew.

The word comes from the root NZR (נזר), which means to dedicate or separate oneself (as in keeping oneself separate from grapes and wine).  Another word from the same root is nezer (נֵזֶר), which means crown, consecration, and separation.

We can see the intersection of these ideas in Numbers 6:7–8, which discusses the Nazir.  It reads, “They must not make themselves ceremonially unclean … because the symbol of their dedication [crown (nezer — נֵזֶר)] to God is on their head.  Throughout the period of their dedication [nezer], they are consecrated [kadosh/ holy] to the LORD.”  (Numbers 6:7–8)

Through this vow, the layman’s status was raised to something approaching the status of priest.

This level of sanctity is seen in that, like the High Priest, the Nazirite could not contaminate him or herself by coming into contact with a corpse, even one of an immediate family member.

As well, the Nazirite abstains from intoxicants more stringently than the priests, who abstain only during their term in the Sanctuary.  Moreover, the focus of sanctity for both the Nazirite and High Priest is their head (compare Numbers 6:7 to Exodus 29:7 and Leviticus 21:10).

Kotel, Torah

Jewish men pay respect to the Torah scroll at the Western (Wailing) Wall.

Although most people are not to stay separate or aloof from society but, rather, to bring holiness into the world in which we live, Nazirites are allowed to do so.

Amos underlines the holiness of the Nazirites, connecting them to prophets: “I set up prophets from your sons and Nazirites from your young men.  (Amos 2:11)

The rabbis believe that in the Messianic Era, there will be no need for separation from worldly matters since they will no longer negatively impact us.  Instead, since all will abound in peace and beauty, our single-minded focus will be to know God — to love, serve and worship Him forever.  This will fulfill the holiness of the Nazirite vow.

Jewish People pray for the coming of that Messianic era and God’s salvation (in Hebrew, Yeshuah — יְשׁוּעָה) every day.  They say in their daily prayers, “Every day (and all day long) we hope for Your salvation”; or in the version of the Thirteen Principles of the Faith: “I await his coming every day.”

Please pray for the salvation of the Jewish people who wait with longing each day for the coming of the Messiah.

A father pulls his sons under his tallit (prayer shawl) during the Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Photo by Lilach Daniel)

A father pulls his sons under his tallit (prayer shawl) during the Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  (Photo by Lilach Daniel)

The Birkat Kohanim: Priestly Blessing

In this Parasha, God commands the Kohanim (Jewish High Priests / descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses) to impart a blessing (Numbers 6:24–26) called the Birkat Kohanim to the people of Israel through the following three-part benediction:

The LORD bless you and keep you;

The LORD make His face shed light upon you, and be gracious to you;

The LORD lift up His face unto you, and give you peace.

To impart this blessing, the priests lift their hands with palms outstretched and facing downwards.

While, the Sephardic communities today simply raise their hands above their heads and separate their fingers with their arms outstretched, Ashkenazi communities see the hands of the Kohanim forming windows through which the blessings flow, as explained in the Midrash (Jewish commentary).

The Midrash compares this stance with a passage in the Song of Songs, which suggests that God’s Shekhinah (Divine Presence) stands behind the Kohanim who bless the people:

“. . . therefore the priests spread their palms, to say that the Holy One stands behind us.  And so it is written: ‘There He stands behind our wall, gazing through the window, peering through the lattice.’  (Song of Songs 2:9)  ‘Gazing through the window’—through the fingers of the priests; ‘peering through the lattice’—when they spread their palms, therefore it says ‘Thus shall you bless them.’”  (Tanhuma (Buber) Parashat Naso, Article 15, cited by netivot-shalom)

A mosaic of the positioning of the hands during the Priestly Blessing in Ashkenazi communities.

A mosaic of the positioning of the hands during the Priestly Blessing in Ashkenazi communities.

The Difference Between Prayers and Blessings

“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”  (James 5:16)

The rabbis make a distinction between prayer and a blessing.

The blessing of a tzadik (righteous man) imparts to us whatever God has intended for our life.

For example, when Jacob blessed his grandchildren, Menasheh and Ephraim, Jacob crossed his hands to give the greater blessing to Ephraim rather than Menasheh.  This was not his personal decision; he was being guided by Adonai to give the blessing He intended for these particular tribes.

Prayer, however, can also change circumstances for the better.

It can cause a sick person to recover, a single person to find their bashert (chosen match), and a person plagued by poverty to have their needs met.  

This Birkat Kohanim, however, acts as both a blessing and a prayer.  The Kohanim bless us with God’s peace, protection, favor, and grace; but as a prayer, it can also change our circumstances for the better.

Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, by Marc Chagall

Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, by Marc Chagall

Pronouncing the Blessing Today

“And He took the children in His arms, placed His hands on them and blessed them.”  (Mark 10:16)

Because their lineage has been preserved over thousands of years, the Kohanim still stand up to bless the people in synagogues and Jewish communities all over the world.

In Israel, the Western Wall Plaza is packed with people who come at special festival times to receive the Aaronic Benediction from the Kohanim in Jerusalem.

Although the blessing comes through the raised hands of the Kohanim, God makes it clear that it is His blessing being transmitted through the Priests as His chosen vessels. God said, “So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”   (Numbers 6:27)

Not only did God place His name on the hands of the Kohanim, He also engraved the names of the children of Israel on the palms of His hands (Isaiah 49:16).

A newborn's great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle recite the priestly blessing over her. (Photo by Avi and Elina Flax)

A newborn’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle recite the priestly blessing over her.  (Photo by Avi and Elina Flax)

This blessing continues to be recited today in Jewish families.

In the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant), we see that blessings are also imparted through hands.  Believers in Yeshua also have the power to bless and even heal by the laying on of hands.

“They will be able to handle snakes with safety, and if they drink anything poisonous, it won’t hurt them.  They will be able to place their hands on the sick, and they will be healed.”  (Mark 16:18)

Many Messianic congregations pronounce the Birkat Kohanim, blessing those assembled in their services.

Ultimately, the Birkat Kohanim is about experiencing intimacy with God.  May our lives be a living testimony of this intimacy — of a people with holy hands and sanctified hearts and heads who carry with them the Presence of the God of Israel.

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