Shabbat candles: 7:38 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus: 21:1-24:23
Shabbat ends: 8:43 p.m.
“And he [the Kohen] shall be sanctified” [Leviticus 21:8].
I have long been fascinated by the blessing recited by the kohanim (priests) as they call upon God to bless the Jewish people: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and commanded us to bless His nation Israel with love.”
Does this introduction to the Priestly Benediction imply that the kohen must discharge his blessing with love in his heart for every single Jew, or at least for every Jew in the congregation? Should we then test the kohen before he stands in front of the Holy Ark to bless us, asking him whether, indeed, he loves everyone?
I have suggested that the words “with love” do not refer to the kohen who is giving the blessing, but rather to the content of the blessing itself. The kohen is asking the Almighty to grant His nation material success (“May He bless you and preserve you”), Divine forgiveness and grace (“May He lift His face upon you and be gracious to you”), and — as the climax — love of every Jew by every Jew (“And grant you peace”).
Peace in this context refers to internal peace, like the freely given love between siblings (ahavat hinam) rather than the freely given hatred (sinat hinam), which leads to the internal strife that has constantly plagued our nation. However, since the word in the blessing is “peace” rather than “love,” it would seem that the benediction is concluding with peace from our enemies rather than a cessation of internal squabbling.
To understand this introduction to the benediction, it is necessary to understand the precise function of the kohanim. Yes, they ministered in the Temple, but that was only for two weeks a year. Since they did not own any land in Israel and lived off the sacrificial and tithe offerings of the nation, what did this elite class do the rest of the time?
Just before Moses died, he blessed the tribe of Levi, which included the kohanim as its most prominent constituency: “They shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel” [Deuteronomy 33:10]. In this week’s haftara, Ezekiel further defines the priestly function: “And they shall teach My nation the difference between the holy and the profane, and inform them as to what is ritually impure and what is pure. And in a controversy, they shall stand in judgment; they shall judge in accordance with My laws, and they shall safeguard My teachings and My statutes and all of My festival days of meeting, and they shall sanctify my Sabbaths” [Ezekiel 44:23-24].
The kohen, therefore, was responsible for safeguarding the Torah. He served as the educator and religio-legal judge. It is for this reason that he had no other responsibilities such as working the land or providing for his family. His task was to be a teacher and judge, ensuring that Torah observance remains the hallmark of the Jewish people.
The greatest blessing that God has given us is the Torah, which defines our national mission and is the secret of our eternity. The kohen was the source of this Torah blessing, the communicator of the Torah message during Temple times. Undoubtedly, a nation imbued with Torah will be eternally strong and illuminating. However, that Torah must be a Torah of love, a Torah that expresses the will of God who is a “force of compassion, freely given love, long-suffering, filled with loving kindness and truth.”
This is why the kohen must teach Torah and make religio-legal judgments, which define Torah with love. A Torah which worries exclusively about the purity of Israel while disregarding the hapless aguna, a woman chained to an impossible marriage; a Torah which sets up picayune road blocks to the convert, totally oblivious to the fundamental command “and you shall love the proselyte,” displays the very antithesis of that love with which the kohen must bless his people.
Hence, the most important phrase in the introduction to the Priestly Benediction is indeed the words “with love.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and the chief rabbi of Efrat.