Editor’s Note: This guest D’var Torah is provided by Chaplain Barry E. Pitegoﬀ, BCC, who will be delivering a version of it at Shabbat Services May 21-22, 2021 at the Jewish Fellowship of Hemlock Farms, PA.
Naso: (Numbers 4:21-7:89)
Embedded in Parsha Naso are six short sentences that come close to the end, at Numbers 6:22-6:27. They have had a powerful resonance across time and across the Abrahamic faiths. These six sentences form the Birkhat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. We see it in Torah, we see it in the prayer books, I have seen it on the wall outside of Catholic-rooted chapels, and at least Rabbis, Priests and others have oﬀered it. Why is this so powerful? To Leonardo da Vinci is attributed the saying,“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
The German American architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, famous for designing so many buildings in Chicago, was fond of saying, “G-D is in the details,” but, as da Vinci taught us, when you step back from the details to the perspective, to see simplicity is to see sophistication, and in the case of Naso, it is also to see the blessings.
This is the translation into English as presented by the Israeli David Tzohar, who describes himself as a Talmud Scholar:
And Hashem spoke unto Moshe saying:”Speak unto Aharon and his sons saying:
Thus shall you bless the children of Israel , say unto them May Hashem bless you and keep you
May Hashem make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you May Hashem lift up his countenance unto you and grant you peace
So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel and I will bless them”
One beauty of formatting this blessing as three-part, in three lines, is that you see that each line builds from the previous one and is slightly longer than the previous one, pure poetry. However, if you look carefully, it is not a three-part blessing. It is actually a six-part blessing:
- May Hashem bless you.
- May Hashem keep you.
- May Hashem make his face shine upon you.
- May Hashem be gracious unto you.
- May Hashem lift his countenance unto you.
- May Hashem grant you peace.
I feel that part of the subtle beauty of this blessing is its confounding of talking to “you” individually and talking to us as the plural “you.” No matter how self-centered we may try to be, we cannot help it that others see us and see others through us, perhaps all the people we represent in our minority, such as being Jewish, or perhaps all they knew in our families, or in our communities.
As the late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks used to comment, although Hashem ended each day of creation with No Comment, or “And it was Good, or “And it was very good,” Hashem used “Lo Tov,” “it is not good” only to declare that it is not good for a person to be alone.
In our more modern times, we see the message “you are not alone” in at least two Jewish songwriters who could not escape their Jewishness in their music, just like Leonard Bernstein used the sounds of the shofar to begin the overture to “West Side Story,” and many other examples.
In 1945, lyricist Richard Rodgers gave us the gift of the lyrics to “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” through the musical “Carousel.” Richard Rodgers was born into a Jewish family in Queens, New York that had changed its name from Rogazinsky. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” works because it speaks to the individual “You” and to the collective “you.” I have seen it as a class song sung by a graduating high school class. It is such a powerful and sacred message of resilience and hope that Cantor Avi Schwartz of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York recorded it from his bima is April 2020 at a very stressful moment in the COVID-19 pandemic. In a sense, it is another Hatikvah.
Let’s go even more modern. Robert Zimmerman has entertained the world as Bob Dylan. Born Jewish and with bar mitzvah, he experimented with other religions, but, again, your roots are glued to you. As I interpreted Bob Dylan’s biography in a synagogue book club, it seemed to me that he embedded this part of his heritage into a poem and prayer he wrote that had to be more than a coincidence that it occurred around the time of his daughter’s bat mitzvah. What a beautiful gift it was to combine the ethic of the Birkhat Kohanim here and the ethic of Gemilut Chasadim, usually translated into “Acts of Loving Kindness,” into the short ﬁrst four lines of this Bob Dylan prayer, poem and song:
“May G-d bless and keep you always May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others And let others do for you …”
Here, again, the “you” works as the singular and it works because it talks to all of us.
