Divine Acts: Parashat Nasso. Numbers 4:21 – 7:

Divine Acts: Parashat Nasso. Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 17.05.13


Howard Adelman

In this longest parashah I am torn between writing about treating alleged adulteresses like the Puritans in New England in the seventeenth century treated witches, or self-denying puritanical Nazirites, or aesthetics and divine acts, about the long list of accounting entries of the sacrifices brought by the various clans or, finally, about God’s voice and communication to Moses. The first two are what I find respectively most repulsive and attractive in Puritanism. The first about adultery and how to find whether a woman is guilty simply arouses my self-righteous indignation about superstition and magic while the second invites by intense attraction to self-denial and asceticism. The discovery of whether a wife is an adulteress through seeing how the suspected wife reacts physically to eating a mixture that contains dirt from the sanctuary floor is just too offensive to any sense of justice. The characterization of a puritanical Nazirite is intriguing because such behaviour, in the end, of consecrating oneself to God through self-denial is not endorsed, a paradoxical outcome that is worth exploring but has little relevance in today’s world. Accounting entries of sacrifices are simply boring. I was left to choose between God’s voice versus the relationship of God’s acts and aesthetics and opted for the latter.

The key verses are 6:22 – 6:27, particularly the famous, well-known and all too-familiar verses 24-27.
כב וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 22 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
כג דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תְבָרְכוּ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אָמוֹר, לָהֶם. {ס} 23 ‘Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel; ye shall say unto them: {S}
כד יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. {ס} 24 The LORD bless thee, and keep thee; {S}
כה יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. {ס} 25 The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;{S}
כו יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם. {ס} 26 The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. {S}
כז וְשָׂמוּ אֶת-שְׁמִי, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַאֲנִי, אֲבָרְכֵם. {ס} 27 So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.’ {S}
The Kohanim are required on behalf of God to bless and protect, to make His face shine upon and be gracious to the children of Israel as a collectivity to be blessed and protected, to lift up His countenance to the children of Israel and to bestow upon them peace. What are these six divine acts and why these six? I begin with the question about what a benediction is.
‘Bless’ is both the generic term for all six divine acts as well as the term for the first specific divine act. This beneficence is not bestowed on the Nazirite in spite of his acts of self-sacrifice, the story of which precedes this depiction of divine blessing. Further, as Cain and Abel once did, humans offer sacrifices in the quest for a divine blessing in chapter 7 immediately following. Between these two book ends, we find a depiction of the commandment to the priests to bestow a blessing on the community as a whole and each of the children of Israel, on behalf of God without being asked for a sacrifice of self or an animal. This blessing is freely given. If after death, every Jewish male is awarded the honorific title, zikhrono livrakha and every woman zikhronah livrakha, “of blessed memory,” in this case, the blessing has a divine source and is awarded to the living and the dead. The honour is not given by one’s fellow Jews or Israelites but by God and is radically other than the blessing given by humans to God in the beginning of most prayers: Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, “Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe…”

The closest meaning in English to this type of blessing is “grace,” the free and unmerited favour of God invoked by the High Priest to bestow on Israelites a divine presence to reenergize and protect them from temptation, from moral or morale slippage, to sanctify human ordinary behaviour as distinct from extraordinary sacrificial behaviour and to inspire that individual to achieve even more. Instead of man looking up towards the heavens to beseech God for a blessing, God looks up to man, not to beseech but to bestow a beatific spiritual peace. What is bestowed is God’s favour or grace from sheer kindness. This is not the God of wrath and justice but the God of mercy in which God shares with the Israelites His chen, His favour or graciousness, His mercy and kindness for as Exodus 34:6-7 states, the Lord is gracious (chanun).

I myself have been blessed with six wonderful children and nine grandchildren. All, every single one, has been protected from any significant or serious harm. What if they were not? What if Jews were once again stricken by another shoah? Unlike acts of divine punishment bestowed for sins, favour freely given can also be absent. There are no guarantees. When God smiles on you, is there any difference when Sky Masterson in Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls sings “Luck be a lady tonight”? In this passage, there is a difference because grace is bestowed without beseeching for it. Neither is grace a calculation of probabilities.

Each bestowal is but a further specification of a divine blessing – first, blessing in general, then more specifically protecting the community from harm, then smiling upon the community with special favour as when Israel won the Six Day War and when gas was discovered off the coast of Israel, and even more specifically such gifts were bestowed with graciousness and were not to be reciprocated with arrogance and pride or lording over others, and most intriguing, by God lifting up his countenance giving the community an inner peace for grace is rendered with the total surrender of power over in favour of influence from within. Peace is not only given upon the community but within the community to everyone and not just the righteous and saintly. There are no conditions for such favours.

However translated, the three sentences have a wonderful cadence, expanding in the number of words as the request becomes more specific. “May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord smile upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his face to you and give you His peace.”

The Lord bless you and keep you!
The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Lord bestow His favour upon you and grant you His friendship!