Parashat Naso: The Power of Blessing after Orlando

In the immediate hours following the senseless and brutal murder of 49 people and the wounding of 53 others at the Pulse nightclub, known as a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community in Orlando, we heard and read how people sent their prayers and blessings to the victims and their families. While it may feel like a superficial response in the face of tragedy, in the best of circumstances, we offer the sentiment with heartfelt emotion, but mostly out of a sense of impotence in the face of devastating sadness.  Sometimes, prayers and blessings are all we have, and many Jews see the act of blessing as a sacred task, meant to channel God’s presence by evoking a sense of deep connectedness and love.

In our portion this week, Parashat Naso, we find the text of what is known as the Priestly blessing, a moment when the Torah imagines that God instructs Moses to say to Aaron and his sons that they should bless the people of Israel. The words are well known:

May God bless you and protect you;

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you;

May God’s presence be lifted toward you, and grant you much wholeness, much peace.                (Num. 6:24-26)

The priest had no divine powers of his own. He was not the source of blessing, but was imagined to be a conduit for divine blessing and protection. In the midrash, the rabbis assert that the “you” being addressed is more than just “you” of the present. Ultimately, the blessing is one of a covenantal relationship that stretches beyond the present moment, and according to Rashi (the great 11th century commentator from France), the blessing should be offered with great care and intention, so that all those present could receive it in the same manner given.

The structure of the blessing is simple, and in its simplicity lies its strength.  The first part of each line invokes the movement of God towards the people and the second, the activity on God’s behalf. God is imagined to initiate 6 actions: bless and protect; shine and be gracious; bestow and grant peace.[1] The and may indicate consequence, which make the blessing even more powerful, with each couplet containing a cause and effect.

When we offer these words to someone, we are invoking the power of the present and the future, the material and spiritual, the individual and the collective, the acknowledgement of what is and what is yet to be. When offered with integrity in the face of unspeakable tragedy, there is nothing superficial about offering ourselves to others as a reminder that they are not alone.

There are truly no words that can make the reality of the worst mass shooting in American history any less horrifying, nor limit insane access to assault rifles, stop hatred across all lines that divide, and prevent the radicalization possible in all faiths. Yet, if our words of prayer and blessing lead us to purposeful action, to stand strong the face of evil, to embrace the vulnerable, and to speak out against injustice, then they need not be devoid of meaning.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be so.

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Numbers, p. 51CkxEa3PW0AAavBx

About the Author
Rabbi Yael B. Ridberg serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, California. In addition to her congregational responsibilities, Rabbi Ridberg serves on the Board of The San Diego Jewish Academy, Waters of Eden Mikvah and Education Center, and Jewish Family Service of San Diego. She lives in La Jolla with her husband and four daughters.
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