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.

Bein HaMetzarim: The Days of Distress to which we are still contributing

The three weeks that separate the fast of the 17th Tammuz, the date that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the 9th Av, the date on which we commemorate the destruction of both the first and second temple are known as “bein ha’metzarim – בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים – within the straits.” It is a phrase taken from the third verse of the book of Lamentations which speaks of the desolation of post destruction Jerusalem, and of the exile and wanderings of her surviving displaced people.

The three weeks have become a discrete period of time, characterised by mourning customs and by an increasing sense of danger, and have their own flavour and liturgical reminders – the three haftarot of rebuke which take us up to Tisha b’Av are related to the date rather than the Torah reading for example, and many Jews forgo eating meat or drinking wine and eat more simple meals. The idea is to immerse in the mourning, to give up the ordinary joys of good meals or new clothes. Instead we are supposed to be reflecting on our mortality, on the limited time we have to act in this world. We are supposed to be finding a way through all the busyness of life to the core business of being alive – to connect to each other and to the world, to make the world a better place for our being in it.

The quasi mourning customs for the three weeks increase in intensity up till Tisha b’Av itself, from 17th Tammuz till Rosh Chodesh Av, from Rosh Chodesh Av till the end of the 8th day, and then the black fast itself. There are different traditions in different parts of the Jewish community to signify the mourning period, but an awareness of the period of bein ha’metzarim thrums in the background. In a time of mourning for the unity and safety of the Jewish people in their ancestral and promised homeland we are all that bit more thoughtful, aware of each other and their sensitivities, aware of the Talmudic description (Yoma 9b) of sinat hinam – that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Jewish disunity and the baseless hatred the Jews of the time had for each other.

So here we are bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, the narrow straits of danger and fear where we are supposed to be reflecting on our own contributions to sinat hinam. And it comes as no real surprise that the disunity in Israel is growing, that the gap between rich and poor, haves and have nots, men and women, Jews and others, Haredim of all hats and footwear, Dati’im (people very strict in Jewish law) and those who have other ways of being a religious Jew, Religious and secular – the gap is widening; There is quite the opposite of a physical bein ha’metzarim growing in Israeli society – there is a gulf between people and peoples, but sadly the sinat hinam is still there and flourishing, contributing to that abyss that separates the human beings.

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the women of the wall went, as they do every Rosh Chodesh except that of Tishri, to pray at the foot of the wall that retains and supports the Temple Mount, the Kotel. They have been praying on Rosh Chodesh there, early in the morning, for over a quarter of a century. Women who come together from the very orthodox through the religious spectrum through to the cultural and feminist women who support their sister’s needs. For the last few months, having been forbidden to use a Torah scroll from the many that are kept at the Kotel, they have brought in their own. They have had to smuggle their scroll into the Kotel, as now no one is supposed to bring their own scroll for their own use, an exercise of power and control by the ultra-fundamentalist group currently in charge of the Kotel plaza. There is no religious meaning behind this rule – women can read from scrolls and do so all over the world.

And on Rosh Chodesh Av this year, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, a board member of Women of the Wall, was arrested not at the checkpoint, but after she had entered the Kotel Plaza with a scroll in her backpack. The arrest warrant reads: “The suspect was arrested on 17.07.2015. From her hands was confiscated a Torah scroll in the colours of blue and gold which was involved in the conducting of the crime. Also confiscated was an orange and grey rucksack.”

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the date on which the mourning intensifies for the nine days that lead to Tisha b’Av, a woman was arrested and handcuffed and taken to the police station at the Kotel, and the warrant also apparently arrested the Torah Scroll “which was involved in the conducting of the crime”

Words fail me at this point. We are truly bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, of narrow vision, of causeless hatred.

We managed, with the help of God, to leave Mitzraim – the place of slavery, the doubly narrow place, the slavery in Egypt. But having left Egypt and having returned to the Land, we have brought the narrowness of vision, the narrowness of self-interest, the narrowness of a failed empathy and imagination with us.

Will we be able to leave it again?

photo of Rachel Cohen Yeshurun with her arrest warrant taken from facebook wall of Women of the Wall Nashot haKotelrachel cohen yeshurun with her arrest warrant