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In this week’s Parsha, we read of a commandment to Aaron, the tent to the lighting the candles of the menorah and the mishkan, and the tabernacle. This command, I think, elegantly interweaves with an idea that we began discussing last week, an idea concerning the priestly blessing, birkat kohenim. I suggested to you last week, that birkat kohenim can be seen as a kind of parenting manual as it were, it is a prayer in which we relate to God as a parent, a heavenly parent and it provides a paradigm as it were for what it means to be a good parent in one’s child’s life.
I left you with a puzzle last week, what are the last two verses of the priestly blessing are about? The first one, yevarechecha Hashem v’yishmerecha, I suggested that it deals with the idea of compassion, that a parent has two fundamental obligation towards a child, to build that child, to increase his or her strengths, and to safe guard that child. This obligation is a lifetime obligation but it begins when the child is in the womb, indeed the womb is the paradigmatic case of building and sheltering a child. These two things, sheltering and building, which we sometime call compassion, rachamim, these are not the only obligations that a parent has. They open the door for a new way that a parent can relate to a child. A new way that a parent can bestow love, in fact, love really, I want to argue is what bikat kohenim is all about.
All three verses are really about three different kinds of love that a parent can express towards a child. The very first of which we can call rachamim, but there are two others as well. You know by the way that it is love from the blessing that the kohenim themselves make when they bestow birkat kohenim upon the Jews. They say, asher kidishanu bekidshato shel aharon livarech et amo yisrael beahavah, that God has commanded us to bless the Jewish people with love. In the past, I sometimes thought of that meant, that the kohenim is meant to have a loving kind of disposition when they bless the Jews but I don’t think it means that. I think what it really means is that that which they are asking God to bestow is love. God commanded us levarech et amo Yisrael, to bless his people, by bestowing God’s love upon them, the three kinds of love encased in birkat kohenim itself.
The first kind, rachamim compassion, what is the second kind? Yaer Hashem panav eleicha vichunecha, how should we translate those words? Yaer means is to shine or to illuminate and now, a little puzzle for the answer itself. Yaer is a verb. What is the direct object of the verb? One way to read the verse is that the direct object is alecha, you, you which is to say, let God shine his face upon you but there’s another possible way to read the verse, a way suggested by Rashi. What if the direct object of the verb was not you but it is panav, God’s face? What if you read the verse this way, yaer Hashem panav, let God illuminate his own face towards you.
It means that let God light up his face when he sees you, he can’t help but beam, his whole face lights up. This in fact is how Rashi asked us to translate this phrase. Yireh lach panim sochakot, Rashi says, let God smile, let him show you a beautiful, happy disposition, v’chunecha, and let him grant you grace. What is grace mean? The Hebrew word chen comes from a word lechanen, also related to chenam for free, to give for free. It’s completely undeserved love, it’s what we might call unconditional love, it’s different than rachamim, compassion. Compassion is the love that I bestow in order to attain something, it is conditional, I am trying to build you up, I have a goal. Theoretically, if a parent would see that a child has absolutely no potential, there would be no room for compassion kind of love. It is impossible to build. Indeed, a womb is very discerning about the rachamim that it bestows. It bestows this compassion, this nurturing only if it perceives potential. If it does not precede potential, there will be a miscarriage. Rachamim is not unconditional love but chen, grace, that is unconditional. It’s love that has no goal, its love for its own sake, its love because you are my child. I can’t help but smile when I look at you. It’s the kind of love that every father and mother knows, when their eyes meet the eyes of their child and they can’t help but smile.
Now if you think deeply about this, chen doesn’t really come from nowhere. It comes not from the future of goals that I will achieve by the virtue of bestowing it upon you, it comes from the past, that one I have already put into you, I built you up, I have safeguarded you 9 months in the womb and here you are and I can’t help but smile. The moment, the paradigmatic moment of chen is the moment after birth, the moment when parent holds child, looks down at child, meets eyes of child and can’t help but smile. It is unconditional love. That unconditional love, that meeting of the eyes ironically is the greatest nourishment that a child’s soul can ever get but ironically this kind of love truly fuel a child’s growth, it is what a child lives on.
Once you have bestowed rachamim, once you have bestowed compassion, once you have cared for your child’s safeguard and invest in them and built them up, it can’t help but fuel chen. The giving of chen is the second kind of love that a parent gives a child but there is a third kind of love too that appears at the last of the verses of birkat kohenim.
The third kind of love is built on the first two, once you have invested in your child with rachamim, with compassion, once you have spent years bestowing chen, grace, upon him, just enjoying the child, you are finally in the position to be able to offer a third kind of love, a much more difficult kind of love to offer.
Yisa Hashem panav eleicha v’yasem lecha shalom, let God lift up his face towards you and let him grant you peace. Interesting, the last two verses of birkat kohenim speak of God’s face, the first did not. The paradigmatic moment of the first type of love, rachamim, compassion, the love of the womb, in the womb the child cannot see the face of the mother. After birth, then the child can see the face of the mother. Then what is the job of the parent, the parent has only one job at that point, to meet the gaze of the child. There is two kinds of ways to meet the gaze of their child, the first one, yaer Hashem panav eleicha vichunecha, that we just discussed, is unconditional love, it is top down love, it is when I gaze upon my child, vertically I the parent am above the child, the child is below. The child is defenseless, he can do nothing and indeed this love is undeserved, it comes completely from the parent. It is truly top down love but there is another kind of love too, another way to meet the gaze of your child. It is not when you look down at your child, it is when you look across him and you meet his gaze, yisa Hashem panav eleicha. Let God pick up his face, it is as if God’s face is downcast. Why would God’s face be downcast, it is the moment later in life, after child has become someone that I can look across at, horizontally equal to me, someone who can choose just like I, parent can choose. There is of course the possibility then that he will choose differently than me and when child chooses different than me, how does child feel? Child rightly or wrongly as the case maybe can feel shame. If a child has truly betrayed me, has done me wrong then the shame is justified. If child has simply chosen legitimately different path then perhaps the shame is not justified but either way shame can be there. Who am I to choose differently than my parents, I live in the shadow of my parents. The parent in those moments has a choice to make, a choice whether to avert their eyes or a choice to meet the gaze of their child.
If child tries to reconcile with me, to reason with me, to try to explain themselves and I refuse to meet their gaze, if I keep my eyes downcast, what am I really doing?
I am playing with you, I am keeping you tethered to me. Don’t do that, birkat kohenim says, the blessing that God teaches us to ask of God is God, when we make choices and those choices are not perhaps the choices that you would have want us to make, allow us the chance to truly reconcile with you and grant us peace, look us in the eye.
Rashi: yichbosh kaaso, sublimate your anger, don’t keep us in the state of guilt forever. Meet our eyes, v’yasem lecha shalom, and grant us peace.
When we are separate from God, even when we have sinned before God, at the end of the day, when all the words have been spoken, let God lift his eyes from the floor and meet our gaze as equals, look across at us. And when our eyes meet is again a moment of love. It is much more difficult kind of love for a parent to give but to truly be a parent it means to be able to let go and it means to be able to accept your child. Even in the moments when they disappoint us.
It is one thing to look down at a child and to meet his gaze, that is chen it is much harder thing to look across a child and meet his gaze and give him shalom, give him peace. What gives me the strength to do that, what gives me the strength to accept a child’s separateness? Whether the separateness is good or even sometimes, when it is bad. The answer is the past. If I have given the child rachamim, if I have vested them and I have built them up, if I have protected them and I have smiled at them in delight, I have the wellsprings of love and the past, to be able to draw from. I can remember all those good times and draw strength from them, when the time comes to give them one last gift, the gift of peace. It is the greatest gift that a parent can give.
In the end, birkat kohenim is a feature of last week’s Parsha, a feature of Naso, but how does this week’s Parsha begin? It begins with the command of the priests to take care of the menorah, to ensure that the menorah is lit, all night long in the temple. I would like to suggest that if Naso is about the theory of birkat kohenim, the beginning of Behaalotecha, our Parsha is about its practice. If you go back to our earlier Parsha videos, Terumah and Tetzaveh, we talked about the Mishkan as an embodiment, as it were, of God’s face. It is how God comes to express himself in the world, the way a human being expresses himself through his face. If the Mishkan is God’s face as it were in the world, then the menorah is the light, the light that God shines towards us. Yaer Hashem panav eleicha vichunecha, it is the grace that God bestows, the unconditional love.
There are three kinds of love that the birkat kohenim speaks of, rachamim, compassion, chen unconditional love and then love between equals, love when I let you go your separate way, when I grant you the gift of peace with me. It is no coincidence that the children of Aaron first gave this blessing upon the completion of the mishkan, God’s face in the world. Once the mishkan was complete, the blessing of Aaron’s children was that God’s love should continue forever, to radiate into our lives.
I want to end with a short kind of personal suggestion. Birkat kohenim is something which I would say to my children every Friday night. This understanding gives me personally more of a handle on what it is that I am saying. It makes those moments with my children more meaningful to me. If you don’t bless your children, on Friday nights or any other time regularly, consider doing so, consider using these precious words of birkat kohenim and bestowing them upon your child and children love it. They are so delighted to be blessed by their parents. As your child comes over to you, use those few moments to think about these three kinds of parental love and ask yourself, at this stage in my child’s life which one of those kinds of parental love could this child use? Do they need to be built up, do they need to be guarded, maybe they need just a smile that says I am so delighted with them, maybe they need to see more chen or maybe they need peace, maybe they need me to pick up their chin, to look them in the eye and tell them that I can go forward with them in love even when they have chose differently than I have, I wish you a good Shabbos.