“What are you doing when you’re hugging someone?” I listened to Rabbi David Aaron once ask. “You’re creating a space in yourself for somebody else. But you have to create that space in a way that, when you hug them, you don’t pin their arms down. You enable them to create a space in their life to include you.” A hug is a physical manifestation of an ideal love. Whole, independent selves join to create a more whole, collective self.
Rav Aaron likened that description of a hug to the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, translated as “restriction.” It refers to how we, humans with distinct identities, could exist in the face of God’s infinitude. If He is the Endless One, then how can He end with us? The answer is tzimtzum. Hashem restricted Himself, His ever-flowing light, to make space for “other”—us. The specifics of tzimtzum are debated within Kabbalistic tradition itself, namely whether it refers to a perceptual change (that we merely view ourselves as separate from Hashem) or a physical change (that we actually are separate from Hashem). Regardless, Rav Aaron’s above comparison stands firm. To create us, Hashem had to make space for us. That is how He hugs us.
Love’s essence is captured in the Divine embrace, the idea of tzimtzum. Its relevance, however, is not limited to Hashem alone. In Parshat Naso, Hashem commands the kohanim to bless the Jewish People in what is known as Birkat Kohanim. He charges them: “Thus shall you bless the people of Israel: ‘Hashem should bless and protect you! Hashem should shine His face upon you and be gracious to you! Hashem should bestow Divine favor and grant you peace!’” (Bamidbar 6:23-26). It’s a pretty valuable one.
Well known about this bracha is that it is not simply a mechanical act for the kohanim—it can’t be. The Zohar writes that a kohen who does not love the congregation or is not loved by them should not raise his hands to bless them (Naso 147b). In the siddur itself, this is almost explicit in the bracha recited by the kohanim before Birkat Kohanim. They say that Hashem “has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love.”
One point puzzling commentaries was why love became so fundamental to Birkat Kohanim. After all, must one channel love when making a bracha on an apple or blessing their child? There is nothing to suggest that to be the case. What is clear, however, is that love is intertwined with the kohen’s genealogy. As Hillel said, “Be like the disciples of Aharon: Love peace and pursue peace, love all people and near them to Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). The disciples of Aharon are ones who love people, cohesion, and love itself. How much more so for the descendants of Aharon?
Birkat Kohanim must come from something greater than a place of love—it must be a space of love. The Zohar makes clear that the kohen cannot merely love the congregation nor merely be loved by it. There is a relationship between he and the people. In Rav Aaron’s model, we might suggest there is a long, quiet embrace. The kohen must open himself to receive the congregation’s love, and once they are in his space, he must reciprocate that love. A place of love is one-directional. A space of love is multi-directional. Though we may not be kohanim ourselves, the idea is universal. Life can be a squeeze, a constriction, or it can be an embrace, a physical manifestation of shared love. Life should emerge and grow from a space of love.