By Rabbi David Sterne
As is our weekly custom, we will delve into the words of the sixteenth century sage, R’ Nosson Nata Shapira (also known as the Megaleh Amukot the title of his most famous work) of Cracow. Since our Torah portion this week (Nasa) includes the well known Bircat Cohanim (the “priestly blessing” with which the priests blessed the Jewish people in the Temple and continue to do so this very day in synagogues), we will delve into what R’ Shapira has to say about it. As always, our greatest Jewish sages each have unique styles and outlooks, and it is worthwhile to delve into each one of them to see what kind of spiritual “goodness” we can derive…
The priestly blessing is composed of three verses: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord shine His countenance upon you and grace you with favor. May the Lord lift His countenance toward you and grant you peace” (Num 6:24-26) Our sage, R’ Shapira suggests that these three verses cover all the needs of man: the maintenance of man’s bodily needs, the continuity of the human species, and the meeting of man’s spiritual needs. As God said to Abraham (Gen 15), “And I will shield you…” wherein the Hebrew word for “shield” is magen (mem-gimel-nun). The three letters of magen stand for mammon (“money”), guf (body) and nefesh (“soul”). And in a previous verse (Gen 12:2), the Torah elaborates: “And I will make you into a great nation…” applies to continuity and maintenance of the human species. “And I will bless you…” applies to physical wealth, and “I will increase your name (reputation)…” applies to the soul (because one’s name applies most directly to his soul).
That is what is says in the written Torah. In the oral Torah (Berachot Ch. 2), we find something similar: “As the sages left the house of R’ Ami and R’ Asi, they would bless each other, “You should see your world yet during your life, you should experience the world to come at the end of your life, and you should have eternal aspirations.” Rashi explains that the first part of the blessing (“you should see your world…”) applies to the needs of the body. The second part (“you should experience the world to come…”) applies to the soul, and the final section (“eternal aspirations…”) applies to the continuation of the species. R’ Shapira concludes that the needs of man are encapsulated in these three categories: Body, Soul and continuity of the species. He goes on to bring several more verses from Isaiah, and from Psalms, to lend support to his thesis.
Further on, R’ Shapira interprets the priestly blessing in another light. He says that the three verses correspond to the three spiritual vectors with which God created and runs the world: Chesed (“kindness”), Gevura (“strictness and judgment”), and Rachamim (“mercy”). When the mishkan (“tabernacle”) was set up (which occurs in our Torah portion, Nasa), the Midrash tells us that Moshe entered and heard a three part voice that was “harmonious, pleasant, and praiseworthy.” He stopped and said, “Let’s hear what God has to say…” The Midrash reports that after the sin of the calf, there was “competition” between God and the humans below, which ceased once the mishkan was set up (and then the three voices were heard).
What exactly was the “lack of peace” between God and the creation? Before the mishkan was set up, suggests R’ Shapira, divine influx entered the world via angels (of bria and yetzira) or via the orbiting planets or even via natural (physical) forms of the world of asiya. But after the mishkan was established, the divine influx descended to the world directly from God Himself, via tzaddikim, or “righteous people.”
Alternatively, before the mishkan was set up, although Jewish souls descended to the world from the world of bria, they did so under the influence of the two angels called Metat (in yetzira) and Sandal (in asiya). This meant that the divine influx, already contracted to enter the lower worlds, became even more contracted and concealed. But after the establishment of the tabernacle, the worlds became more refined and physically elevated, and the Jews were able to connect through the souls of three tzadikim, or righteous Jewish leaders – Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. These three corresponded to the three soul levels of neshama, ruach and nefesh within each Jew. In fact, there is a hint to this in the verse from Isaiah (41:27), “The first to come to Zion [will announce], ‘Behold, they are here,’ and I will send a herald for Jerusalem.” The Hebrew word for “Behold they are here” (Hinom – hey-nun-mem) is also an accrostic for the three voices that Moshe heard when he entered the mishkan – hadar (“harmonious”), naeh (“pleasant”), and meshubach (“praiseworthy”). Moreover, R’ Shapira tells us that they corresponded to the three leaders of the generation, Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. Miriam represented the soul level of nefesh among the Jews as well as the voice that was “harmonious” (hadar). Aharon represented the soul level of ruach, which was described by the “pleasant” (naeh) voice. And Moshe corresponded to the third soul level, neshama, and the voice described as “praiseworthy” (meshubach).
Furthermore, R’ Shapira tells us that the three voices correspond to the three vectors with which God creates and enlivens the world (chesed, gevura and tiferet), and to the three colors of the rainbow, and the three verses of the priestly blessings, and most of all to the three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
And that, says R’ Shapira is the secret of the verse (Lev 16), “With this (zot) Aharon may approach the holy chambers…” where this refers to the priestly garments. The word for “this” (zot) carries the gematria of 408, which just happens to be three times the gematria of “voice” (kol – 136). So, Aharon was able to approach the holy of holies in the tabernacle because he entered with zot – with the three voices mentioned earlier (“harmonious, pleasant, praiseworthy”) – and with the three forefathers; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In fact, the sages said that when Aharon entered the holy chambers, he did so accompanied by the three forefathers. Finally, R’ Shapira suggests that once the mishkan was set up, the Jews became a “complete vessel” (keli shalem), as indicated by the three Hebrew letters cuf-lamed-yud, standing for cohanim-levi’im-Yisraelim (the three types of Jews) and spelling the Hebrew word keli, or “vessel.” (In a Chasidic discourse from the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Maharash, he mentions that the river Prat (Euphrates) carries the gematria of 680, or five times kol (136). Prat is the river that “emerges from Eden and splits into four rivers.” The Rebbe Maharash (in Torat Shmuel 5629, page 316-17) points out that the word for “splits” – Yipared – is an acrostic for the four different levels of Torah study (pshat, remez, drosh and sod). However, perhaps we may also suggest that the five times kol represent the five levels of the soul).
Rabbi David Sterne is a prolific author on chassidic thought and has translated many of its seminal works. He resides in Israel and is the director of Jerusalem Connection. To read more of his work and to purchase his books visit http://www.jewishspiritualbook