May God's Face Be Lifted Unto You...
Parshat Naso 5778

Artwork by Joel Amit

The blessing known as Birkat Kohanim / "The Priestly Blessing" is one of the best known and most powerful blessings in the Torah. There is much to say about this blessing, but I would like to focus on one expression in the third and final line of the blessing. 

יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ .  
May God raise up His face to you.

What does it mean for God to raise up His face to you?

First of all, many translations of the text render panim as countenance, which is another way of saying face, but can also mean "support." Did the translation mean to indicate that the expression -- "raise His face" means, "May God support you"? Translation is, after all, an interpretation of the text, and this helps to explain the anthropomorphic language as merely figurative language. So, if we are not intended to understand these words literally, what does the blessing mean when it says, "May God lift up His face/countenance to you"? 

Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (Spanish biblical commentator and philosopher of the Middle Ages) offers the following comment:

Ibn Ezra
May God raise his face to you... [this is] the opposite (meaning) of hiding his eyes from you... and the reason is that no matter where you will turn, God's "face" (panim) will be raised towards you.

Ibn Ezra does something remarkable in his understanding of this blessing. He turns the blessing around in order to understand it in terms of "our" human perspective. That is, he shifts the focus from God's action / perspective to our own action / perspective. This blessing, then, speaks about God in relation to whatever direction we might turn or we might choose. If we think about this in a purely literal manner, then, we are speaking about God's "looking upon or after us," no matter where we go physically... but since this is metaphorical language, it can also be understood as God will not "turn his back" on us, no matter which path we choose. We sometimes come to a "crossroads" in life and must choose to "turn right or left" -- according to Ibn Ezra, no matter what we choose, this blessing prays that God will lift his eyes unto us, that is, that God will not turn his back on us. 

It is interesting to note that the Parashah (weekly Torah portion) is called "Naso," which literally means "lift" in the commanding sense, but clearly indicates counting as it is part of the expression, Naso et Rosh, "count the head[s]." It is a beautiful thought to think that God does not "count" us as though we were mere numbers, but actually takes the time to "lift up our heads"! We might understand this as God truly "seeing" us or lifting a head that has been brought low or a person who is distraught. In the case of this verse, yisa et panav, the "lifting" is not of a human head but of God's face (panim), which in the Hebrew is a plural noun! The Hebrew word for face, then, sees the face as multifaceted and might indicate that God's countenance should be understood in a more infinite sense. 

I think it is worthwhile to note that the root נשא (lift) is generally understood in the positive sense as in the Hebrew word for marriage nisuin, which connotes that our most intimate relationship "lifts us"; here too, in the case of the Priestly Blessing, perhaps we can infer that we are blessing others that they might sense an intimacy or uplift in their relationship with God. The idea that God is looking over us everywhere we go and no matter what we do and that God's lifted countenance intimates God's everlasting love for us is a very comforting thought and a beautiful blessing to bestow upon our children on Shabbat, or on any day.

Shabbat Shalom 


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