How One of Judaism’s Oldest Prayers Is Meant to Turn People into Conduits for Divine Love

May 21, 2021 | Yitz Greenberg
About the author:

This week’s Torah reading of Naso includes what might be Judaism’s oldest prayer (Numbers 6:22-27): the priestly benediction, which for many Jews is still part of the liturgy, and is also incorporated in the blessing parents give children on the Sabbath eve. Consisting of three simple verses, it is to be delivered by the kohanim—the priestly descendants of Aaron—to the people. Yitz Greenberg explains its significance:

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik calls our attention to [a] unique and special requirement for blessing the people. To be valid—to fulfill the mitzvah—the priests must give the blessing with love. This is stated in the preamble blessing the priests recite before uttering the actual words of the blessing itself: “Blessed are you Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and commanded us to bless His people, Israel, with love.” Soloveitchik points out that there is no other blessing on a commandment that specifies that one must do it with love in order for it to be valid.

To understand this requirement of love, we must analyze again the nature of the blessing and who is giving it. . . . The priests have no independent power of bestowing blessings to serve as a kind of amulet for people. And yet, the sense of direct connection to God—the channels [through which Divine blessing flow to mankind]—are “lost” or obscured by all the sensations and experiences of daily life. . . . Evil, death, and injustice also block the connection. As it were, they dam up the flow of love, and distract individuals from penetrating the surface to meet the divine ground in which everything exists.

It takes a tremendous effort for the priest to overcome the self-centeredness, envy, or begrudging of the other that operates in day-to-day life. But if the effort is made and the love “plugged in” then, a finite, flawed human receptacle can pass on and channel the unlimited love of the Infinite God and the delight which the Lord feels in every display of life’s capacities and human goodness. Thus, the liturgical apparatus strengthens the forces of life and the vitality of life in the world.

Read more on Hadar: