Naso. Birkat Cohanim – we are commanded to bless God’s creation with love

Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua was once asked by his disciples: To what do you attribute your longevity? He said to them: In all my days, I never made a shortcut [kappendarya] through a synagogue. Nor did I ever stride over the heads of the sacred people, i.e., I never stepped over people sitting in the study hall in order to reach my place, so as not to appear scornful of them. And I never lifted my hands for the Priestly Benediction without first reciting a blessing. The Gemara asks: What blessing does the priests recite before the benediction? Rabbi Zeira says that Rav Ḥisda says: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and commanded us to bless Your people, Israel, with love.  (BT Sota 39a)

This blessing is unique in its formulation. The Cohanim (priesthood) are commanded to perform the blessing with intentional and conscious love. While there are three commandments to love in Torah To “love your neighbour as yourself”(Leviticus 19:18); To “love the stranger as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34); and “You shall love the Eternal your God for all your heart, soul and strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4), there is no other blessing over a commandment that requires us to perform it “with love”

Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik  taught that this blessing, recited by the Kohanim prior to their delivering God’s Birkat Kohanim to God’s People, has much to teach us with its unique commandment to bless God’s people Israel with love. Rav Soloveitchik explains that this is not a blessing on the mitzvah per se “but it is a desire for the Priestly Blessing to be accompanied by love.”

He notes that the commandment of Birkat Cohanim has two separate parts – there is “the  transmission of a direct blessing from God” as the priests speak the words and God blesses the people and there is also  hashra’at ha-Shechinah (the manifestation of God’s presence).”

In effect, when the  Birkat Kohanim is recited, there “is a direct meeting with the Shechinah that presents us with an intimate encounter in which we come [so to speak] face to face with God.” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Darosh Darash Yosef: Discourses of Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik on the Weekly Parashah)

Unlike any other prayer or any other benediction, this ancient text of threefold blessing, given in community yet addressed in the singular to each and every person,  has the power to eradicate the distance between the people and God. And so, says Rav Soloveitchik, we are reminded to enact it with intentional and deliberate love.

When Moses is told to tell Aaron about the giving of this blessing, the text is clear. The priests will say the words, but the blessing is to come directly from God. This is why the Cohanim uttering the words do not have to be deeply righteous or saintly people necessarily – they are only the vessels through which the blessings come.  On ascending the bimah to give the blessing they become faceless, their heads covered by their tallit they neither look directly at the people nor do the people look directly at them. Their role overrides any personal history at this moment.

And yet – this is more than those of Aaronic descent being the conduit for a divine blessing. As Rav Soloveitchik understands the event, they are not only conveying the divine blessing but they are re-enacting hashra’at ha-Shechinah – literally creating an immediate and intimate encounter between God and the Jewish people.

By doing this with intentional love, it seems to me that the Cohanim are taking on something of the role or characteristic of the Divine.  Unconditional love, deliberate and intentional love, is a pre-requisite of the ceremony. Regardless of who is saying the words of blessing, regardless of the actions and choices of each of the individuals receiving those words of blessing, the bond is formed through loving acceptance of the other.

The word for love used in the blessing “ahavah” is first used in the narrative the Akedah, when God speaks to Abraham of his son Isaac “the one you love” before testing that love to the limit. Ahavah seems to be used biblically across a full spectrum of loving feelings – from parental love to sensual love to loving friendship to spiritual love.  All use the verbal root alef hey beit.

The mystical tradition notes that the numerical value of ahavah (love) and echad (one) are the same – 13, and that the verse that precedes the command us to love God ends with the word “Echad” – describing the unity of God – a verse best known as the first line of the shema.

From this comes the idea that perceiving unity is the ultimate objective of love, and that love both brings the understanding that not only God is One, but creation too is connected and makes up one whole – even while we tend to note diversity and difference more frequently than we note unity and similarity.

So why are we commanded to love God? Because loving God – who is unified and whole – should cause us to love Creation – which is unified and whole. Loving God means we have to love people – all people, regardless of whether we might find them appealing or appalling, regardless of whether they are “of us” or are different from us.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b)  tells us that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel was a direct result of sinat chinam –  causeless hatred.  Rav Abraham Isaac Kook famously wrote that to rebuild Israel we would have to cultivate ahavat chinam – causeless love.

Causeless love is the requirement in the blessing before Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing. It is the only time we say the blessing to fulfil a mitzvah with these words. We need to nurture and cultivate the ability to causeless love for the other, not because this makes us fit to be the conduit for God’s blessing in the world, but because this makes us able to bring God’s presence into the world.

As Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your neighbour as yourself is the foundational principle (klal gadol) of Torah”.   He was not talking about love as feelings, nor as something to be earned or deserved, but to treat other human being with respect, with justice, with awareness that they too are part of the Unity that God has created, that they are part of us as we are part of them.

In this time of increasing polarisation, of rising anxiety and tensions, of spewing hatred in social media and on our streets, it is time to remember the unique formulation of blessing before enacting hashra’at ha-Shechinah, trying to bring God into the world; time to remember and be intentional knowing that God commands us to treat God’s people with love.

Vayishlach: a kiss or a bite, it is all in the reading of it

וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו [צַוָּארָ֖יו] וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:

“And Esau ran to meet him and he embraced him and he fell upon his neck and he kissed him and they wept.”

