In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, the Torah further describes the travels of the Jewish people in the desert toward Israel and the specific form taken by each tribe along this journey. Midway through the portion, the Torah inserts six seemingly unrelated verses. The disjointed section discusses the commandant of the priestly blessings, Birkat Kohanim. The Torah describes G-d’s commandment to Moshe to speak to Aaron and his children and instruct them in blessing the Jewish people. This was a blessing said in the Temple, and is recreated during our contemporary prayer service on a daily basis in Israel and in exile during the holidays.
Many commentaries are disturbed by this seemingly out-of-context section. It would be much more appropriate for this commandment to appear in the book of Leviticus, which describes the Temple service of the kohanim including the sacrifices and the offerings. The priestly blessings were said as part of the daily sacrificial offerings in the Temple. Hence, a more fitting context for the priestly blessings would have been the book of Leviticus.
One of the interesting answers to this question focuses on the specific introductory blessing said by the kohanim as part of the priestly blessings. The blessing declares that G-d instructed the kohanim to bless His nation “with love." In fact, Jewish law instructs that if a kohen feels any ill will toward anybody in the congregation they are prohibited from practicing the priestly blessings. The kohanim have a unique ability and responsibility to spread love and a sense of unity and community within the Jewish people.
This perhaps is the reason why the priestly blessings are inserted into this week’s portion, which includes an overt and covert theme of disunity. Parshat Naso contains the narrative that describes the individual tribes, their numbers, their position as part of the desert travels, and the sacrifices that each of their leaders brought during the consecration of the Tabernacle.
Unfortunately, over-emphasizing the ways in which Jewish people differ from one another can often lead to destructive tribalism. This week’s Torah portion also discusses the casting away of those afflicted with leprosy, a consequence of slander, and expands on the destructive features of marital discord.
It is precisely this week’s portion that desperately calls for the kohanim and their unique mission of bringing people together as they bless the nation out of love. As we contemplate disunity between people, disunity in families, and disunity on a communal level, we must always pause and permit the insertion of the lesson learned from the kohanim: love and connection amongst His people.
By Rabbi Dr. Avidan Milevsky
Rabbi Dr. Avidan Milevsky is the former interim rabbi of Kesher Israel, The Georgetown Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He made aliyah last year with his family and is currently an associate professor at Ariel University and a psychologist in Beit Shemesh, Israel.