May God Bless You and Protect You: A New Look at Material 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, Judaism does value material success even while maintaining that such concerns ought to be secondary to spiritual success. In fact, elsewhere in the Torah we find that if we follow God’s ways we will be blessed with bountiful harvests, abundant flocks, success in business ventures, for example.[3] To be clear, though, all abundance is seen as a gift from God. Even our material wealth today should be considered a gift from God and not solely the result of our own labor or ingenuity.

In addition to valuing material wealth as a gift from God, the tradition also considers material wealth as central to allowing us to perform the mitzvah (commandment) of tzedakah (monetary contributions for the sake of justice) and to study Torah. We have a teaching in our ancient text known as Ethics of our Ancestors (aka Pirkei Avot) that says, “Im ein kemach, ein Torah. If there is no kemach, there is no Torah (Mishnah Avot 3:21). Kemach here means “flour” or “dough”, but it also indicates that which sustains us financially. 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. In other words, enjoy your riches from God AND also put them to Godly use.

The second half of our blessing asks for God’s protection which suggests that, in terms of material prosperity, if God blesses us with abundance, then God also safeguards that abundance. The French Medieval commentator 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]

An alternative way to interpret May the Lord protect you” focuses not on the literal safeguarding of out possessions but on ensuring that we are not corrupted by them. 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… (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, we can all learn from the sages this week who teach us to appreciate the abundance in our lives and remind us of the risks that come along with that abundance. When we pray the words “May God bless you and protect you,” let us give thanks for our material wealth that enables us to learn and grow and that enables us to help the needy and support just causes. And may we pray not only for the security of our abundance but also for the strength and courage to resist becoming spiritually and morally blinded by it. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan

[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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