Naso, the Torah portion for this week, comes at an extremely tumultuous and trying time in our country’s history. As we know, we are currently studying Bamidbar, or the Book of Numbers, in our yearly cycle of readings. As of right now, 100,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, with the numbers rising. There are currently protests of rage and anger taking place in cities across the country due to the racial atrocities that have been again amplified by the vile and senseless murder of a black man in Minneapolis at the hands of law enforcement. It seems appropriate that this week’s parshah is the longest in the Torah, consisting of 176 verses, since this week feels like it might never end in its consistent chaos. The number of human beings perished from COVID-19, and the number of people of color dead from being people of color: Too high. One is too many. The numbers are indeed scary.
When life feels overwhelming, we can look to the Torah. We might not find the answers we are looking for in the moment, but we can certainly glean Divine insight and historical parallel. In between discussion of Levitical counting, removal of unclean persons from the camp, and the gifts offered by tribal princes, we find what is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this vast parshah. It also happens to be one of its most brief. Parshah Naso delivers to us the Birkat Kohanim, or the Priestly Blessing:
“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Num. 6:24-26). In Hebrew: “Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha. Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom.”
This blessing is arguably the most widely known in all of Judaism. It was used in ancient times in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is used today in Israel during the repeating of the Amidah prayer. Parents bless their children on Friday nights using these words, and the celebration of festivals in the diaspora always contain recitation of the Birkat Kohanim. While the words themselves are beautiful and rhythmic, both in English and Hebrew, what does it all mean? I would like to touch on this, and focus specifically on the final word, “shalom.” Firstly, the singular “thee” or often “you” is used in this blessing. Perhaps this singularity is due to the fact that the people of Israel, and I would argue all people, should be blessed as one. We are humankind, and can strive to attain a oneness of human experience and caring for one another. The Lord can bless “thee” with material prosperity and with good health; He can also “keep” or “protect” “thee” against illness, poverty, and a multitude of hardship. When “The Lord make His face to shine upon thee,” it is thought that God’s face is turned toward us showering us with Divine love and adoration. When the Lord is “gracious unto thee,” we can look to the word chen, or grace, which speaks to morality and interpersonal relationships. We ask that God give us and others grace so that we can live harmoniously together (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks). When the Lord “lift up His countenance…” he is attuned to us, and caring for us. The priestly blessing ends with, “and give thee peace.” The final word is shalom. We know that “shalom” is used as a greeting, a farewell, and also to mean “peace.” Hertz’s Chumash tells us that shalom is a word that encompasses a myriad of ideals that “peace” simply cannot cover. Security, health, welfare, tranquility; all of these are contained in the word. Rabbi David Zaslow talks of shalom more appropriately translating to “wholeness” in English. When two opposite poles come together, we have shalom. This polar connection is what makes “shalom” appropriate both for hello and goodbye: opposites. Zaslow believes that “shalom” unites individuals with differing views and opinions. This grants a person the gift of another perspective, which ultimately leads to wholeness. It should also be noted that peace, shalom, or wholeness does not indicate a passivity. Without social justice, ethical behavior, and the working toward individual and societal harmony, shalom will not come to be.
The Book of Isaiah speaks of an aspirational shalom which includes all people, and even beasts, living together in wholeness. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid…In all of my sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; For the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-10). The Book of Isaiah speaks of a world of complete shalom–a world where he who has been given the power of the wolf does not press his knee upon the neck of the helpless and handcuffed lamb. A world where the vile actions of predators do not quickly snuff out the lives of those simply grazing in the field. A world where evil inaction does not directly correlate to the loss of countless lives. A world where everyone can breathe. Acclaimed journalist and political analyst LZ Granderson recently wrote, “It’s intellectually dishonest to say we will return to ‘peace’…because this country has never been at peace. We’ve had moments of quiet…but never peace.” Granderson talks of how this country was built upon the backs of slaves and systemic racism. It is difficult to argue with his point, and if you feel inclined to do so, take Hillel’s advice, and “judge not your fellow man until you have been in his place” (Avot 2:5).
There exists “A time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:7). The Talmud tells us that there exist times when we are rewarded for remaining silent, and other times when we must speak up in order to be rewarded (B. Zeb 115b, En Yaakov). As Jews, inaction is not an option. We must be silent only when we are listening to those whose voices have been silenced. We must be silent only so we can learn what to say when we speak up: And speak up we must for all of our brothers and sisters who share this earth with us. We must listen to the science and the experts. We must listen to our brothers and sisters of color. We must listen, and then speak. We must behave as if we were the channel through which God were to bless the people, all people, of this earth.
Yes, it does feel like we are currently a nation at war, peoples pitted against a virus, and against one another. The Rabbis tell us, “Great is peace, for even in a time of war one should begin peace” (Perek HaShalom 1:14) Even during these times of illness, murder, and fire, we must aspire to shalom. The Lord will give thee peace. We are all Israel, and we all must be blessed. One day, “Lo yisa goi el goi cherev. V’lo yilm’du od milchamah–Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4).
May all those who feel unsafe be blessed with the Lord’s keeping. May all those whose voices remain in the shadows be blessed with the Lord’s light upon your face. May the Lord turn to those who feel that the Lord has turned from them. And may the Lord grant us “shalom”–wholeness. The work begins now.
“Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha. Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom.”