This week’s parsha contains a number of exciting episodes. It details the sordid tale of the adulterous women, her fate and that of her illicit adulterer. It illustrates the rules and regulations of the nazir, one who has abstained from worldly pleasures by eschewing wine in addition to leaving his hair unshorn.
However, tucked away in the midst of the controversial episodes are the priestly blessings — five verses that shine an encouraging light in the midst of a difficult portion. Those verses contain the priestly blessings that are well known to many of us. “May Hashem bless you and keep you. May Hashem shine his countenance on you and be gracious to you. May Hashem lift his countenance upon you and establish you in peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)”
Less celebrated, however, are the verses that appear immediately before and after the actual blessings. “Thus shall you bless the children of Israel, speak to them.” What is the importance – even the meaning — of the extra words, “speak to them”? After Hashem charges the priests with the actual verses of blessing, He ends with an additional command. “Place My name upon the children of Israel and I shall bless them.” Again, the verse leaves us wondering – of course, it is Hashem that will bless them but what does His name have to do with it? Didn’t He just prescribe the formula? Why aren’t the three verses enough to spur G-d’s blessings?
A few months after moving to Woodmere, a lovely young Israeli couple with two young children moved next door to us. After conversing with them, my wife and I realized that in Israel they had not been the least bit observant of Jewish tradition. They had not even observed Yom Kippur, let alone kept Shabbat or kosher. It seemed that the reason they moved to America because Israel was becoming too Jewish for them. My wife and felt a responsibility to bring these fine people closer to the Torah, yet we also did not feel comfortable telling them about laws that they must have known about, but chose not to observe.
Fortunately in our neighborhood lived the great Rosh Yeshiva who brought thousands of people close to Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, of blessed memory. I explained our situation to him and basically asked him, “Rebbe, what do you in order to make someone frum (religious)?” He smiled and put his large hand on my shoulder. “Do absolutely nothing!” I stood shocked and confused as he continued. “Be a mentsch: Never miss a ‘good morning’ or a ‘good afternoon’. Make sure your lawn is neat and your children are well behaved. And just be friendly.” Then he quoted the words of our sages, ‘make sure that the name of Hashem is cherished through you.’
He paused, looked me in the eye, and proclaimed confidently, “follow that advice and you will not have to do a thing. They will get closer to the Torah.”
We followed his advice. We invited them for meals, and our children played together. I talked politics with him while my wife discussed gardening with her. We spoke about everything — except religion. I was therefore shocked, when, in October, our neighbors asked us where the closest synagogue was. They decided to go to shul for Yom Kippur. I was even more surprised when days later they asked for my help in building a Sukkah. I am sad to relate that recently we lost some very good neighbors. After 5 years of living in the US, they decided to move back to Israel. America was becoming too goyish (gentile) for them.
Before it enumerates the actual blessings, the Torah teaches us the true way to bless Jews – speak to them. The words, “speak to them” may be more important than the actual blessing. The saintly Chofetz Chaim charged my wife’s grandfather Rabbi Laizer Levin, who was Rabbi of Detroit for 50 years, with a simple message. “Laizer, gei rehd tzoo Yidden.” (Reb Laizer go and speak to Jews.) And the actual priestly blessings do not end much differently. “Place My name upon the children of Israel and I shall bless them.” (Numbers 6:27). When Hashem’s name is placed upon His nation, then blessing is sure to follow.
A smile, a hello, a Good Shabbos, or Shabbat Shalom may be the key to forging a different attitude to an otherwise skeptical Jew. To paraphrase a man who reached great heights, “One small word to man can produce giants for mankind.” The true blessing does not come from theological incantations; it comes from the simple smiles of the heart.
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.