2005Parshat Naso, the second parsha of the book Bamidbar (Numbers), continues the description from last week's parsha, of how Moses and Aaron should classify, count, and arrange the people of Israel, Klal Yisrael, for their upcoming travels through the wilderness. Most of the parsha deals with the various roles and responsibilities of the different tribes and the special rites and rituals of the Levites and Kohanim (priests). All of these instructions and laws refer to the responsibilities of the various parts of the community and to how this people, newly freed from Egypt, should be arranged as a collective. There is a clear message that the notion of Klal Yisrael and communal order is an integral part of Jewish life.
The Blessing of Peoplehood
At the same time, the parsha includes profoundly meaningful instructions to Moses and Aaron dealing with the individual and the personal. God instructs Moses to teach Aaron a three-part blessing which Aaron and the priests are to use to bless the people of Israel:
May God bless you and keep you
May God cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you
May God turn His face toward you, and grant you peace
Many of us recognize this as the prayer with which parents bless their children every Shabbat. It is also a component of the daily prayer services. This Priestly Blessing is continued in some congregations where Kohanim go before the ark, cover their faces, turn to the congregation and with outstretched hands, say this prayer on behalf of the community.
Since the parsha is mostly concerned with the community and the collective, why is the priestly benediction so personal? Also, why does God instruct the priests to bless the people? Why can't the blessing come directly from God?
The first answer is that while a sense of peoplehood is an integral part of Judaism, each individual's relationship with God is paramount, and each person must be conscious of his/her personal role in creating a life full of blessing and peace. It would be easy to interpret the Priestly Blessing as an intercession by the Kohanim on behalf of the people. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner offers the idea that the person offering this blessing is not petitioning God on our behalf, but rather, is asking that we be worthy of God's blessing. This interpretation means that the blessing is actually reminding each one of us that our individual actions and decisions have a profound influence on the world around us and on our own lives.
Rashi explains that the Kohanim are asked to offer the blessing to people not to substitute for God but so that the Kohanim can serve as examples to the people. Rashi says that Aaron was instructed to tell the Kohanim: "Do not bless them in haste, nor in hurried excitement, but with full consciousness (kavanah), and with a whole heart." Rashi infers that the Kohanim are supposed to be role models of compassion and peace for the people. Hillel professionals have the same enormous task as the Kohanim in this parsha -- to model a full and passionate Jewish life to their students.
There are further parallels between this parsha and Hillel. The dual emphasis on communal and personal responsibility is uniquely Jewish and an integral part of Hillel life. Every day, both students and Hillel professionals are engaged in the holy work of creating an environment for students to explore their personal identities and goals while gaining an understanding of their relationship and interdependence with the larger community.
Prepared by Avi Rubel, assistant director, International Division, Hillel
Additional commentaries and text studies on Naso at MyJewishLearning.com.