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.

16th Ellul: the gates of repentance are always open

16 Ellul

In the introduction to “Orot haTeshuvah” (14:4), Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook writes: “The main reason for our failure to repent is that we do not believe how easy repentance can be”. He notes: “On the one hand, repentance is a divine command that is so easy to perform because the mere intention to repent is already considered repentance. Yet, on the other hand, it is an extremely difficult commandment because the act of penitence is not complete until it has been executed thoroughly in the outside world and in our own lives”

Tradition teaches that the work of teshuvah has two different strands. In Elul the focus is on the teshuvah known as “bein adam l’havero” – between people. When we reach Yom Kippur, that work is meant to have been done, we have reflected on our behaviour and made sincere apologies; where we can we have righted wrongs, or recompensed for them. Repairs have been made to the dislocated and torn relationships we have ignored or abused. We have sought forgiveness from those we have hurt, and we forgive those who seek our forgiveness for their hurt to us. This is important because Mishnah (Yoma 8:3) teaches:  “For the transgressions are between human and the divine, Yom Kippur atones; for the transgressions that are between human and human, Yom Kippur does not atone until one has appeased the other.” (Yoma 8.3)

The personal acts of atonement between human beings are the most critical for us – when we come to Yom Kippur the liturgy – with its collections of confessions, of reflections, of warnings and welcomings –will take us on a different path.

But the best guidance comes – as so often – from Maimonides. The process of Teshuvah is logical and clear for him. First we must reflect and think about what we have done. Then we must actively regret our actions, and move towards the other in order to repair the damage and apologise with sincerity. After that is the requirement that we reject our own behaviour, resolving to no longer choose to act as we have done before. We will behave differently when faced with the same opportunity to sin as before.

Rav Kook had it right – it is both extremely easy and extremely difficult to perform teshuvah. How we act in the world may not always match up with our intentions, and that is painful to acknowledge. But it is interesting to me that teshuvah is one of the seven things said by the rabbis to have been created before the world was created. It means that built into our humanity is the expectation that we will make mistakes, behave selfishly or meanly or thoughtlessly. Yet teshuvah is always available – as the midrash tells us (Midrash Rabbah, Devarim) “ Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto You in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.”

Or in the words of Franz Kafka “Only our concept of time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session”  (Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way 1917-1929).

The opportunity is ever present that we can become our better selves small act by small act as the days go by. The month of Elul may prompt us, but every day is an opportunity for teshuvah – and we should take it.

 

 

 

 

A talk given at Stand Up to Racism, Unite against Fascism

Michael Rosen wrote a poem called Fascism: I sometimes fear…

“I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 

worn by grotesques and monsters

as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 

It will restore your honour, 

make you feel proud, 

protect your house, 

give you a job, 

clean up the neighbourhood, 

remind you of how great you once were, 

clear out the venal and the corrupt, 

remove anything you feel is unlike you…

 It doesn’t walk in saying, 

“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

I am the child of a man displaced in childhood by the holocaust, the grandchild of a man who died from the results of his treatment in Dachau, a member of a family dislocated from its various places of origin, washed up as refugees a number of times in recent history. My known and documented roots go back in over 600 years to Byeloruss, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, France and Spain, and each time the family story of leaving is one of trying to escape irrational ethnic and religious hatred with only a handful of possessions to start again.

One thing I have learned is that history does repeat itself, and that much as we may protest ‘never again’, the reality is that genocides continue, that racism continues, that hatred for the other continues. I am not a believer in the idea that the more we explain why we shouldn’t be doing it, the more people will stop doing it. It doesn’t happen in campaigns to promote healthy behaviour; it doesn’t help in campaigns against damaging behaviours.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Essentially this 5th Century Document collecting much earlier traditions is telling us that baseless hatred of the other is worse than the three most appalling behaviours it can imagine, all put together – and it destroys everything of value if we allow it to take root.

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, commented on this teaching : “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. (Orot HaKodesh v.3)

It is one of his most famous teachings and is often quoted – if we only treat the world with love that has no base in reason but is simply freely offered, then we will rebuild it and challenge the irrational hatred by our love for the other.

But there is something rather deeper in his work that is not as often explained. He asks why it is that people have an unreasonable and irrational hatred of the other, and goes on to explain that is not, as we commonly assert, because of the behaviour of the other, but the reason and source of our hatred is firmly rooted in our own selves. All of our own selves.

He teaches that while we may give ourselves reasons for why we do not trust others, or hate them, (their clothing, their cooking, their keeping themselves to themselves, their strange belief system, whatever….) actually these are simply created to comfort ourselves and to distract ourselves from a hard truth.

The source of our hatred comes, he teaches, from our own fundamental life force, which is both the important force for our growth and development, and which we need in order to flourish and to thrive – but which is also an important element in our desire to survive, and hence it opposes everything that it experiences as different and therefore potentially threatening to our own ability to succeed in life. In other words, our baseless hatred of the other is inherent in our humanity, a perversion of a necessary trait for our survival.

At first sight this is dispiriting, but it is not impossible to deal with once we decide to recognise it. For the reality is that the fear or hatred of the other which fuels all the racism we see in the world, shares a root with our life force, which includes the love of life, the desire to thrive, to live in a good and nurturing world. They are two sides of one coin, and it is possible to transmute the hatred by seeing the good in what we default to as negative or dangerous, by seeing the humanity in the other.

Elsa Cayet was the only woman killed at Charlie Hebdo, killed because she was Jewish, albeit not a conventionally practising Jew, and while she was not religiously observant, she followed in the tradition of challenging everything she encountered, and demanded an intellectual analysis and response.

Her final article, published posthumously in the magazine, declared:

“Human suffering derives from abuse. This abuse derives from belief—that is, from everything we have had to swallow, everything we have had to believe.”

The point she is making is that all too often we simply swallow the words of others, the perspectives that difference equals danger, or at least a different practise has less value than our way, a person not like us has less humanity than us. She goes on to remind the reader that we have to confront our primal fears and certainties, have to think about them, critique them, take responsibility for them, and not allow them to shape us, to sentence us to unthinking assumptions that may well lead us to hatred of the other.

I stand here, the child of a family whose paternal generations just before mine were almost entirely murdered, because of causeless hatred or indifference to suffering because of a refusal to see the ‘other’ as part of the same life force that supports everyone; whose maternal ancestry experienced the same hatred in other parts of the world in earlier times. I stand here a Rabbi who has worked within the Jewish community, active in interfaith work and intercommunity meetings, because, in part, one of my teachers truly believed (along with Rav Kook) that if we encounter the other in ordinary situations we begin to realise that their humanity is identical to ours, that the conclusion of our life force that difference is dangerous, cannot survive the meeting with such difference. I stand here to say that in our own lifetimes and our own towns and cities, the words “never again” are being drowned out once more by fear and hatred of people who are swallowing the beliefs of their deepest survival instincts without any examination of them. And we must speak out. We must insist that we look for the good, for the shared humanity, rather than focus on the different and see only that which scares us. We must demand that the values of Life – of a commitment to freedom, of valuing difference and diversity, of the inclusion of all peoples in our society, of causeless love rather than causeless hatred take precedence in our worlds.

We stand together against all who cause divisiveness amongst our communities, who shout a rhetoric of hatred, who use the fears and anxieties of people against us and our shared interest. And we stand together against those who seek to control the hatred for their own interests. Let us take on board the teaching of Rav Kook and remind ourselves that we can neutralise the damage working together with causeless love.

Talk Given at Stand up to Racism event at House of Commons 29th January 2015