Familiar verses of the Priestly Benediction interpreted

This week’s portion, Parashat Naso, includes a section that I’ll make a bet everyone reading this column has heard multiple times before: the last six verses of Numbers, Chapter 6, the Priestly Benediction.
In my own translation it says: “God said to Moses: say to Aaron and his sons: ‘Thus shall all y’all bless the Children of Israel. May God bless you and guard you. May God’s face radiate upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s face be lifted up to you and put upon you peace.
“That way, they will put My name on the Children of Israel and I will bless them.’”
Note: “all y’all” may be a Southernism, but since ‘you’ in English can be either singular or plural, it’s actually very useful to use “all y’all” to indicate “you” plural, just as it is indicated to be plural in the Hebrew.
This blessing is a specific formula for the priests to use, and to this day in a traditional congregation, anyone who is a Kohen will come to the front and recite this blessing in a ceremony called duchening. It is from the ceremony of duchening that Leonard Nimoy took his “live long and prosper” hand gesture. The hands are spread like the letter shin — standing for “Shaddai,” a name of God — and the blessing is given.
The first blessing is: “May God bless you and keep you, guard you, protect you.” This is where my translation is a little squishy. But then again, all translation is interpretation, so we should expect a little squishiness. There’s a sense, though that God will make sure bad things don’t happen to you. The only question is, what bad things — and how will God make sure those bad things don’t happen?
The second blessing is: “May God’s face radiate, shine upon you and be gracious to you.” I have a sense that having God’s face shine on you is pretty good, but again, I don’t have an exact idea what a shining face is supposed to be.
The third blessing is: “May God’s face be lifted up on you, favor you, think you’re special and give you peace.” Clearly there’s a difference between God’s face shining on you and being lifted up on you, but what that difference is exactly, isn’t always clear.
The part that I’m really interested in is the last sentence that isn’t spoken: “They shall put My name on the Children of Israel and I shall bless them.” Think how extraordinary that truly is. The priests put the name of God on the people, and then God will bless them. God blesses the people through the action of the priests. God acts through human action. We act in God’s name and God’s blessing comes forth.
When we help people and protect them from harm, God blesses that action. When we bring light to people’s lives — dispelling the darkness of despair and pain — God blesses that action. When we lift people up out of the depths in which they are mired — when we restore people to a sense of wholeness and peace — God blesses that action. When we act in God’s name, God blesses us all. Our hands are God’s hands, bringing blessing to the world.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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