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Parashat Naso 5781

May 21, 2021

A D’var Torah for Parashat Naso
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

Our parasha this week, Naso, contains a passage recited daily as part of the traditional liturgy, which many parents also use to bless their children each Friday night: The priestly blessing (Num. 6:22-27):

The Lord spoke to Moses:

Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

The Lord bless you and protect you!

The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!

The Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace!

Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

There is a lot to unpack in this text, but for the moment I want to focus in on the last line of the trifold blessing: “The Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace!” In light of the recent events in Israel, peace is very much on many of our minds. An incredibly precious treasure yet so elusive. Within the traditional Shaharit liturgy, the priestly blessing appears towards the very end of the Amidah, leading directly into the final blessing of peace. The Talmud (Megillah 18a) asks, “why did they see fit to say Make Peace after the priestly blessing?” Turning to the Biblical text for an answer, the Talmud cites the verse that immediately follows the priestly blessing: “As it says, ‘Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them’ (Num. 6:27) – the blessing of the Holy One is peace, as it says, ‘God blesses God’s people with peace’” (Ps. 29:11). Peace is identified as God’s blessing. More than this, based upon Judges 6:24, the Midrash (Num. Rab. 11) posits that “Peace” is actually one of God’s names.

Rabbinic tradition forges an intimate relationship between peace and divinity – peace is God’s blessing and God’s Name. In the priestly blessing we ask God to “grant,” literally to “place” (וְיָשֵׂ֥ם) upon you, peace. This suggests that (at least to some degree) we need God’s involvement in achieving peace. But what does this mean about the human role in fostering peace? I would suggest that we can understand the priestly blessing’s divinely granted peace as bolstering rather than negating the proactive human element of working towards peace.

Each of the lines of the priestly blessing combines two different elements: blessing and protecting, shining God’s light and grace, and God’s bestowing favor and granting peace. In the final line of the blessing, the bestowal of favor is expressed idiomatically – literally, may God “lift up God’s face” towards you. For me, this idiom captures the core pathway to peace.

It is through the experience of God’s face that we acquire peace and an end to violence. But if even our teacher Moses could not see God’s face (Exod. 33:23), how can we hope to catch a glimpse of the Divine visage? The Jewish existentialist thinker Emmanuel Levinas provides the key – the Face of God is seen through the face of our fellow human being, the Other: “In the face the Other expresses his eminence, the dimension of height and divinity from which he descends” (Totality and Infinity, 262). The face of the Other is a source of meaning (Ibid., 297); it is the entre into relationship (Ibid., 198). Through seeing the face of the Other and recognizing their humanity and transcendence, we encounter the primordial commandment – “Thou shall not murder” (Ibid., 199).

Encountering the face of the Other – or, as the priestly blessing suggests, “lifting up the face” of the Other – allows us to recognize the divinity in one another, making killing impossible, and fostering peace. May all of us be blessed to perceive the Divine Visage in the face of those we consider to be the most Other and may these encounters allow us to achieve the Divine blessing of peace.
Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.