A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Naso 5766
June 10, 2006 14 Sivan 5766
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow
At the heart of Parashat Naso stands the text of the priestly blessing. Numbers chapter 6, verse 22–26 relates, "The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: The Lord bless you and protect you! The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! The Lord bestow God's favor on you and grant you peace!" The text of this benediction is known as birkat kohanim, the blessing of the priests. It is best known in the context of the priestly service called dukhenen. As Philip Birnbaum describes it, "those of priestly descent remove their shoes, wash their hands, and ascend the platform in front of the ark. Then they face the congregation and, with fingers stretched in a symbolic arrangement underneath the tallith covering their face, they repeat the priestly blessing word for word after the hazzan" (Birnbaum, A Book of Jewish Concepts, 113). While the widespread Israeli synagogue tradition is to regularly dukhen during the reader's repetition each day, the Diaspora practice tends to limit dukhening to the Musaf service during High Holidays and festivals. And quite often, this much anticipated tradition is entirely omitted in many Conservative congregations out of a sense of the doubtful nature of many individuals' priestly lineage, the perceived demand of egalitarianism, and a sense that many kohanim (as many laypeople) are not moral and ethical role models worthy of serving as the instruments of blessing. The content and the context of the blessing, however, give us pause to reconsider this omission.
In a wonderfully insightful essay entitled, "The Priestly Blessing and Social Harmony," Professor Aryeh Arazi of Bar Ilan University connects the substance of the benediction to the introductory blessing that is recited by the priests. The blessing over the recitation of the blessing finds its source in Sotah 39a: "What blessing do the Priests say [before they offer God's blessing]? Rabbi Zeira said in the name of Rav Hisda: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, who sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron and commanded us to bless God's people with love." Focusing on the closing phrase of the blessing, Arazi questions the significance of "with love." Why is love central to this blessing, and how does it shape our understanding of this ritual? Arazi turns our attention to the Be'er Heitev on the Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 128:11, which comments, "The reason that we say "in love" is because it is written in the Zohar that in a case in which a priest does not love the people or the people do not love the priest, the priest should not participate the public blessing." Love and harmony must exist between the priests and the community to realize the potential for blessing; without such love, a profound silence stands between the people and their representative, making both the community and its "leader" incapable of receiving blessing.
Too often, it is such acrimony which divides the klei kodesh, the clergy, from their communities. And as a result, both are denied any sense of blessing. The goal of attaining love and harmony in one's community is not some "pie in the sky" messianic dream, but a worthy, realistic goal to aspire towards. Thus, the priestly blessing potentially serves a sacred function — reminding us of this worthy endeavor. Blessing derives from God, neither from priests nor other humans. If we are to be worthy of such divine blessing, then it is love and communal peace that must be cultivated.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz