BS”D By Briah Cahana June 5, 2020
In honor of my grandfather, Rabbi Moshe HIllel Cahana, z”l, a civil rights activist who passed away on Shabbat Naso, May 29, 2004
How do we uplift each other in the middle of what feels like a series of chaotic tohu va’vohu moments, caught between a global pandemic and racial violence, protests and riots that have taken center stage in the United States and further? Just last week, we celebrated the quintessential moment of receiving the Torah (lukhot) from God at Sinai, a scene that also recalls a type of pandemonium, lehavdil. In that moment, the Israelites beseeched Moshe to mediate God’s thunderous and fiery revelation so that they could understand the message and not die by it (Exodus 20:16). We may be looking around now asking ourselves how do we act vis-à-vis these metaphorical and actual fires? Where are our leaders? How tremendously have and do our systems continue to fail and devastate the economically, physically and racially vulnerable in our societies? The desire to have people in charge attune to these urgent cries for justice and respond with radical care is all the more stark when we face the depth of brokenness and lack of shalom in our midst.
This week’s parsha, Naso, understands our human need for reassurance that those in power seek our collective and individual safety, well-being and wholeness. The priestly benediction, birkat hakohanim, is tucked within a parsha that describes both the overall operational structure and inauguration of the Tabernacle, on the one hand, and then details what should be done in aberrant cases, such as with the individuals who become ritually impure, Israelites who have wronged each other, a jealous husband who accuses his wife of infidelity (isha sotah), and the nazirite who separates his or herself from the community. In most cases, there are ways for individuals who have gone astray to return to Israelite society, either through sacrificial offerings or recompense.
But what is the responsibility of the leaders in charge to reintegrate those members and ensure that harmony is restored within the community once the offerings have been brought and the payments made? I would like to suggest that this is the function of birkat hakohanim. These leaders are responsible not solely for overseeing that the rituals and services in the Temple are conducted smoothly, but for turning outward to the people, facing the messiness of reality and nevertheless bestowing this divine blessing of peace to
uplift every soul. The passage reads (Numbers 6:22-27):
The priests were instructed to bless the people daily with these words, raising their outstretched hands as a conduit for God’s light and protection. In so doing, they elevated the entire community. Rashi derives from amor lahem, say unto them (vs. 23) that everyone needs to be present in order to hear the blessing (שיהיוּ כלּם שׁוֹמעים). Additionally, he notices that the word amor, רוֹמאָ is written in plene form, with the vav included. Rashi beautifully learns from this detail that the priests were instructed to bless the people unhurriedly, with a full heart and deep kavanah, intention (מלא — לא תברכם בּחפּזוֹן וּבהלוּת, אלּא בכָוּנָה וּבלב שׁלם). Further, a Kohen is forbidden to have hatred in his heart toward anyone in his community when reciting this blessing, rather he must bless with unfettered ahava, love (Mishnah Berurah 128:7). What do these personal prescriptions governing birkat hakohanim indicate to us about the relationship of the priests toward the community? And what can this teach us about what we are
looking for in our own leaders at this moment?
First, the Torah is teaching us that no one can reside “outside the camp” of the Kohen’s heart when delivering the blessing. The entire community must be elevated together. In order for birkat hakohanim to function, it is the Kohen’s responsibility to look upon all individuals that make up the collective with equal love, respect and dignity. Second, if there is any ill-will, the Kohen must do work to undo those knots and correct his biases. His love must extend to the nazirite who has returned to her community as well as the
jealous husband and wife who endured the shame of the bitter waters ceremony. The effect of this blessing allows for those on the periphery to reintegrate, restoring faith and a sense of unity.
There is a lot of brokenness in our systems. As the many cries for justice, safety and freedom enter our homes our sense of community and responsibility has expanded. We are tied up in each other’s sufferings and liberations and we will have to bring many offerings and make amends to build a better society. But we also must slow down, check our hearts, know the inherent value in each of us and elevate each other from a place of love and affirmation. Good and holy work emerges from there.
May we merit to have compassionate, courageous and humble leaders who can bless all of us toward more wholeness and dignity. And may we in turn know how to elect ourselves to do the same for others.