In Parashat Naso, Hashem commands Moshe to teach Birkat Kohanim to Aharon and his sons. The third verse of Birkat Kohanim reads, “May Hashem lift His face towards you (yisa Hashem panav eilecha) and give you peace.” (Bamidbar 6:26) The Hebrew phrase nesi’ut panim – lifting the face – is interpreted in numerous ways. Chazal explain that it involves G-d granting favor to Israel, or, more specifically, treating them with favoritism. For this reason, the verses of Birkat Kohanim are read but not translated during kriat haTorah in the synagogue (as other verses were, according to the practice at the time of the Gemara), so that the listeners would not be confused by the concept that G-d favors one nation. (Megillah 25b) The idea that Hashem shows favoritism, however, is more than confusing; it directly contradicts another pasuk in the Torah: “For Hashem your G-d is the G-d of all power, and Master of all masters, the great, mighty, and awesome G-d who shows no favoritism (lo yisa panim) and takes no bribes.” (Devarim
10:17) Indeed, the Gemara itself is puzzled by this contradiction: “The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, Master of the Universe! It is written in your Torah, ‘[He] shows no favoritism and takes no bribes,’ yet behold You favor Israel, as it is written, ‘May Hashem lift His face towards you!’ He answered them, Should I not favor Israel, for whom I wrote in the Torah, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem your G-d,’ yet they are careful about themselves for a kezayit and a kebeitzah [i.e., they bless even after eating less than is necessary to be satiated]?!”
The Gemara’s explanation seems to be that G-d certainly does favor Israel, but they deserve this special treatment because of their willingness to do more than the law demands. But how does that answer the question? Despite Israel’s righteousness which makes G-d want to favor them, the pasuk nonetheless states that Hashem does not show favoritism!
Rabbi Scott Kahn explains: ‘One possible answer is based on the important idea that G-d acts toward us in the way that we act toward Him. In a real sense, we create the framework in which we live. In the words of the Chafetz Chaim, “It is known that according to how a person directs his attributes in this world, he correspondingly arouses G-d’s attributes in the world above. If his way is to ignore slights and to act with kindness and mercy towards people, he correspondingly arouses the attribute of mercy above, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, has mercy on the world because of him. and he merits also that the Holy One, Blessed be He, has mercy on him and ignores his sins.” (Shmirat HaLashon, Shaar HaZechira, Perek Sheini)
Thus, G-d’s favoritism – that is, going beyond the demands of strict justice – is a direct result of Israel’s willingness to do more than the law demands. The verse stating that G-d does not show favoritism refers to a normal case that demands justice. Israel does more than G-d’s law demands, however, so G-d acts toward Israel beyond the letter of the law. That is, in its own way, an aspect of justice.
Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, is also found in this parshah. The Kli Yakar, at the end of his comment, states the following: “And by way of remez – a hint – it is possible to explain this by way of the Midrash mentioned in Parshat Yitro which states that at first G-d called Bnei Yisrael a daughter; then He called them a sister; and finally He called them a mother”. The Kli Yakar goes on to explain that the first of the three verses of the Birkat Kohanim refers to the relationship wherein Yisrael is G-d’s daughter. As the text of the Blessing states: “G-d will bless you and watch over you”. According to the Kli Yakar, watching over speaks of a fatherly relationship. The second verse, “G-d will shine His face to you, eilecha, implies being on equal ground. Finally, “G-d will raise, yisa, his face to you” implies that G-d, in a manner of speaking, is lower and is looking up to Yisrael. Rabbi Pesach Wolicki comments: The meaning of this cryptic passage is all too powerful. G-d depends on Bnei Yisrael for His presence to be felt in this world. In the early part of the relationship – think of the Exodus and all that happens in the Torah – G-d is doing all of the work. He demands very little participation of the Jewish people. But this is not the ultimate purpose of creation. Ultimately, we, G-d’s chosen people, are responsible to do the bulk of the work on our own. G-d – so to speak – follows our lead. If we bring G-d’s presence into the world then He is present and felt. If, G-d forbid, we do not, then he is absent. G-d’s eyes are turned toward us. We have received the Torah on Shavuot. We must devote our energies to making the dream a reality so that through our actions the whole world will come to recognize the presence and glory of G-d.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim