Birkat Kohanim as a Call to Action | Naso

This week’s parsha, Naso, gets its name from the Hebrew root “to carry.” The text begins by outlining the responsibilities of the different Levitical families in transporting and maintaining the portable mishkan (portable sanctuary) through the wilderness. Much of this job was to physically carry everything on their shoulders throughout their journey. No role was too menial. Each task was imbued with a sense of k’dusha, holiness. If the Levites didn’t fulfill their obligations, the whole community would suffer.

It was a physically, emotionally, and spiritually heavy responsibility that rested upon the Levites’ shoulders. It did not seem so burdensome because they were doing God’s work on behalf of the community. The mishkan brought people together: the Israelites gathered around it to set up their camps (Numbers 2:1), they offered their sacrifices to God within its confines, it was the central gathering place for the entire community.

Our text teaches that God will be present in the community’s midst only if everyone carries the weight of the burden. In ancient times, this meant observing God’s laws and “acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly before the Eternal.” (Micah 6:8)

Just as it was for our biblical ancestors, so too is it for us. However, what do we do when it seems carrying our share of the burden is too heavy? When it seems that we are carrying the weight of the entire world on our shoulders with no reprieve? We are living in a world with an on-going global pandemic, brutal wars in many countries resulting in the largest refugee crises we have seen since WWII, horrific gun violence that seems to be increasing exponentially in the United States, spurred on by racism, hatred, and laws that do not protect the innocent.

On May 14th, the community in which I live in Buffalo, New York was subjected to one of the horrific racist mass shootings in which the Black community was specifically targeted. That week alone, there were at least three other mass shootings throughout the United States, followed by the shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde, TX, and many more since. When will it end?

The war is still raging in Ukraine and human rights are being violated in so many other parts of the world. We look around and we ask: “we know some are carrying their weight of the burden but where are the others? Are we doing all we can to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God?”

When will everyone be able to live in their homes, wherever they are, in peace, justice, safety and security? When can we go to the grocery store and buy food to nourish our families and not have worry? When can we send our children to school and have them return home in safety and not have to worry? When will there be one law for all – no matter one’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or marital status and not have to worry?

Parshat Naso gives us some guidance for how to “carry our share of the burden” and move forward to a life of blessing and peace, justice, and harmony. Numbers 6:22-27, is the famous Priestly Blessing, Birkat Cohanim.

First, Birkat Kohanim is in the singular and not the plural. It reminds us that we cannot be there for our community unless we first take care of ourselves, physically, mentally, and spiritually. If we are not healthy, we will be unable to care for others. Sometimes, when we are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, we forget to take care of ourselves.

Next, the Kohanim, the priests, were to recite this blessing with outstretched arms, acting as God’s intermediaries. “Therefore, they shall link My name with the people of Israel and I will bless them. (Numbers 6:27) When we reach out to others, even if we don’t know what to say, we can act as that loving presence of God, mitigating pain, celebrating with joy, carrying some of the burden.

Finally, the most important part of Birkat Kohanim is the last phrase, the blessing for peace, shalom. Shalom has the same root as the Hebrew word for wholeness: shleimut.  Our world will not be whole or complete until we make peace a lasting reality. When we pray for peace, we don’t do so expecting that God will do something miraculous to make peace appear. Rather, this is a reminder that we are God’s partners, acting as God’s hands to bring peace to our neighborhood, our city, our country, and our world. “That is why God is called peace, because it is He who binds the world together and orders all things according to their particular character and posture. For when things are in their proper order [and whole], peace will reign.” (Isaac Abarbanel, Commentary to Avot 2:12)

Birkat Kohanim is our call to action. If Naso begins by reminding us that God will be present in our midst only if everyone carries the weight of the burden, then Birkat Kohanim is a reminder that our burdens will only be lifted if each of us does our part to make peace a lasting reality. “Peace, say the Rabbis, is one of the pillars of the world; without it the social order could not exist. Therefore let a man do his utmost to promote it.” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary: Revised Edition (p. 944). CCAR Press. Kindle Edition. Gleanings: Morris Joseph)



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).