Love and Blessing

Faults are thick where love is thin…

Love is hard.

No, not the travails of romance that are peddled by the entertainment industry – whether film, books or music. As challenging as such love undoubtedly can be, or how it sets our hearts racing, the more difficult love is between a man and his fellow; the ability to truly love one’s neighbor as oneself.

We proclaim it just as sincerely as we proclaim our desire for true peace, for shalom. But as Malcolm Gladwell notes, “What we call tolerance [peace] in this country, and pat ourselves on the back for, is the lamest kind of tolerance. What we call tolerance in this country is when people who are unlike us want to be like us, and when we decide to accept someone who is not like us and wants to be like us, we pat ourselves on the back…’

“Sorry — you don’t get points for accepting someone who wants to be just like you. You get points for accepting someone who doesn’t want to be like you — that’s where the difficulty lies.”

Peace is hard. Love is harder. Why? Because it demands that we not only tolerate someone not like ourselves but that we embrace that person and hold them dear, as dearly as we hold ourselves; that we pray, truly and genuinely, for them the same blessings that we pray for ourselves.

All possible brachos anyone would ever hope for are incorporated in the three blessings of the Birkas Kohanim. Sifre and most commentaries view the first blessing May Hashem bless (yevarechecha) you” as referring to material prosperity. The second, “May Hashem illuminate (ya’er) you” relates to the spiritual blessings of Torah. The third, “May Hashem lift His countenance (yisa Hashem) to you speaks to God’s compassion above and beyond what we deserve.  He forgives and grants peace.

In Birkat Kohanim, we gain another insight into what it means to find shalom, to find peace. Whereas some people would say to a man seeking peace, “Go to the mountains; find solitude; seek the peace within you” Judaism clearly rejects that understanding of peace. Peace cannot be found but where strife can be found; that is, in the community.

We know this because Birkat Kohanim like many prayers, including Borchu, Kaddish, Kedusha, and Kriat HaTorah, can only be recited amongst a quorum of ten. It demands a minyan. These are public expressions, communal proclamations.

But if so, why yevarechecha, (singular) and not yevarchem (plural)? Blessings, to be real, are singular. Peace, wholeness, must be received by a unified community. There are no brachos without achdus – unity.

Therefore, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that the bracha recited by the Kohanim prior to their delivering God’s Birkos Kohanim to His People uniquely ends with “and has commanded us to bless His people Israel b’ahavah – with love.” No other bracha ends this way. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that this is not a blessing on the mitzvah per se “but a request for the Priestly Blessing to be accompanied by love.”

Whether love leads to peace or peace to love is a hard thing to know. But it is certain that there cannot truly be one without the other – and that the pursuit and embrace of both is God’s command.

The Midrash says, “Peace when you enter, peace when you leave, and peaceful relations with everyone.” The Ksav Sofer teaches that this alludes to the three levels of peace one must strive for – within the family, in the country where one lives, and throughout the world.  There is no sphere of human existence where peace is not the key component to wholesomeness. Completeness.

The Koahanim in reciting the bracha prior to their bestowing the Birkas Kohanim on the nation state “Who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron, and has commanded us to bless His people Israel b’ahava – with love.” For the Kohen reciting this bracha prior to the Birkat Kohanim, this is not simply another recitation of a bracha, not simply the vocalization of sacred words. This blessing must be infused by, must be motivated by love for without love there can be no sharing of the Birkat Kohanim.

The Netivot Shalom is quoted in the new RCA Siddur, “Avodat Halev” saying, “R’ Akiva considered “love your friend as yourself’ to be the great principle of the Torah, for the mutual love of Jews for each other binds us together … [Absent that love] We become something less than Jews (emphasis mine), at least in the sense of no longer being members of a single vibrant entity.”

Pity the Kohanim! What an onus they bore, to truly and genuinely bestow blessings upon others. At the completion of their Birkas Kohanim, they offer another prayer to God, “Ribono shel Olam, we have done what you have decreed upon us – asinu mah sh’gazarta Aleinu – You also deal with us as You have promised us. Look down from Your holy dwelling place, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel…” Beautiful words uttered by those who have fulfilled their holy task, but why say sh’gazarta – that You have decreed. After all, a gezeirah, a decree, is a harsh thing. How is that harshness squared with the communication and feeling of love? The Lakewood Mashgiach, Rav Matisyahu Solomon Shlita asks, “To bless His Children is a privilege, it’s beautiful. Why refer to it as a gezeirah?”

Rav Solomon responds, “Just look at the blessing prior to reciting the Birkas Kohanim. Remember their unique bracha. They recite, “and commanded us to bless His people b’ahava – with love.” It is in fact the need for that love that requires their responsibility be decreed from on High! Their task is not to merely bless the congregation, they must bless them with sincere, genuine, unadulterated love. No easy task. To bless another, a stranger for all intents and purposes is hard. And they are strangers, even though they are part of K’lal Yisrael. They are not “like me.” Gazing over this congregation of Jews, it is easy to wonder, “They wear shtreimels, or knitted yarmulkas, or hardly a yarmulke and I should bless them? With love? Oy.”

To utter the three short verses of Birkat Kohanim should be so simple. It’s a handful of words. Easy words. But words made heavy by the command that they be delivered with genuine love. Love. It is love that makes the task so difficult. Who among us could express such love? Even the Kohanim needed God to decree they do it.

The Kohanim are decreed to overlook all the differences and unfairnesses that exist between them and the people. The people may have health, may have contentment, may have success while the Kohanim lack all three and yet the Kohanim are called to bless the people with love.

But why should it be so hard to bestow blessings with blessings with love? Is it so hard to love a fellow Jew? Yes. So hard and so important that R’ Akiva taught that v’ahavta l’reiach kamocha – loving your fellow – is foundational for all Torah.

Love your fellow as yourself. Just do it!

And yet, we don’t. We fall short. Given the opportunity to find peace and community, we embrace strife and confusion. Not long ago, I asked friends and colleagues to, “take a minute to list and explain the most serious issues and concerns where you feel shalom is severely lacking.”

My son Nathan replied succinctly. “The most serious issue facing the Jewish people when it comes to shalom is the acceptance of others who are not like us. “He’s wearing a bekeshe – he’s not like me. He has a tattoohe’s not like me. This view comes about from a fundamental misunderstanding of the degree of separateness that we have as a nation. In truth, Asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim ‘Who has chosen us from all the peoples’ is said about each Jew.”  

Shalom.

Community does not mean “sameness,” it does not mean “uniformity.” That is not community, that is a herd! God wants each of us to be called, to be known, to be blessed with peace. To be loved.

The Rebbe, Reb Zusia told of a marvelous conversation he overheard at an inn between two drunks.

“I love you, Ivan,” 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 Ivan.

“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 Ivan. “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 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 communicate with his nation, symbolized by shaliah tzibbur. He must know what hurts his nation and what his nation needs, and then he must actively try to assuage that hurt and lift the nation closer to the realm of the Divine. In short, he must love his people and take responsibility for them.

To love another is to know what hurts him, what he is missing, what he needs; to know his pain. A hug is nice but to feel and to know another’s pain… that’s love. That is the reason that God must decree, even to His emissaries, His Kohanim, that they must to bless Israel with love. Real love. Genuine love. They must bless them knowing the people’s pain.

The Sages of the Talmud ordained that at the time of the priestly benediction, the congregation should think of their dreams – individual and communal – 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, the perfection of the world.