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FIRST WORDS

by Joshua Hartman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"May G-d bless you and protect you. May G-d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you. May G-d bestow favor upon you and grant you peace"(Numbers 6:24-26).

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"May G-d bless you and protect you. May G-d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you. May G-d bestow favor upon you and grant you peace"(Numbers 6:24-26).

These three phases are found in this week's Torah portion. They are recited twice during our daily prayers and additionally on festivals and fast days when they are iterated an extra time during the mussaf (additional) and mincha (afternoon) services respectively. During the services, these phrases are mentioned during the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer. Interestingly though, the verses are first expressed prior to this time, each morning before beginning the Shacharit (morning) service.

First we recite the Birkat HaTorah, the blessings on the mitzvah of studying Torah. As with all mitzvot, we immediately fulfill the mitzvah, in this instance by studying a few words of Torah prior to the beginning of the prayers. One might suggest the first words of Torah with which we start the day should be the words of the fundamental Shema prayer, the Ten Commandments, or perhaps those words that instruct us of the mitzvah to study Torah; however, this is not the case. Actually, the first words of Torah that we speak each and every day are the words of the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing), the three verses cited above.

Rebbe Nachman, a great Chassidic Torah scholar of the late 18th century, uses the following verse from Lamentations to teach a lesson: "From out of the mouth of the One above comes neither good nor evil" (3:38). This is to say, each day Hashem provides His creations with a new opportunity; a fresh chance to lead a life in either an honorable or disgraceful fashion. He leaves to each individual an opportunity to decide his own fate, which is the result of the cumulative direction that his desires, thoughts, statements, and actions take over the course of his day and life.

The sages point out that the Torah can be an elixir of life or a potion of death depending upon whether or not the person is "zocheh meritorious." When a child is born we wish that he should be zocheh to grow up to a life of Torah, marriage, and good deeds. In the context presented here though, zocheh refers not only to the merits of a person, but also relates to the word zikvah, meaning "purification," or "cleansing." The relevance of this connection, Rebbe Nachman teaches, is that a person must cleanse himself of obsessions and infatuations relating to the mundane and unspiritual, in order to successfully promote the ways of Hashem. The more successful he is in this process, the more beautiful Hashem's light becomes.

This is why we start our day with the Birkat Kohanim. The priests are meant to be exemplars of purity. The recitation of the blessing they give creates and channels Hashem's Torah into fitting vessels. Our recitation of these three verses serves to remind us of (1) how we want the commandments of Hashem's Torah to be realized; and (2) how we ought to conduct ourselves in order that the wishes and commandments of His Torah may be achieved.

We want Hashem's light, both as it is perceived through Torah study and as it is concretized in the physical world, to be for the best possible good. We want to present ourselves to others in a way that truly exemplifies the dignity and holiness of G-d's Torah. Only in this way will we accomplish our parallel goals of being a light to other nations as well as a kiddush Hashem, sanctification of G-d's name.

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Joshua Hartman, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, resides on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

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