Torah Study (this Shabbat morning)

This Shabbat morning in Torah study, we will look at the Priestly Blessing, which is a part of this week’s parshah, and understand its unique status within the Amidah amongst all the blessings contained in it.

We tend to arrive at Torah study at about 11:15, and come join us in person in the Sanctuary, or on ZOOM.

Minutes of Torah

This week’s parshat Naso begins with an apparently unremarkable topic, an accounting of two Levitical clans charged with transporting the Tabernacle: The Gershonites, who are to carry the curtains of the Tabernacle; and the Merarites, who will transport the Tabernacle’s structural components as the Israelites journey through the wilderness.

The portion opens with the Hebrew verb naso, which connotes ‘lifting, carrying, or bearing.’ Just as I pointed out last week, the Torah uses this verb to describe the process of counting individuals in the context of their performance of a sacred task, such as “lifting up” heads. And with their elevated status, these people are charged with carrying that which is sacred.

And then the parsha concludes its description of this section with the Priestly Blessing:

“May Adonai bless you and guard you.

May Adonai’s face shine upon you, and grant you grace.

May Adonai’s Face be lifted towards you and give you peace.”

Given that no human being can see God’s face and live, perhaps a prayer that seeks “God’s face [to] be lifted towards” another person is to express hope that the recipient will be able to elevate that which has fallen and needs to be uplifted.

This interpretation finds support in the Book of Genesis, when God favors Abel’s offering over his brother Cain’s, because of which Cain becomes angry and his face “falls.” Strikingly, God’s response to Cain’s despair is an invitation to “lift,” employing a cognate of the same Hebrew verb from this week’s parsha.

From this passage, we might understand that when, like Cain, we find ourselves in a state of conflicting emotions, we have the capacity to “lift up” those emotions and remove their contradictory state, clearing a path by which we might do the right thing.

This notion of ‘lifting others’ by helping to “bear their burden” is found in the Babylonian Talmud’s tales about Rabbi Yochanan’s healing relationships with his colleagues. In one part of the narrative, Rabbi Yochanan visits an ailing student, asking him, “Is your suffering welcome to you,” to which the student replied, “I welcome neither this suffering nor its alleged reward.” Rabbi Yoḥanan then simply asks the student to give him his hand, lifts it up, and apparently restored him to health.

When Rabbi Yoḥanan falls ill, he could not heal himself and another colleague had to assist him in the identical fashion. The Talmud teaches that Rabbi Yoḥanan could not have healed himself because, “a prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.”

Rabbi Yoḥanan ‘lifts up’ his student by listening empathically, withholding judgment,  and simply offering his loving presence; just as a colleague will do for Rabbi Yohanan. Likewise, in parshat Naso, just as the Levites “lift up” the Tabernacle, and God “lifts“ the Divine Face to the recipient of the priestly blessing, and all happening just as the Israelites prepare for a “lift off” from Mount Sinai and the journey through the wilderness to the Land.

As our ancestors prepared to leave Sinai, they likely wondered how they could preserve the sense of deep connection to God they had experienced in that place, as they encountered the inevitable challenges of the journey ahead. They had already built the Tabernacle, as a kind of ‘portable Sinai’ to accompany them in their travels. But, only in this parshah, as they learn the skills of ‘lifting’ and ‘bearing’ the components of the Tabernacle, do they learn how to maintain their connection to God and holiness amid the everyday, mundane activities of life.

Like our ancestors, we, too, have departed from Sinai, having celebrated Shavuot. Like them, may we be endowed with the capacity to bear whatever life brings our way, and elevate ourselves and others in doing so. May we come to know, as did they, that when we learn how to lift together, when we individually and collectively “bear the burden,” we can move mountains.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rav Julius


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