“Any kohen (priest) who does not love the nation, or the nation does not love him, cannot raise his hands to bless the nation.” According to the great mystical work known as the Zohar, the requirements on this one aspect of Temple service differ from all other forms of Temple service. No community buy-in is required for a kohen to offer sacrifices or to prepare Temple vessels. There is no popularity contest to determine one’s fitness for the priesthood in general. And yet when it comes to the Torah’s command to offer blessings, it is only those kohanim who are in relationship with the community who may perform this mitzvah.
The mitzvah of reciting the priestly blessing immediately follows the Torah’s description of the nazir, a person who chooses to place limitations upon himself to get closer to God. Nazirut represents an ascetic view of religious leadership, a belief that the effective leader is he who differentiates himself from the community. The nazir accepts restrictions intended to alienate him from everyone he loves. This, he might believe, is what it means to be a servant of God
The Torah thus immediately follows its elaboration on nazirut with a description of Birkat Kohanim. While separation and distinction might be one path to spiritual connection, it is not a viable option for the kohen. The kohen is commanded to remember that he is a mere representative of his nation. A kohen who has detached himself from the nation he serves, and who therefore is ineligible to offer this blessing, is said to have violated three commandments. Unlike the nazir, who sees religiosity in alienation and loneliness, the kohen is commanded to see religiosity in connection. This is the Torah’s model of true religious service.
Josh Pernick is a fourth-year rabbinical student at YCT and a member of the Hillel Office of Innovation Fellowship for Rabbinic Entrepreneurs.
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