Drash on Parashat Naso
Rabbi Cantor George Mordecai
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
The three-fold blessing found at the end of Parshat Naso is one of the most powerful and important blessings of our tradition. We use it to bless children and it is inserted into the daily amidah. I love to sing this blessing when I officiate under a chuppah at wedding ceremonies. When I approach the blessing during the amidah on Shabbat, I pause, sing it slowly and softly, making sure that I have the right kavannah (spiritual focus) before I recite the blessing.
“Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
May the Lord bless and protect you!
May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious
May the Lord lift up His face toward you and grant you peace!
thus they shall place my name on the people of Israel, and I myself
will bless them’’ (Num 6:22-27).
In this blessing, God is directing Moses to teach the priests how to bless the whole Israelite community. Why then is the blessing framed in the second person singular as opposed to the plural form? Rabbi Shai Held in his book, The Heart of Torah, quoting Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, gives a beautiful interpretation of the reason for this. He states that it is in the singular form even though the blessing is directed to the whole community because at the core of this blessing is the acknowledgement that each and every person in the community is a unique individual: "Each person has their own special personality, their own needs, dreams and yearnings" - therefore each person’s blessing needs to be appropriate for her/him. Despite the emphasis on the collective, our tradition values the individual and does not advocate for a mindless conformity in lifestyle and worship whereby the individual loses her/his identity in the collective.
Muhyiddin ibn Arabi, a famous Sufi Islamic mystic who lived in the 13th Century, poignantly describes the connection and relationship between God and each individual. He invokes the image of the sun and its rays as a way of articulating how each individual is a precious manifestation of the Divine. The sun burns at its centre and emits rays, all forming unique shapes that emerge from its centre. The rays are intrinsically connected to the sun, but also form their own unique patterns. This understanding, later coined wahdat il wujud (oneness of being) by his disciples, was a crucially important theosophical development. God is not some fascist dictator who wants mindless conformity. On the contrary, God wants us to embrace and embody our uniqueness, at the same time realising the very deep interconnectivity of all creation.
The Ari, Isaac Luria, taught that the Ein Sof - the deepest part of God, desired to create human beings in order that compassion, lovingkindness and grace would be reflected back at the Godhead.
In this teaching the purpose of our lives on this planet is to embody lovingkindness in our own unique way and to manifest that love in all our relationships. The three-fold blessing recited by the priests to each and every individual in the community of Israel continues to hold deep meaning for our people. May we all embody the essence of these blessings as we continue to build a kehilah kedosha, a sacred community of unique individuals compassionately committed to justice for all peoples.