The Priestly Blessing: "With Love"

Torah from Efrat, Gush Etzion, in the Judean hills.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,

So shall you bless the children of Israel: Say unto them, ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; May the Lord lift His face towards you and grant you peace.’ And they shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 7:23-27).

What is the real meaning of love?

And why is it, as will be explained further on, that the Priest-Kohen in Israel, the ministers of the Holy Temple and the Torah teachers of the nation, must administer their priestly benediction “with love”?

And what has “love” to do with the specific leadership role assumed by the Priest-Kohanim?

Our Biblical portion has the Almighty tell Moses to command Aaron [the High Priest – Kohen] and his sons, “… So shall you bless the children of Israel: Say [Amor, in Hebrew] unto them, ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; May the Lord lift His face towards [forgive] you and grant you peace.’ And they shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them” (Numbers 7:23-27).

This Priestly Benediction was a regular part of the daily service in the Holy Temple, and the descendants of Aaron to this very day bestow this blessing upon the congregation every morning during the repetition of the Amidah (in the Diaspora, Ashkenazi synagogues include the Priestly Benediction only during Festival services).

The Priest - Kohanim themselves recite the following introductory blessing to the benediction they bestow upon the assemblage: “Blessed art thou O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron, and has commanded us to bestow a benediction upon His Nation Israel with love.”

What is the meaning of these last two words, “with love”? And if the priest-Kohen does not feel love in his heart for every member of the congregation, does this disqualify his benediction? Is there any other commandment which has a “love” requirement for its fulfillment?

There seem to be two superfluous words in the passage of the priestly benediction which may point towards the solution of our problem. “So shall you bless the children of Israel, Say (amor, Hebrew) unto them…;” (Numbers 6:23) why “say unto them”?

The Midrash teaches that the cantor, - the representative of the congregation who repeats the Amidah for all the congregants, especially for those who may not know how to pray - must first say each word of the benediction, which is then repeated word by word by the Priest - Kohen (Midrash Sifrei 6, 143).

The classical commentator Rashi points out that the Hebrew amor (say) is vocalized with a kametz, as in zakhor (Remember the Sabbath day, Remember the day you came out of Egypt), not the usual vocalization of an imperative form; the “kametz” usually means an active form of the verb, as in remembering the Sabbath by our weekly repetition of the Divine primordial week of creation in which we too actively work for six days and creatively rest on the Sabbath, or in our re-experiencing the Egyptian servitude and exodus on the Seder night. Apparently the Kohen-priest must “actively” bless.

And Rashi further comments that the Hebrew amor is written in the fullest form possible in order to tell us that the priest-Kohen “must not bestow his benediction hastily or in a hurry, but rather with intense concentration and with a full (loving) heart” (Rashi, ad loc).

There is even a French, Hassidic interpretation of the word which claims that the Hebrew – amor is akin to the French amour, which means with love!

A few more insights surrounding the Torah’s understanding of love will enable us to understand these commentaries. Our G-d is described as a G-d of unconditional love, both before and after we sin, who bestows love with no strings attached (Y-HVH, Rahum, Hanun). The very opening of the Ten Commandments, G-d’s introduction to the revelation of His laws, is “I am the Lord who took you out of the Land of Egypt, the House of Bondage.”

In effect, the Almighty is telling his nation that He took them out of difficult straits (metzarim, akin to the Hebrew Mitzraim, Egypt means narrow straits). He demonstrated His love for them by acting on their behalf to remove their pain! It is almost as if he is explaining His right to command them based upon His having demonstrated His love for them.

A further point: our religious wedding ceremony is fundamentally a ritual of the acceptance of responsibility, husband to wife and wife to husband. The marriage document, or Ketubah, is all about the groom's financial responsibility to the bride. Yet, our Talmudic sages teach us that the young couple must love each other in order to get married, that the over-arching basis for every wedding ceremony is “You shall love your friend like yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The nuptial blessings refer to bride and groom as “loving and beloved friends” (B.T. Kidushin, 41a). Our sages are teaching us that there can be no real love without the assumption of responsibility; if I declare my love for you, I must take a certain degree of responsibility for easing your life and sharing your challenges.

Reb Zusia (the brother of the great Rav Elimelekh of Lizhensk, known as the second Baal Shem Tov) told of a marvelous conversation he overheard at an inn between two drunks. “I love you, Yvonne,” said one drunkard to the other. “You don’t love me,” said his friend. “I do love you,” repeated the first. “You don’t love me,” insisted Yvonne. “How do you know that I don’t love you?” shouted the first in exasperation. “Because you can’t tell me what hurts me,” answered Yvonne. “If you can’t tell me what hurts me, you can’t try to make it better. And if you don’t try to make it better, you certainly don’t love me.”

Love and responsibility are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, the very Hebrew word ahavah is built upon hav, the Aramaic word for giving. The Kohen - Priest is a Jewish teacher and a Jewish leader, the agent of the Almighty and the agent of the nation at one and the same time. He must take responsibility for his nation, he must attempt to “brand” his nation with G-d’s name, with G-d’s love, with G-d’s justice.

He must communicate with his nation, symbolized by shaliah tzibbur (cantor). He must know what hurts his nation and what his nation needs, and then he must actively try to assuage that hurt and lift up the nation closer to the realm of the Divine. In short, he must love his people and take responsibility for them as the blessing before the benediction explains so very well!

Post Script

The Sages of the Talmud ordained that at the time of the priestly benediction, the congregation should think of their dreams - individual and corporate, crying out “Master of the Universe, I am yours and my dreams are yours…” The Hebrew word dream, halom, has the same letters as hamal, love, compassion, as well as laham, fight, struggle, wage war.

Dreams which involve us when we are awake are dreams of passion, dreams of love, as the return to Zion was as in a dream.

Dreams, as loves, are the beginning of responsibility, a responsibility which often means struggle and even war. Teachers must give their pupils a dream, must love their pupils, must take responsibility for them and must teach them to take responsibility for each other and for the dream. Only then will our dream and G-d’s dream be one dream: the perfection of the world, Tikkun Olam.