Naso: The Mood of the Priestly Blessing

I am sure that you have a most favorite activity. I know that I do.

I am also sure that you have a least favorite activity, as I do.

My most favorite activity is visiting Israel. One of the experiences I especially cherish during my visits to Israel is the opportunity to hear the Priestly Blessing every single day. Outside the Land of Israel, the custom has developed, at least in Ashkenazic communities, to dispense with the daily ritual of hearing the kohanim, the priests, bless the people by reciting the verses contained in this week's Torah portion, Naso:

    May the Lord bless you and protect you!

    May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!

    May the Lord bestow his favor upon you and grant you peace! (Numbers 6:24-26)

In Israel, however, everyone has the opportunity to hear those blessings from the mouths of the kohanim every day of the week, all year long. That experience is my favorite of favorites.

I also have a least favorite activity, and that is dealing with complaints on the telephone, or these days, via e-mail. Sympathetic friends are quick to tell me that dealing with complaints is a rabbi's job. That's probably true, because even Moses, the first rabbi, had to listen to more than his share of complaints.

But there's one type of complaint that I have never been able to deal with without becoming angry. I refer to those occasions when the complainer is judgmental and finds fault in another.

Not long ago, I received such a call with reference to, of all things, the Priestly Blessing recited on the High Holidays in the fault finder's synagogue. She formulated her complaint as a question: "Were the blessings I heard valid? I happen to know that the kohen who announced the blessings is a sinner." And she proceeded to describe in detail the exact nature of the poor man's sins and how she came to know about them. Believe me, although he was far from perfect, he was guilty of neither murder nor idolatry, nor even adultery.

I assured her that the blessings she heard were perfectly valid despite the kohen's alleged misdeeds. I was careful to explain that the kohen was merely an instrument through which the Almighty Himself blessed us, and that the errant kohen was no more than His mouthpiece.

I quoted Maimonides, who states emphatically that a kohen, even a wicked one, should never refrain from his mitzvah to bless the people and that the congregation should never be troubled by the lowly status of the kohen, because ultimately the Holy One Blessed Be He bestows His compassionate blessing on the Jewish people, in accordance with His will.

To be even more convincing, I closed my argument by quoting the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative Code of Law, which rules that no sin should stand in the way of a kohen blessing the people. Even for truly egregious crimes such as murder and idolatry, there are those who opine that if the kohen repents of his sin, he may resume blessing the people.

My elaborate response fell upon deaf ears. The woman was horrified by what she termed my "liberal permissiveness." She insisted that her entire year was ruined because she had failed to hear a proper Priestly Blessing on the High Holidays.

When individuals complain to one rabbi and are dissatisfied with his response, they of course turn to other rabbis. This woman was so disgruntled by my answer that she dashed off an e-mail to no less than six other rabbis and was careful to make sure that I received a copy of her appeal to higher authorities.

This incident occurred some time ago, and I have since had numerous occasions to contemplate my interchange with her. I have come to the conclusion that the Priestly Blessing she heard were indeed invalid, but not because of the kohen's sins. Rather, it was her own sin that rendered them invalid.

This is because prior to blessing the congregation, the kohanim themselves utter a blessing to the Lord:

    Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who...

    Has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love.

Our Sages understood that last phrase, "with love," to define the mood which must prevail in the synagogue if the blessings are to be effective. The mood must be one of love. The kohen must not even bear the slightest grudge toward any member of the congregation, and the congregation must reciprocate with an attitude of acceptance and forgiveness toward the kohen. Absent the context of love, or at least tolerance, and the blessings are indeed invalid.

By virtue of her presuming to judge this kohen, and by her sanctimonious condemnation of his behavior, the woman who called me excluded herself from the kohen's blessing.

Armed with our understanding that the atmosphere of the Priestly Blessing must be one of brotherly love, we are in the position to more fully appreciate the insightful comments of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, the Ba'al HaTurim. His remarks are not found in this week's Torah portion, but rather in a verse in Leviticus which tells us about the very first kohen and the blessing he bestowed upon the people.

That verse reads: "Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being." (Leviticus 9:22)

The Ba'al Haturim believes that these three sacrificial offerings correspond to three fundamental human moods: the sin offering is a result of guilt feelings and remorse; the burnt offering is an expression of the exhilaration of success; and the offering of well-being derives from emotions of exuberance and joy.

The power of the Priestly Blessing is that it strengthens and enables and encourages people to cope with and thrive under all manner of spiritual circumstances; it enables the sinner to overcome despair; it protects the victorious hero from prideful arrogance; and it helps the joyous person subdue excessive exuberance.

There is a lesson here for all of us, whether we are the kohanim who convey the Almighty's blessings, or whether we are the recipients of those blessings sitting in the pews. All of us must cultivate an atmosphere in the synagogue of brotherly love and mutual acceptance. Only when that atmosphere is achieved can the blessings address our diverse and complex moods, and help us overcome the challenges of both success and failure, achievement and despair.