The Blessing of Prosperity

Parashat Naso: Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

 

The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons:

Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

May the Lord bless you and protect you!

May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!

May the Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace!

Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

(Numbers 6:22-27)

One of the most familiar passages of Torah is found in this week’s parashah. In the days of the ancient Temple, the fifteen Hebrew words of the three-fold priestly blessing (Numbers 6: 24-26) were spoken daily by the kohanim (priests) as they blessed Israel in God’s name. These words are repeated in our own day in our daily, Shabbat, holy day and High Holy Day liturgies and at life cycle celebrations such as weddings and b’nai mitzvah. Many parents offer this blessing over their children each Shabbat. In addition, we often hear these words spoken by priests, rabbis and ministers at interfaith gatherings.

Focusing on the first of the three blessings – “May the Lord bless you and protect you” – we find a surprising lesson. Biblical commentators look at this verse and ask two questions: “May the Lord bless you with what? May the Lord protect you from what?” While some suggest God will bless us with happiness, long life, success in learning and other noble gifts, there is general consensus that the blessing here refers to material wealth and that God will protect our wealth from evil spirits and thieves.[1][2]

In reality, this interpretation shouldn’t come as such a surprise: not only does Judaism not reject our relationship to material wealth, but to some extent Judaism even values it. After The blessings referred to by the priests in our parashah are likened to those found in Deuteronomy 28:1-14. Among the blessings there are a bountiful harvest and other kinds of physical prosperity.[3] All abundance is seen as a gift from God. By extension, even our wealth today should be considered a gift from God and not solely the result of our own labor or ingenuity.

In addition to its intrinsic value as a divine gift, material wealth enables us to perform the mitzvah of tzedakah and to study Torah. Obadiah ben Jacob Seforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, sites this verse from Ethics of our Ancestors (aka Pirkei Avot) in his discussion of the first of the priestly blessings: If there is no kemach, there is no Torah (Mishnah Avot 3:21). Kemach here means “flour” or “dough”, but it indicates that which sustains us financially as well. Where there is no financial sustenance, then, individuals haven’t the time to study Torah nor can the community afford teachers or schools. When we are blessed with prosperity, we are also blessed with Torah.

If God blesses us with abundance, then God also safeguards that abundance. Rashi teaches: When one gives his servant a gift, the one who bestows the gift cannot protect it from all other people. So if robbers come and take it from (the servant), what benefit has he [the servant] from this gift? As for the Holy One, blessed be (God), however, (God) is the One who [both] gives and protects (Midrash Tanchuma Naso 10).[4]

There is another way to interpret May the Lord protect you,” though, that doesn’t focus on safeguarding one’s possessions. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a prominent 19th century Polish scholar also known as the Netziv, teaches: A blessing requires guardianship so that it should not, God forbid, be turned to a wrong purpose.  The Torah scholar requires guardianship to save him from pride and bringing the name of the Lord into disrepute, and the like.   The businessman requires guardianship against his wealth becoming a stumbling block to him as in the case of Korah and Naboth, and in its literal sense, against theft and loss (Ha-Emek Davar on Bemidbar 6:23). [5] In other words, with great possessions comes the risk of haughtiness. How appropriate then to ask God’s protection from that temptation.

To be honest, as a rabbi, when I bestow the priestly blessing upon a newborn child, upon a young person at the time of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, or upon a couple under the wedding canopy, I am not thinking about blessing them with material possessions. Rather, I hope that God will bless them with a life of joy and happiness, a life filled with good deeds, and a life of peace. At sacred moments in people’s lives, those are the wishes that come most naturally to me and, I suspect, to others who care for the people undergoing rites of passage.

Perhaps, though, I should expand my kavvanah (spiritual intention) to make room for what Torah scholars have said is truly behind the blessing: a life of comfort that affords one opportunities to learn and to give tzedakah. Likewise, I should pray for the surety of that life, on one hand, and for individuals to resist being spiritually and morally blinded by their possessions, on the other hand. Perhaps we can all learn from the sages this week as we gain a new appreciation for the abundance in our lives and are reminded of the risks that come along with that abundance.

 

©Rabbi Daniel Aronson, 2014

 

[1] Rashi (11th century, France), Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) and Obadiah ben Jacob Seforno (16th century, Italy and Spain) are in agreement on this matter. Ibn Ezra adds “long life.”

[2] Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a prominent 19th century Polish scholar, suggests God will bless each individual with his/her particular needs: “to the student of Torah success in his studies; the businessman- in his business, etc.” See http://schechtertorah.blogspot.com/2013/05/divrei-rav-josh-parshat-naso-qualities.html accessed 5/28/2014

[3] Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, The Artscroll Chumash. (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1997), p. 762.

[4] See http://www.chabad.org/parshah/torahreading.asp?aid=39589&showrashi=true&p=4, accessed 5/28/14.

[5] http://schechtertorah.blogspot.com/2013/05/divrei-rav-josh-parshat-naso-qualities.html.

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