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Torah Commentary
Naso (May 31, 2014)

Benjamin J. Zeidman, Assistant Rabbi

IN 1903, DURING HIS last sermon at Temple Beth-El before assuming the presidency of Reform Judaism’s seminary, Hebrew Union College, Kaufmann Kohler preached on these very words from this week’s Torah portion. “The Priest’s Blessing,” he said, is “a treasury of comfort and peace for mind and heart, it has come down to us from hoary antiquity, the guardian angel of every Jewish home, the companion and talisman of every son and daughter of Israel, sanctifying the coming and going of Sabbath and holy days, hallowing each joy and soothing every sorrow.” [1]

The Eternal bless you and protect you!
“[The priest] places the name of God upon all to uplift and to fortify them for duty and for holiness, for virtue and righteousness while pointing to God as the fountain of all blessing.” [2]

It doesn’t matter whether the recipient is wealthy or poor, comfortable with his or her lot in life or discontent. All are blessed by the Holy One, as God is there for all people no matter their circumstance.

The light of the Eternal’s presence shine upon you and deal graciously with you!
“[The priest] had to kindle ever anew the sacred flame of sacrifice upon the altar and to light the candles of the golden Menorah, to make the pillar of smoke and incense rise and the brilliant light of the sanctuary blaze forth into the wide world—symbols of [God’s] higher task to make religion a sun of righteousness and a light of truth to the waiting world.” [3]

Our people are given the sacred task of being a “light to the nations.” Through acts of kindness and righteousness, acts that shine God’s light into the world, we will be blessed. In our pursuit of truth and justice, so will we ourselves be blessed. The priest, with this second line of the Blessing, reminds us of the requirement to live lives after which others would want to model themselves. The hope of a light that shines forth is that the light will be reflected.

The Eternal’s presence turn towards you and grant you peace!
“[The priest] is to bring peace not only to every bruised heart but to every struggling and suffering part of humanity to make God’s world one.” [4]

Rabbi Kohler continues by pointing out that not a single one of us can say we truly know peace. Mortal beings can only chase after it because “real life means struggle and strife in the pursuit of ever higher aims.” [5]

One day, when the first two verses of the Priest’s Blessing and all that they imply finally are realized, when the Eternal turns towards us, when our righteous behavior is reflected by every person in this world, then we finally will know peace.

Rabbi Kohler’s words were written 34 years into his rabbinate. It is fascinating for us to look back 111 years at one of our greatest rabbis in American Jewish history. Given how different things are today than they were at that time, how similar they are! We still are in need of constant reminder that we are called upon. We have great responsibilities: To live a life of righteousness, to pursue justice, and to be a model of meaningful living for all who would look to us. But, as much as we might long for simple lives of peace, we have obligations that prevent it.

The Priestly Blessing, you see, is not as much a blessing as it is a charge to every one of us. And it’s a hefty one at that.

[1] Kaufmann Kohler, A Living Faith, 284.
[2] Ibid, 286.
[3] Ibid, 286-7.
[4] Ibid, 289.
[5] Ibid.

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