The three-fold blessing of the Kohanim appears in this week’s reading of Naso. The ‘Priestly Blessing’ has been romanticized in Jewish tradition. It is recited by members of the priestly family daily in Israel as well as in some diaspora communities, and during festivals in other diaspora communities. It is the basis of the weekly blessing parents bestow upon their children on Friday nights as well as the template for blessings delivered at occasions such as Bar Mitzvahs. This blessing has good reason to have such prominence. Its simple structure and its delightful brevity no doubt contribute to this, but it also has profound meaning and intent beyond its literal translation.
May the Lord bless and safeguard you. May the Lord shine His countenance toward you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift His countenance to you and establish peace for you. (Numbers 6:24-26)
The first line of the three-fold blessing is interpreted by our tradition as material blessings. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains that the Midrash was compelled to interpret this line as material blessing because the last word of the first line, safeguarding, can apply only to materialism. A spiritual blessing should not require external protection. That this blessing needs the guarantee afforded by protection indicates to us that the ‘blessing’ referred to is of a material nature.
In the well known ethical work “Duties of the Heart” there are three different reasons offered for wealth being visited upon a person. It can be either a test, a benefit or a punishment of sorts. The test of wealth is signified by the intensive worry that accompanies prosperity, including the obsession over the portfolio value and its rise and fall in the money markets. Such a person will not have much ability to draw pleasure from his wealth.
Wealth is a benefit, it is written, when one is driven to feel ever more grateful to God and one utilizes the wealth to take more leisure to engage in pursuit of study and spirituality.
Wealth can be a punishment if as a result he becomes so distracted by luxury and pleasure derived from the wealth that he gives no thought to acknowledging God and His benevolence. Such a person can become lost, having no sense of purpose or direction due to his excess. He will crave wholeness but his money can’t buy that.
Rabbi Label Lam explains that the three verses of the priestly blessings come to account for these three results of wealth respectively, and ensure that one derives the most benefit from prosperity. The first verse, highlighting protection, is designed to give the beneficiary a sense of security, so that he is not consumed with worry and anxiety because of his wealth. The second verse promotes a personal relationship with God (May the Lord shine His face…), helping to ensure that the beneficiary of wealth remains ever aware of the source of his blessing. Finally, the third verse gives the blessing of peace, enabling one to find serenity and wholeness along with a life of few worries and gratitude.
The priestly blessing therefore offers not only prosperity, but also shields one from the various ills that can accompany wealth, such as anxiety, self-importance and loneliness brought about by inner upheaval and distraction.
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