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Parashat Naso 5777: Blessings and limits

In our Parashah this week we find the most famous blessing in Judaism: the Priestly Blessing, Birkat Cohanim. This is the oldest Torah text found by archeologists in Israel, engraved in ancient Hebrew letters on silver 2700 years ago. You can see it in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. We still listen to the words of this blessing from the mouths of the cohanim every holiday during Musaf and in Israel it is said every day during Shacharit. Parents say it to their children on Shabbat. It is the blessing per excellence, the basic and holy blessing of Israel. But what does it say? Birkat Cohanim includes three sentences, each one with two important elements: a blessing from God and a short prayer to limit that blessing. Maybe it sounds strange, but Judaism believes in limits, there is no blessing that cannot transform into a curse if we are not careful with its limits. Food is a good example. We are supposed to enjoy it, but enjoying it too much can lead us to overweight and health problems. In the first sentence the Cohen says “may God bless you and keep you”. The Sifri, Midrash on the book of Bamidbar, understands this sentence as related to financial success. May God give you good sustenance and a nice account in the bank, however we know that money has the potential to corrupt good people. Therefore, a blessing for money is not complete without a prayer for protection against the dangers of financial success. So we ask from God to keep us, keep us from those dangers. The second sentence says “may God light His face towards you and give you grace”. The light of God is understood usually as related to wisdom and knowledge of the Torah. We do know though that even somebody that knows every word of the Torah and is a great Sage still can have problems connecting with other people and being nice to them. This can lead this wise person to arrogance and loneliness. Therefore the prayer is for grace, that even if you are a wise scholar may you still be able to find grace on people and they on you. The third sentence finishes “may God lift up His face toward you and give you peace”. The blessing expresses the hope that we can always feel the presence of the Shekhina, the Divine presence, because we often believe that His face is hidden from us. The problem is that we know that a powerful spiritual experience can be dangerous and many people in history, both Jewish and not, did and do terrible things in the name of God. Therefore the text finishes with a prayer for peace, for serenity, that the spiritual experiences we search in our life bring only good to our lives and help us bring peace to ourselves and the whole World. This triple blessing reminds us that there is no absolute good and every step forward can cause difficulties that we cannot conceive now, and this awareness is something that we do want to receive from God as well.

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