Parashah of the week: Naso

“May the Eternal raise His face to you, and give you peace” Numbers 6:27  


The Mishnah tells us that the famous priestly blessing — also a favourite for blessing children — should not be translated, at least not from the Torah in shul. Why? To see how remarkable this prohibition is, and to learn from it, we can consider the other texts that the same Mishnah is concerned about (Megillah 4:10).

The episode of Reuben should not be translated: Reuben had carnal relations with his father Jacobs’s concubine! The Mishnah mentions the episode of Tamar and Judah; you can translate this, but just by mentioning it, we see the concern. Judah has relations with his daughter-in-law Tamar, who is dressed as a prostitute.

There is concern with the shameful episode of the Golden Calf, as the people of Israel collectively cheat on God. The episode of King David and Amnon is not to be read; it involves incest, rape and family warfare.

You might not read Ezekiel’s Divine Chariot, which could be considered too spiritually intimate, and Ezekiel’s berating of Israel, told to live in her blood. Nothing too surprising in that list of communally restricted texts.

Why would the priestly blessing be nestled amongst these? We can appreciate the concern with translating it when we recognise that all those other texts address love and intimacy, human or Divine, in one way or another; all in all, the Mishnah’s concern is to maintain the respectful, intimate bounds of love that nurture it.

The desire of the priestly blessing to be personally blessed and protected, basked in light and cared for generously, seen face-to-face, in vibrant relationship, is profoundly intimate.

In translation it might sound like a request for favouritism (as Rambam points out), yet it actually expresses a desire for each person to feel this love and a trust that Divine Love is great enough to be felt endlessly and personally without being diminished partially.

We keep those words untranslated, or whispered gently, or said only in our heart to step into a love, human and Divine, a love of Torah and of life, a love of the other, a love that we feel, that is ineffable, that can’t quite be said or translated — even though there’s more than enough for everyone.

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