Shabbat candles: 7:49 p.m.
Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25
Torah: Numbers 4:21 p.m.
Havdalah: 8:56 p.m.
Like many people, one of the fondest memories of childhood is being held in my father’s embrace while I stood under his tallis in shul as the kohanim blessed us. It is befitting that this blessing evokes such warmth as the essence of the blessing is love.
In the rabbinic blessing that the kohanim recite to God before blessing us (it is the only blessing on which a blessing is recited) they state that God commanded them to bless the people with love. Where did God command that? Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni suggests that love is a euphemism for God’s name, as it represents His essence, which is evoked in blessing the people.
Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook explains that a blessing is only successful if it is offered with love. This is borne out by the roots of this blessing: On the inaugural day of the Mishkan’s use, Aaron was filled with love and joy when he saw that the sacrifices he offered were accepted. His feelings overflowed and he blessed people. God said, in the merit of this initial and spontaneous blessing, Aaron’s descendants earned the merit of blessing the people throughout the generations. It is not a coincidence that Aaron and those who followed him and his ways are described as “loving peace, and chasing after peace, loving mankind and bringing them close to Torah.” The foundation of this blessing is love.
Rabbi Moshe Isserlis ruled that the presiding kohanim must be good hearted. The Magen Avraham cites the Zohar saying that if a there is not love from the kohen to the people, and from the people to the kohen, then he should not bless them.
According to Maimonides, the kohanim say a prayer before the blessing, that their blessing be whole and free of sin. A possible pitfall could be if they think that it is they who are actually blessing the people, rather than God. The other flaw that can strike at their blessing is if the kohanim do not feel a complete love for the people they are blessing. A connection that is not deeply bound is not a full connection and cannot endure. The kohanim must truly feel as one with the people that they are blessing or the blessing will not flow forth.
The Jewish people are blessed in the singular, as if one person. In order for the blessing to be received, the people must be connected with one another and not just the kohanim who are procuring a blessing from God for them. This is another meaning of the pre-blessing imperative to bless the people with love. Besides having to bless lovingly, the kohanim pray for the community to be filled with a love that leads them to love each other as one so that the blessing can take hold. It is of interest that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for love — ahavah — and the Hebrew word for one — echad — are the same.
Aside from the blessing prior to the blessing, Maimonides also states that the priests ought to say a prayer following their blessing of the people: “We have done what You have decreed for us to do, now do with us as You have promised; look down from your holy dwelling and bless Your people Israel.”
The two key themes at the base of this command seem to be love and connection on the one hand, and on the other hand the recognition that this blessing comes from God and not from the kohanim. The connection between these two ideas may be that true love is rooted in having a small ego and recognizing the greatness of God and the spirit of God that rests in all people, all created in His image. Another link between these ideas is that the blessing will only come from God when He sees a true connection between His people.
May we merit feeling love for one another always, and particularly at the holy and beautiful time when we hold our children near and receive God’s blessing with love.
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah guidance and teacher at The Frisch School. He lectures on humor and other Jewish topics, performs stand-up, and is the author of “In The Field,” a collection of haiku. His writing can be found at rabbifleischmann.blogspot.com.