What is the real meaning of love? And why is it that the Priest-Kohanim, the ministers of the Holy Temple and Torah teachers of the nation, must administer their priestly benediction “with love”? What has “love” to do with their specific leadership role?
In our biblical portion, the Almighty tells Moses to command Aaron (the High Priest-Kohen) and his sons, “… So shall you bless the children of Israel: Say to 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 6:22-27).
This priestly benediction was a regular part of the daily Temple service. To this very day, here in Israel, every morning during the repetition of the Amidah, the descendants of Aaron bestow this blessing upon the congregation. Prior to blessing the congregation, the Priest-Kohanim recite the following benediction; “Blessed are You, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron, and commanded us to bestow a blessing upon His nation Israel with love”. What is the significance 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 blessing?
A Midrash asks why the command to bless Israel is prefaced by the words “say to them”. It answers that this teaches that the Cantor, the representative of the congregation who repeats the Amidah for all the congregants, must say each word of the benediction, which is then repeated word by word by the Priest-Kohen (Midrash Sifrei 6, 143).
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). This implies 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. Rashi adds that the Hebrew amor is spelled in the longest and fullest form possible, in order to teach us that the Priest-Kohen “must not bestow his blessing hastily 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, meaning with love!
Our G-d is a G-d of unconditional love, both before and after we sin, thus, the very opening of the Ten Commandments, G-d’s introduction to His Revelation of His laws, is “I am the Lord who took you out of the Land of Egypt, the House of bondage”. The Almighty is telling His nation that by taking them out of difficult straits of Egyptian slavery, He removed our pain thus demonstrating His love for us! It is almost as if he is explaining that His right to command them is based upon His having demonstrated His love for them.
A religious wedding ceremony is fundamentally a ritual acceptance of the mutual responsibilities of husband and wife. The marriage document, or Ketubah, is all about the groom’s financial obligations to his bride. And 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 telling us that there can be no real love without the assumption of responsibility; when I declare my love for you, I must take a certain degree of responsibility for easing your life and sharing your challenges.
The Hassidic Rebbe, Reb Zushia told of how inspired he was by a marvelous conversation he overheard between two drunks at an inn. “I love you, Igor”,said one drunkard to the other. “You don’t love me”, said his friend. “I do love you,” protested the first. “You don’t love me,” insisted Igor. “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 Igor. “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 based on the Aramaic word for giving. The Kohen-Priest who is a Jewish teacher and a Jewish leader, simultaneously functions as the agent of the Almighty and of the nation. He must take responsibility for his nation, he must attempt to “brand” them with G-d’s name, with G-d’s love, and with G-d’s justice. He must communicate with his nation, symbolized by the cantor or shaliah tzibbur, he must know what hurts his nation and what his nation needs, and then he must actively try to assuage that pain while raising the nation closer to the realm of the Divine. In short, he must love his people and take responsibility for them, as the benediction before the blessing explains so very well!
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 continue to engage us when we are awake are dreams of love and passion, such as the return to Zion which was “as in a dream” (Psalms 126:1). Dreams, as loves, are the beginning of responsibility, a responsibility which often means struggle and even war. Kohen-Teachers must love their student-congregants and take responsibility for them teaching them likewise to take responsibility for each other and for the dream. Only then will our dreams and G-d’s dreams be one dream: the perfection of the world, Tikkun Olam.
WATCH Rabbi Riskin’s commentary to Parshat Naso: “G-d looking up to Man? — The Priestly Blessing of Peace”
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.