By Rabbi Robert Layman
This week’s Torah reading, Naso in the Book of Numbers, is the longest in the annual cycle of parshiot.
It begins with a continuation of the census of the Israelites; it includes the strange ordeal of the sotah, the suspected adulteress, and the similarly exotic rules regarding the nazir, one who takes vows of abstinence; it concludes with Chapter 7, which consists of 89 verses detailing the sacrifices offered in connection with the dedication of the altar.
Sandwiched in, as it were, among this great mass of words and variety of laws is a small cluster of verses in Chapter 6 that have withstood the test of time and say more to us than most of the portion, which describes practices that, for a variety of reasons, long ago fell into disuse.
I refer, of course, to the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction which appears in the daily morning liturgy, is recited as a blessing upon our children every Friday evening, is pronounced on life-cycle occasions and found its way into Christian ritual.
In the rabbinic perspective, virtually every word in the Torah lends itself to commentary. I want to focus on the opening verse: y’varekh’kha HaShem v’yishmerekha, the Lord bless you and keep you.
Where we might expect Rashi to give this verse a totally spiritual meaning, he provides us a surprise. Rashi comments: “God should protect you from highwaymen who may accost you and take your property, for if one gives his servant a present,” Rashi says, “he [the donor] cannot guard it against any eventuality; highwaymen may come and steal the gift from the servant, so what benefit would he derive from the gift? But when the Holy One, Praised be He is the giver, he is also the guardian.”
Rashi, a vintner by trade, was conscious of the value of material possessions and may have had his precious vineyard in mind when he made this comment.
One of my favorite modern commentaries is a book called Torah Today written by the late Rabbi Pinchas Peli and published in 1987. Peli, z”l, died in 1989. He made some insightful observations which, in view of today’s economy, can be considered prescient. Picking up Rashi’s commentary, he notes the following: “That is why ‘the Lord bless you (with money)’ must be accompanied with ‘and keep you,’ so the money is not taken away from you. There are, as we know, a million ways of making money, a million and one for losing it.”
Then Peli, a modern Orthodox Israeli, goes on to demonstrate his grasp of conditions in the modern world. He writes: “The ‘robbers’ Rashi talks about are not necessarily tough highway gunmen. They may chase you under different guises, as overreaching tax collectors, phony fund-raisers, make-believe investment consultants, faddist health advisers, status-selling PR experts, soft-spoken piety peddlers, and many others.” He might have added telemarketers who call at the dinner hour.
Peli continues: “All these ‘damagers’ are constantly after you, as the Lord blesses you with money. He must therefore also ‘keep you’ and protect you against all those false well-wishers.”
Peli then expresses the wish that God should protect us from the probability that our possessions will possess us. “May the Lord bless you” with money, but may God also “keep you” from all the harm money might bring on you, now that you have been blessed with it.
Peli cites a story that appears in tractate Bava Batra in the Talmud: There was a pious man with whom the Prophet Elijah used to meet regularly. As the man prospered and built a fence and fancy gate around his house, Elijah stopped appearing to him and explained that with his new addition to his house, the man made himself inaccessible to the poor crying for help. “Elijah,” he says, “would not approve of the ‘new style’ money brings with it — double-locked doors, receptionists and secretaries, sophisticated intercom systems and uniformed doormen.”
In the final analysis, what Peli is trying to teach us is that the priestly benediction is spiritual in character after all. While we look to God to keep us from feeling insecure with our material possessions, we must not allow our acquisition and retention of wealth to dominate our lives. Doing so would shut us off from those who are less fortunate and need our help.
It is a lesson that we Jews, for the most part, have learned well; we have set the example of philanthropy for the rest of the world.
At the same time, we have not made poverty a mitzvah; we have used our God-given talents to achieve unprecedented success. The challenge before us is not to lose sight of our spiritual moorings along the way.
May the Lord bless us with the wisdom to have the proper perspective on life and keep us on the path of righteousness and lovingkindness.
Rabbi Robert Layman, a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, is retired, but serves as an instructor in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Temple University. The board is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.