The world is on fire. This week, as we entered back into our strange reality following the beautiful hiatus of Shavuos, we found the world to be in an even greater state of chaos, fear, and suffering than we had left it. Around the world, and especially in American cities, social unrest abounds and peace and harmony are more elusive than ever. As Jews, ever a minority and historically subject to prejudice and victimization, we cannot stand idly by as others suffer. And yet, it is difficult to know how to take action, whether to take action, and how to spread peace when all seems broken and desolate.
Psychologically, we are wired to judge others, to evaluate, to differentiate, to create in-groups and out-groups. “Us vs. them” ways of thinking are innate, as social psychologists have evidenced in countless experiments on prejudice. The idea that peace can reign in a society where so many diverse groups seek to coexist is truly baffling. And yet, somehow, we, the Jewish people, historically a divided nation characterized by twelve unique, inherently different tribes, have survived the tests of time.
Perhaps we have our prejudiced, us-vs.-them moments; we seek to insulate ourselves within our own subgroups, to associate only with those Jews whose head coverings or political values or Hashkafic views are most similar to our own. Today, though absent twelve true tribes, we instead have hundreds more groups, various sects within those groups, left-wings, and right-wings, and left-of-left and right-of-center. We practically do the Hokey Pokey before we’re done with our national roll call. At the same time, however, we have somehow survived and thrived despite our differences. If we carry a secret that has helped us overcome diversity within our own nation, now is the time to reveal that secret, both for the Jewish people and for society as a whole.
In this week’s Parsha, we learn the secret to living in diversity peacefully. Let us explore these ideas together in the hopes that maybe we can infuse some hope into the dark uncertainty and pain of the world outside our window.
Parshas Naso (6:23-27) features Hashem’s instruction to Aharon regarding what is now known as Birkas Kohanim, the priestly blessing. In America, we are privileged to hear Birkas Kohanim during the high holidays and the Shalosh Regalim, while in Israel, this blessing is recited far more frequently. The content of Birkas Kohanim, which we also recite each morning in our Shacharis prayers, is as follows:
“Yivarechicha Hashem V’Yishmirecha,” - May God bless you and watch over you; “Ya’er Hashem Panav Eilecha Viyichunecha,” - May God deal graciously and kindly with you; “Yisa Hashem Panav Eilecha V’Yasem Licha Shalom,” - May God bestow His favor/turn His face upon you and grant you peace.
Within this blessing are contained myriad blessings, the apex of which is peace. How do we achieve peace and why is it the Kohanim who bless us with peace in this way?
When commanding Aharon regarding this blessing, the Pasuk says, “Koh ti’varchu es bnei yisrael,” so shall you bless Bnei Yisrael, “emor lahem,” say to them [the blessing]” (6:23). Rashi notes that when God says “Emor Lahem,” say to them [as follows], the word “emor” is written “malei,” in its full form, Alef -Mem-Vav-Reish, as opposed to without the vav, Alef-Mem-Reish, (which is how the words “Amar” and “Emor” are more often spelled). Rashi explains, according to the Midrash Tanchuma, that this is to emphasize the full, wholehearted concentration, intention, and dedication that must accompany the blessing. When the Kohanim rise to “Duchan,” to stand before the Klal and recite this blessing, to invoke G-d’s grace and blessing upon us, they cannot do so hastily or mindlessly, but must instead be fully cognizant of their task and completely dedicated to the blessing’s fulfillment.
Furthermore, when the Kohanim stand to recite Birkas Kohanim, they first recite a blessing over this unique Mitzvah that they’ve been commanded to fulfill, the Mitzvah to bless Israel with God’s graciousness and peace. The blessing preceding Birkas Kohanim notes that God commanded the Kohanim “livarech es amo yisrael B’Ahava” to bless God’s nation with love. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes, citing the Zohar (III, 147b), that this is to emphasize that a Kohen who does not love cannot perform this special Mitzvah. In order to bless the nation with peace, the Kohanim, the conduits of this blessing, must be completely in love with Klal Yisrael. When God commanded the priests to bless us, He commanded that they do so with hearts full of love. If we hope to bless others and ourselves with peace, we must first do the work of fostering love between us and our fellow man.
Rabbi Sacks notes that there are different explanations regarding why it is the priestly class of Kohanim who are chosen to bless Klal Yisrael; after all, would it not suffice, or perhaps be even more beneficial, to have God bless us Himself? Rabbi Sacks quotes Rabbi Avraham Gafni, who explains that prior to God introducing the idea of Birkas Kohanim, we read about Aharon’s spontaneous blessing of the Jewish people, “VaYisa Aharon es Yadav… VaYivarchem,” and Aharon raised his hands over the nation and blessed them (Vayikra 9:22). This was the first spontaneous and unprompted Birkas Kohanim, and it derived purely from Aharon’s love for Israel.
In Pirkei Avos (1:12), Hillel teaches, “Hevei mi’talmidav shel Aharon,” be like Aharon and his students. What characterized Aharon HaKohen and thus characterizes his physical and spiritual offspring (e.g. descendants and students)? “Oheiv Shalom, v’rodeif shalom,” love peace and pursue peace. How does one accomplish this? “Oheiv es HaBriyos,” first and foremost, love people. Love “briyos,” all creations. Then, “U’mikarvan LaTorah,” if they are interested, you can bring them close to the Torah – either the literal Torah of Judaism, or even the Torah of your values, your ideals, your point of view. The Mishnah is clear: The Kohanim get to bless Klal Yisrael because they are descendants of Aharon and have in their blood the ability to pursue and spread peace, because they lead with love.
The lesson of Birkas Kohanim is powerful and essential for today and for all times. If we are to pursue peace, if we are to try to come to a mutual understanding in an increasingly diverse world, we might first think that we must get others to see our point of view. Perhaps we must break down the barriers between “us” and “them,” to abolish all differences, to become color blind and ignorant to diversity. History and the current social rhetoric have demonstrated that this is not the path to peace. Difference is inherent; it is beautiful and necessary. Later in Parshas Naso, we read about how each of the princes of each of the twelve tribes brought their own sacrifices, despite the sacrifices being completely identical. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that each sacrifice was exactly the same, but the way in which each tribe connects to God is different; each brings a different flavor and manner and strength to the table. We need these differences, even if we are engaged in the same activities, even if we can all be stripped down to our basic humanity, it is our differences that allow us to thrive together.
Before we try to erase our differences by insisting that others see our perspective, or by pushing our own agenda, before trying to enlighten or inspire or even get someone to see things your way, we must love them first. Psychologically, once we give to others, once we try to see things from their perspective first, this helps us feel love, and once we love, difference and details disappear, and that’s how peace develops. Peace is not about equality or sameness; it is about accepting diversity and difference and discord with an underlying interwoven thread of constant, wholehearted, unshakeable love for all humanity. Peace does not develop from the absence of difference, but from the love that overcomes the differences, so our otherness can act as a bridge rather than a wall.
Though the performance of Birkas Kohanim is reserved for the priestly tribe, we know that all Jews are commanded to be a “Mamleches Kohanim,” a kingdom of priests (Shmos 19:6). All of us have the power to be like the students and descendants of Aharon, and it is incumbent upon each one of us individually and all of us as a nation to lead with love. This week, let us strive to demonstrate the power of what it means to be an “Oheiv shalom v’rodeif shalom,” a pursuer of true, lasting peace, by first being an “oheiv es habriyos,” a lover of all creatures and of all of creation, of all humanity.