Drash on Parashat Naso
“By the powers vested in me?”
Rabbi Paul Jacobson
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, New South Wales, Australia

One Sunday evening in February 2007, I had just started developing a friendship with Lisa and we were having dinner together in Coogee. Earlier in the day, I had officiated at my first wedding and Lisa was curious to hear how it had gone. Walking Lisa through the events of the day, I remember saying, “It’s strange really. I woke up this morning and all of a sudden, I realised that I had been given the power to marry people! I wasn’t able to do that yesterday!” Lisa laughed at my somewhat silly outburst and said, “Make sure you use that special power with care.”

Do rabbis actually have special powers? In other circumstances people ask me, “Rabbi, say a prayer for me, would you?” Or they ask, “Rabbi, you have a direct line upstairs, can’t you use it for me?” I try to address these needs honestly, teaching that all of us have direct lines through which we can pray to God, and that each of us is given the same opportunity to connect with the Divine as our fellow Jew. And we don’t actually marry couples. We may be “the rabbi who officiated at a wedding ceremony,” but our role is to officiate only; partners in a relationship marry one another.

Nevertheless, there often continues to be a misperception that we rabbis have special powers, an idea which is found in the heart of this week’s Torah portion Parashat Naso. Our Torah reading contains three of the most well-known and oft-recited verses in the whole of Jewish tradition, namely the Priestly Blessing which reads, “May God bless you and keep you, may God deal kindly and graciously with you, may God bestow His favour upon you and grant you peace!” (Num. 6:24-26). According to Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in ancient times, priests and fathers were perceived as having certain spiritual characteristics not extended to others. He writes, “These persons, then, are by their inheritance, relationship, training, dedication, or ordination believed to have certain special powers…. The difficulties raised by these suppositions have long been recognised. Not only is the borderline of religious magic uncomfortably close, but the assumptions of permanent special status in relationship to God are difficult to accept” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1066).

Given the problem in according rabbis and other religious leaders with special powers, Plaut offers an interpretation from 12th century Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam). Rashbam suggested that we should see the Priestly Blessing, or for that matter, any blessing offered by a religious leader as a prayer expressing hope for a particular outcome, not an act of determining how God will respond. Rashbam adds that when the congregation responds “ken y’hi ratzon,” meaning “May this be God’s will,” they are appending their own prayers, their own hopes to the blessing.

When we recite the Priestly Benediction, at a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, at a baby naming or at a Shabbat service, we are linking ourselves with a chain of tradition, thousands of years old. Ultimately, we are expressing the hope, “May God bless us and protect us, deal kindly and graciously with us, bestow favour upon us and grant us peace.” None of us know what a particular outcome will be, but we continue to have hope and express our hopes – for goodness, comfort, protection, compassion, and peace. Special powers in Jewish tradition are not reserved for rabbis and leaders. Each of us has the opportunity to express our prayers and hopes to God, and through our actions and deeds continue to help make the world a better place for all who live here.

Drash on Parashat Naso
“By the powers vested in me?”
Rabbi Paul Jacobson
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, New South Wales, Australia

One Sunday evening in February 2007, I had just started developing a friendship with Lisa and we were having dinner together in Coogee. Earlier in the day, I had officiated at my first wedding and Lisa was curious to hear how it had gone. Walking Lisa through the events of the day, I remember saying, “It’s strange really. I woke up this morning and all of a sudden, I realised that I had been given the power to marry people! I wasn’t able to do that yesterday!” Lisa laughed at my somewhat silly outburst and said, “Make sure you use that special power with care.”

Do rabbis actually have special powers? In other circumstances people ask me, “Rabbi, say a prayer for me, would you?” Or they ask, “Rabbi, you have a direct line upstairs, can’t you use it for me?” I try to address these needs honestly, teaching that all of us have direct lines through which we can pray to God, and that each of us is given the same opportunity to connect with the Divine as our fellow Jew. And we don’t actually marry couples. We may be “the rabbi who officiated at a wedding ceremony,” but our role is to officiate only; partners in a relationship marry one another.

Nevertheless, there often continues to be a misperception that we rabbis have special powers, an idea which is found in the heart of this week’s Torah portion Parashat Naso. Our Torah reading contains three of the most well-known and oft-recited verses in the whole of Jewish tradition, namely the Priestly Blessing which reads, “May God bless you and keep you, may God deal kindly and graciously with you, may God bestow His favour upon you and grant you peace!” (Num. 6:24-26). According to Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in ancient times, priests and fathers were perceived as having certain spiritual characteristics not extended to others. He writes, “These persons, then, are by their inheritance, relationship, training, dedication, or ordination believed to have certain special powers…. The difficulties raised by these suppositions have long been recognised. Not only is the borderline of religious magic uncomfortably close, but the assumptions of permanent special status in relationship to God are difficult to accept” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1066).

Given the problem in according rabbis and other religious leaders with special powers, Plaut offers an interpretation from 12th century Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam). Rashbam suggested that we should see the Priestly Blessing, or for that matter, any blessing offered by a religious leader as a prayer expressing hope for a particular outcome, not an act of determining how God will respond. Rashbam adds that when the congregation responds “ken y’hi ratzon,” meaning “May this be God’s will,” they are appending their own prayers, their own hopes to the blessing.

When we recite the Priestly Benediction, at a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, at a baby naming or at a Shabbat service, we are linking ourselves with a chain of tradition, thousands of years old. Ultimately, we are expressing the hope, “May God bless us and protect us, deal kindly and graciously with us, bestow favour upon us and grant us peace.” None of us know what a particular outcome will be, but we continue to have hope and express our hopes – for goodness, comfort, protection, compassion, and peace. Special powers in Jewish tradition are not reserved for rabbis and leaders. Each of us has the opportunity to express our prayers and hopes to God, and through our actions and deeds continue to help make the world a better place for all who live here.

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