Francesco_Hayez_061  jacob and esau

In the Torah scroll, the word “vayisha’kei’hu” – “And he kissed him” has a scribal marking – six dots carefully placed over it, drawing our attention and demanding we question the text. But what is the question being asked? Is it that there is an extra word that should not be there? Is the word to be read differently – not “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישקיהו     and he kissed him” ,but “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישכיהו   and he bit him”.   Same sound, but one root letter difference changes everything – from the kiss of reconciliation after years of estrangement, to the betrayal of vulnerability and friendship instead. The midrash plays on this to say that Esau had attempted to bite Jacob’s neck but at the last minute it was turned hard as marble and so his evil intention to destroy his brother was foiled.

Jacob and Esau had struggled even before they were born, causing their mother Rebecca enough pain that she went to enquire of God about what was happening within her body. Each of them was favoured by a different parent, each of them had their own distinct personality: Esau a hunter and a man of the field, Jacob a man who liked to stay at home. If we look at the biblical texts about Esau without the lenses of rabbinic tradition and storytelling, we see a simple uncomplicated man who follows his powerful appetites, his huge physicality determining his behaviour. We see a man who loves his father and is admired by him. We see a man who stays local to his parents, marrying two Canaanite women, and who, when he realises that his parents are not happy with him marrying out of the family, marries the daughter of his uncle Ishmael, mistakenly believing that this is a choice which will please them.

After his brother Jacob had run away from his furious anger having cheated him of their blind father’s covenant blessing, Esau stays near home, becomes wealthy, and settles with his large and prosperous household in Seir. When their father eventually dies Jacob has also come closer to home, having left Shechem and entered Canaan, finally coming home to Hebron. The two brothers buried their father together, the text telling us “and they buried him, Esau and Jacob his sons” (Gen 35:29). It seems as if the reconciliation is complete.

And then we are told (Genesis 36:6)    וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו

And Esau took his wives and his sons and his daughters, and all the souls of his household, and all his flocks and his beasts and all he had acquired, which he had gathered in the land of Canaan, and he went to a land because of/ away from Jacob his brother. The bible goes on to tell us that the two brothers had too many animals between them to be sustained on the land together, and so Esau went to Mt Seir, the same is Edom. Rather as Abraham and Lot had separated earlier, in order to keep the tensions of their flocks and shepherds down, so here the twin sons of Isaac separate, and the one who leaves walks out of history. But it reads differently than the story between Abraham and his nephew – there is no recorded tension, no struggles between the shepherds, just the realisation that they each need to find their own space for their burgeoning families.

So why is Esau turned into Edom, into the paradigm for the enemy of the Jewish people when he seems to have overcome his ravening appetites, made something of his life, and made his peace with his twin brother sufficient for the two to mourn their father together? Why the need to draw attention to the kiss of reconciliation and by implication to suggest that not everything was as it seemed?

In rabbinic tradition Esau becomes the code name for the oppressor – Rome.

Rabbi Akiva (c50-135) first glosses the ambiguous statement of the blind Isaac at the time of the blessing of the firstborn son (when he says “The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau”) as being a description of the anguished voice of the Jews/Jacob crying out against oppression perpetrated against them by Rome/ the hands of Esau. And in the middle of the second century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai famously commented that “it is a Halachah/well established tradition that Esau hates Jacob” (Sifre Numbers 69).

It was a fairly clumsy cipher but it did the trick of being able to discuss their oppression and ways to counter it without the oppressors being too easily aware – at least for a time. By the time of Akiva’s student Shimon bar Yochai the Roman oppression was all consuming and he had to go into hiding to survive. No wonder then his belief that the implacable hatred of Rome for the Jews was somehow primal, a Halachah from Sinai, unquestionable and for ever.

But time moves on and we move with it. The power of Rome has long gone and what stays with us is the Biblical text and our obligation to encounter it and understand it in our generation. And in the biblical text Esau is not the figure of evil and hatred that he becomes in later tradition – indeed he is portrayed as running towards his brother to embrace him, they weep together (although this may be relief in the case of Jacob), Esau refuses the gifts Jacob offers to him in tribute. Essentially one might say that Esau has got over his anger. His personality of appetites and passions is sated with his own achievements, wealth and family. For him the fight over the birthright blessing is old news, finished business, dead and gone. The issue now is pragmatic- how do the two wealthy brothers with their large households and flocks and herds live on the land and support their needs? By separating of course, but coming together for the family rite of burial of their father. Esau walks out of history of his own volition, content with what he has.

So isn’t it time to stop the belief that there is a visceral and unquestionable hatred of us by the powers that line up to destroy us, and recognise that for sure there is anti-Semitism in the world, but that is not pre-ordained nor something we are powerless to engage with or combat. It is not primal truth that Esau hates Jacob; that Jacob has to duck and dive to survive. This is a model that has outlived its usefulness, a story that hampers us from proceeding with our lives. We will almost certainly encounter anti-Semitism, just as many of us will encounter other prejudices – against our gender or height or skin colour or sexuality. But this must be faced firmly and responsibly, engaged with, shown for what it is, protested against and other behaviour demanded. If Esau really kissed Jacob on his vulnerable smooth neck, (the part of him so unlike Esau Jacob had queried whether his father would know him by it) and if they had then parted on relatively reasonable terms and been able to come together to bury their father, then maybe we too can create a living peace, one that does not have to be passionate or entangled together, but respectful and honourable. And then maybe we can take those scribal marks off the scroll, and believe that reconciliation really is possible.

image of reconciliation of Jacob and Esau by  Francesco Hayez