May God bless you and protect you!
May God shine the light of panav toward you and be compassionate to you!
May God yissa panav to you and grant you peace! (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:24-26)
yissa (יִשָֹּא) = he will lift, raise; may he lift, raise. (Imperfect form of the verb nasa = lift, raise.)
panav (פָּנָיו) = his face, his presence.
yissa panav = may he lift his face. When God is the subject, this is an idiom meaning “May [God] be benevolent.”
This “Priestly Blessing” or “Threefold Blessing” is chanted at peak moments in Jewish services to this day. (The first sentence has three words in Hebrew, the second has five words, and the third has seven words. Chanting these lines out loud, with a pause or melodic phrase after each sentence, produces the effect of increasing blessing.)
The Threefold Blessing comes directly from this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”). The portion opens with God’s instructions to Moses for taking a census of the men between 30 and 50 in the Gershonite clan of the tribe of Levi and assigning them their duties.
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Naso et rosh of the sons of Gershon also, by their ancestral houses and by their clans, from the age of 30 years up to the age of 50 years you will count them… (Numbers 6:21-23)
naso (נָשֹא) = Lift! Raise up! (Imperative form of the verb nasa.)
rosh (רֺאשׁ) = head.
naso et rosh = Lift the head! (An idiom meaning either “take a census” or “pardon”.)
You lift someone else’s head when you are taking a head count, or when you are pardoning that person. You lift your own head, raising your face, when you acknowledge someone’s presence. God lifts God’s face in order to face people with benevolence—like humans raising their heads to smile at someone.1
The idiom of lifting someone else’s head, which is used merely for counting at the start of the portion Naso, is later transformed into the idiom of lifting one’s own face, which God does to bless people with benign attention.
Initiating a blessing
The climax of this week’s Torah portion, in my opinion, is when God instructs Moses on the way the priests should bless the Israelites as a whole.
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘Thus you shall bless the Children of Israel. Say to them: May God bless you and protect you! May God shine the light of panav toward you and be compassionate to you! May God yissa panav to you and grant you peace!’” (Numbers 6:23-26)
After giving the three sentences of blessing, God concludes with this instruction:
Place my name upon the Children of Israel, and I myself will bless them. (Numbers 6:27)
In other words, the priests must recite the correct three-line formula in front of the people. Then God, not the priests, will bless them. God’s blessing is triggered not by the wishes of the priests, but by the words that the people hear, the three sentences that include the personal name of God.
If we imagine an external being called God, who bestows gifts like a good king or a loving parent, then the Threefold Blessing expresses what we want God to give us in the world. We want the universe, personified, to bless us with success; to protect us from harm; to shine with kindness toward us; to treat us with compassion; to give us benign attention; and to arrange for us to live in peace.
Traditional Jewish blessings, like the Threefold Blessing, follow the form “May God bless you with—”, perhaps because we know that even a parent blessing a child cannot actually make any of these good things happen. Only God can do that—if God is a semi-anthropomorphic being who runs the universe.
Hearing a blessing
There is plenty of evidence that blessing in our universe does not work that way. Many people are hapless, damaged, confused, starved, or punished too harshly. That makes the Threefold Blessing either a fantasy, or a prayer that the whole universe will change.
But maybe there is a deeper truth in the instructions in this week’s Torah portion about how the priests can initiate God’s blessings. Maybe something happens when the people who need blessing hear God’s name in the blessing formula.
The prophet Elijah learns that God is not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a soft murmur—a “still, small voice” in the King James translation.2 If we want to be blessed with a life in which God seems to be smiling at us and easing our way, then we must learn to hear the small voice of God inside us.
“May God bless you with—” is also a way to say “Listen for God and the blessing of—”.
May we all find a way to listen.
Last week, when other Jews were celebrating Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, I could only imitate the mountain, shaking uncontrollably. This week, fortunately, I have a smaller set of (non-Covid) symptoms, less frightening than an earthquake, less painful than fire. I continue to get medical tests and to hope for a fuller diagnosis and further improvement. But I also notice that every time I lie down (which is often) I feel grateful for my life, for the bed underneath me, for my own thoughts, and for the soft murmur deep inside me that sometimes releases a word in a still, small voice. God is blessing me.
- In a similar idiom, people’s faces “fall” (nafal, נָפַל) when they lower their heads in anger at whomever they are facing. When God does not welcome Cain’s offering, Cain became very hot with anger, and his face fell. (Genesis 4:5) This idiom can also apply to God’s face. God tells the prophet Jeremiah to say: Continue turning back [to me], declares God; I will not make my face fall at you, because I am kind, declares God. (Jeremiah 3:12)
- 1 Kings 19:11-13.