Numbers Finding our Way Inside: The Priestly Blessing as a Model for Jewish Practice
Parshat Naso (Numbers, 4:21-7:89)
In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari shares a fascinating and, for me, paradigm shifting study about the connection between work and mental health. The study, done by Australian scientist Michael Marmot in the 1970s, shows that workplace stress and depression is highly correlated to the amount of control people have over their work. The more control a person has over her work, the less stressed and depressed she will be.
I believe, as Hari does, that “Humans have an innate need to feel that what we are doing, day-to-day, is meaningful.” However, I have tended to presume that the meaning came largely from what we do, the particular work we are engaged in. It is a theory in line with Fredrick Beuchner’s wonderful and inspiring statement, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I remain convinced that the “what,” the substance of our work, is important, but what Hari via Marmot is highlighting is that how we work is also critically important. In fact, maybe more important.“When you are controlled,” Hari writes, “you can’t create meaning out of your work.”
This insight is also relevant to people seeking meaning in Jewish practice, in my experience.
Over the millennia, Jewish tradition has developed a robust corpusof rites, liturgies and rituals intended to sanctify as many moments of our lives as possible. For example, the particular blessings said before and after many elements of daily life, ideally at least 100 a day traditionally, are invitations to experience the gifts and wonders of our lives from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to sleep at night.
While the commitment to sanctifying our lives is truly inspiring, as is the attendant insight that disciplined practice is essential to the consistent encounter with and revelation of holiness, there is a shadow to the immense Jewish ritual edifice. It is captured in the very strange language practitioners of Jewish tradition have developed to describe having fulfilled a mitzvah, a commanded religious act. That person has now “yatza yidei chovato,” literally left the grasp of his obligation. They are yotzei, they have escaped the burden. The phraseology reflects the way in which the vast, totalizing traditionally obligatory system of Jewish practice can become a coercive, controlling and soul deadening chore, suffocating instead of sanctifying life.
Instead of being yotzei, as I have heard Rabbi David Ingber say, we should be striving to be nichnas, inside of the rituals and mitzvoth of Jewish tradition. To do so, requires human agency. That is the model of Aaron the High Priest in this week’s parasha, Naso, when he blesses the Israelites with what has become one of the quintessential and most evocative Jewish prayer liturgies, the priestly blessing.
The words appear in the Book of Numbers (6:22-27), but tradition has it that Aaron actually uttered them in the Book of Leviticus when the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, was first erected and inaugurated. The blessing comes at the denouement of an excruciatingly long section of Torah that details God’s instructions to Moses of how to build the mishkan and invest the priests who will serve in it, Moses’ subsequent construction of the mishkan, God’s intricate instructions of how to behave in the mishkan through the sacrificial system, Moses’s investiture of the priests, and finally, the inauguration of sacrificial cult in the mishkan. It is a long and tedious section of text.
And at this moment, after Aaron and Moses have done everything “as God had commanded” (Leviticus 9:21), and the mishkanis operational for the first time, the Torah says that:
“Aaron lifted his hands towards the people and blessed them” (Leviticus 9:22).
While Aaron understandably might have become numb to the sanctity of the proceedings from the monotony of the prescribed actions he is to take, he does not as he fulfills his role. Rather than being yotzei, Aaron is nichnas to the event. He is inside it—alive, sensitive and responsive to the miraculous achievement of creating a place to be intimate with God.
And after doing all he has to do, without prompting, with being instructed to, he offers a blessing, the priestly blessing. As I imagine it, Aaron just couldn’t contain himself. In his attunement to the rites he fulfilled and where they led him, Aaron intuited that the script, the instructions he had received, were incomplete. The punctilious performance of the ritual was necessary but insufficient. It required his heart and soul—his spontaneous blessing.
Aaron’s behavior is an indicator that the model the Torah has in mind for spiritual practice, despite its extraordinary emphasis on detailed, precise religious and ethical behaviors, necessitates active human agency. Rather than denying human responsiveness, the Torah images us engaging with spiritual practice in a way that is consistent with Johann Hari’s insights—not simply as passive recipients and performers of our religious lives, but active partners and innovators in spiritual practice. For the Torah, that may well be the only way we can expect our practice and our lives to be meaningful.
In a final hint at this notion, the passage containing the priestly blessing in the Torah ends with this confusing verse:
God says that through Aaron’s blessing “You will put My name on the Children of Israel and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:24).
The verse confuses the source of blessing—is it Aaron or God? The answer, according to Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalom writes, has to do with the nature of blessing. To give a blessing, which in Hebrew is related to the word pool, is to connect to the “channel of water flowing down” thereby “bringing down grace from heaven” (The Gates of Prayer, p. 31). When we are nichnas, when we are inside the blessing, the ritual, the practice, we increase our capacity to be a channel for God, holiness and healing.
Daniel Klein is a 2010 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, where he serves as Associate Dean of Admissions and Student Life.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.