“This is your portion, forever,” Rabbi Howard Singer taught me, as most rabbis teach, when I began to learn this parsha as my bar mitzvah portion 59 years ago. Yet, it is not mine alone. I share it with every other Bar or bat mitzvah whose simcha also occurred during the reading of Parsha Naso. This is the beauty and the elegant simplicity of “you” and “your” in many languages: we cannot tell, and perhaps we should not be able to tell, if the comment is addressed to the singular “you” or to the plural “you.”
Just a little later in Torah, at the beginning of Parsha Nitzavim, at Deuteronomy 29:9, “you” is clariﬁed as the plural there through repetition. When the Torah repeats words, it is a very precious moment, because every word in the Torah is extremely important, so repetition extends far beyond emphasis Nitzavim opens with, “You are standing this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-D; your heads, your tribes, … your little ones … the strangers in your midst … all the men of Israel (paraphrased).
The blessing is referred to as both the Priestly Benediction and the threefold blessing. The priestly benediction is simply the English translation of Birkhat Kohanim, so that is easy. When it was given to us in Torah, G-d was pretty much speaking only to Moses, so G-d said to Moses, to tell his brother Aaron that this is how he should bless the people each day. To this day, in very traditional synagogues, it is only the descendants of Aaron the kohanim, such as me, who are humbled by having the honor to oﬀer this blessing upon others in the special holiday musaf service section called in Yiddish duchanen, derived from the Hebrew word duchan meaning the platform from which the kohanim blessed the people.
In duchanen, when the call is made to prepare for the ceremony, ﬁrst we kohanim remove our shoes. Recall that the command from G-d to Moses was to remove your shoes because the place where you are standing is holy. One of the symbols I carry with me to shul always is what I call a “Kohen’s Tallis bag,” because my tallis bag contains two items: my tallit, and a shoe horn, so I am always ready for the conclusion of duchanen. Then, the kohanim are escorted by the levites in the shul to wash their hands, the levites pouring the water over the hands of the kohanim, with the traditional two-handled pitcher, while the kohanim recite the blessing over the washing of hands.
The kohanim are escorted to the back of the sanctuary for the signal to move to the bima, today’s equivalent of the duchan. The kohanim put their tallitot over their heads, recite the preliminary blessing before duchanen, then turn toward the congregation. Traditionally, the kohanim gaze downward and the congregants gaze downward or turn around to to see the kohanim, even though the kohanim are covered by their tallitot.
The kohanim raise and extend their arms out under their tallitot in a special conﬁguration which was Leonard Nimoy’s inspiration for the Vulcan salute, and oﬀer the birkhat kohanim, one word by one word, repeating the word “called” by the rabbi.
This is the only ceremony from the Temple that we continue to perform in the synagogue today. David Tzohar writes, “it is said that the Shechina (the appearance of G-D in this world) emanates from the hands of the Cohanim when they bless the people. Indeed, in my case during the duchanen, when my arms are outstretched and my eyes are closed, and I am delivering the blessing, my feeling of the sacredness and spirituality of the moment is heightened by visualizing the neshama of my father looking down. This bar mitzvah portion, Nasso, was the last life-cycle event for which my farther was at my side. He died just short of seeing me graduate from high school.
When I return from having a role at shul today, as I do when I return from every leadership role at shul, as I do when I return from every day of bikur cholim v’nichum avelim (visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved) at the hospital, I look at the pictures of my father on my desk and ask, “Dad, did I make you proud of me today?”
This “you” is my father’s neshama, not the collective “you.” However, though my father’s neshama I pray I am connected to all the Pitegoﬀs before him. When Apollonia and I met with the Chief Rabbi of St. Petersburg, Russia, and he reviewed with us the Hebrew names I had researched for my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather, the Rabbi responded that they were all named after great rabbis from the St. Petersburg. Our quest that I was “home” was validated. I was in the land of my people. When you are in the land of your people, physically or spiritually, let the “you” become the plural “you” for you, for that goosebump feeling inside is truly a l’dor v’dor moment, connecting the generations and giving your neshama, your soul, the feeling that you are standing this day, all of you.
May this be so.