Parshat Nasso: If You See Something, Say Something


In the story of Cain and Abel, we witness the brothers bringing offerings to their God:

“In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering but to Cain and his offering, He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face (countenance) fell.” [1]

This phrase, “his face fell,” means, “He was downcast, being ashamed, feeling that God had publicly shamed him.” [2] His countenance - his physical expression, appearance, and mental composure - hung limply. And so, as is the case with feeling sorry for oneself, it has the tendency to transmute into hatred. Rage. Resentment. Frustration. The angry apple doesn't fall far from the pity tree. Our sages explain: “[This] expression indicates that one feels inferior. Cain felt angry at the superiority achieved by his younger brother. He believed that this was the reason he had suffered a loss of image in the eyes of God.” [3] In fact, the author goes so far as to say, “When someone allows his anger to possess him, his soul withdraws. [4]

Having felt my own face melting off the bone and sinking onto the floor at times, the burning question that’s been on my mind is this: Whose responsibility was it to console Cain? Wouldn't it seem evident that someone probably should have stepped in after noticing he was visibly upset?! Called to check up? Adam or Eve? Abel even? Realistically, anybody could have supplied words of comfort. Relief. A hug even. C’mon people…

Yet, one could claim that Abel bore no responsibility. Zero obligation or duty. After all, he did nothing wrong! He brought his sacrifice, and God happened to like it better. What’s the big deal? Am I my brother’s keeper? Get over it Cain! Move on! But Cain just couldn’t. And recognizing what we know about psychological distress - depression and the array of associated mental health disorders - I’m unwilling to entertain the notion that Cain should have “picked himself up” by the bootstraps. Because sadness like his isn’t something that you can “just get over” by deciding that you are done being sad. That’s not how it works. Which is why God (not in fact a somebody), had to be the one to go to Cain and offer guidance and a blessing:

Surely, if you do right, There is uplift...
— Genesis 4:7

God says to Cain: “Hey champ. There’s still hope. Don’t give up yet. Go down the right path. Do the right things. There’s still uplift.” Kind of like the opposite of falling. Of feeling like the world is bottoming out under your feet. Of faces dragging on the dirt. Meaning, these two phrases, one dealing with dejection and the other with exaltation - support and consolation - capture the oldest idea in Torah: We are asked to be a nation of priests. Which means we cannot desist from offering blessings of courage and strength of heart to those in need. That is our role to play. Though Cain claimed that he wasn’t his brother’s keeper, in my humble opinion, Abel also wasn’t there when Cain needed someone. Anyone. Which brings us to a blessing that bears the weight of the entire story of Genesis: The Priestly Blessing. Factually, the earliest known citations of texts found in the Hebrew Bible! [5] In this week’s portion, parshat Nasso, we read:

“The LORD spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
May God bless you and protect you!
May God deal kindly and graciously with you!
May God lift up your countenance and grant you peace!” [6]

This phrase, “Lift up your countenance,” literally asking God to “lift faces up,” sounds similar to the countenance concerning Cain in Genesis. In fact, they’re exactly the same words! Concerning the last of the priestly blessing, Rashi goes so far as to allude to the same anger noted about Cain: “This expresses the idea: ‘May He suppress His anger.’” Further, the root of the word “lift up” just so happens to be the same Hebrew root as this week’s Torah reading *Parshat Nasso. As Nelly Altenburger explains, “If you look for it, you will find it 4 other times. As such, the point of this blessing, positioned in the middle of the portion, is to remind us that we lift each other when we bless each other with our presence and our words. May we remember to lift each other up.” [7]

But here’s the tricky thing about blessings. We can’t exactly bless ourselves. We can’t escape out of sadness alone. It takes two. We need allies. We need a “blesser.” (yes I just made that word up). A friend, neighbor, or family member to help lift our faces. I don’t think this verse is necessarily about asking God to make peace between us but within us. We ask those in our community to allow God to bestow peace in our hearts when we are down. That’s why it’s called “lifting someone up” in prayer. And so, as they say at the airport, “If you see something, say something.” Be a priest. Give someone a blessing today that needs it. Don’t withdraw. Jump in. Make someone’s day better.

[1] Genesis 4:3-5
[2] Ramban on Genesis 4:3:1
[2] Sforno on Genesis 4:5:3
[3] Or HaChaim on Genesis 4:5:1
[4] Or HaChaim on Genesis 4:5:3
[5] “Solving a Riddle Written in Silver” By John Noble Wilford Sept. 28th, 2004 NYT
[6] Numbers 6:22-26
[7] “Naso: What's in a blessing?” By Nelly Altenburger

Aaron Sataloff