In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso, we encounter the source of the commandment familiar to anyone who goes to synagogue – Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. Toward the end of the prayer service, the kohanim go to the front of the synagogue, face the congregation, and bless them with the following verses: “May the Lord bless you and watch over you.
“May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you.
“May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6, 24-26) With these few words, this blessing summarizes the peak of every person’s aspirations: G-d’s blessing and safekeeping; His countenance and favor; and peace.
The last part of the blessing raised an interesting question that brought about an understanding of the importance of proper relationships among people.
The Talmud says the following: “Bluria the proselyte put this question to Rabban Gamliel: It is written in your Law, [she said], who lifts not up the countenance, and it is also written, The Lord shall lift up his countenance upon you.
“Rabbi Jose the priest joined the conversation and said to her: I will give you a parable which will illustrate the matter.
A man lent his neighbor a maneh [sum of money] and fixed a time for payment in the presence of the king, while the other swore to pay him by the life of the king. When the time arrived he did not pay him, and he went to excuse himself to the king.
The king, however, said to him: The wrong done to me I excuse you, but go and obtain forgiveness from your neighbor. So here: One text speaks of offenses committed by a man against God, the other of offenses committed by a man against his fellow man.” (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Rosh Hashana, daf 17) Bluria, a wealthy non-Jew who chose to join the Jewish nation, turns to the head of the Sanhedrin, the top religious leader of the nation, Rabban Gamliel, and questions him about a contradiction between two verses, a contradiction that implies two theological approaches to G-d’s attitude toward the sins of humans.
In one verse, we find the following description of G-d – “Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe” (Deuteronomy 10, 17), which means that G-d does not give up and is not easily reconciled. While in Birkat Kohanim, “May the Lord raise His countenance toward you,” the meaning is that G-d waives our deeds and forgives for undesired actions.
Rabban Gamliel did not even have time to answer Bluria’s question when his friend Rabbi Yossi the priest stood and bravely resolved the contradiction. According to his explanation, G-d does indeed forgive and pardon people for their sins. When a man regrets his actions, he is entitled to expect pardon. But when a man harms another man, whether it is financially, verbally or any other way, G-d conditions His forgiveness on appeasing the victim.
With this answer, Rabbi Yossi defined the area known as “between man and man” (relationships between man and society) as preempting the area known as “between man and G-d.” Thus, he bestowed an additional meaning to the verse “Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe,” which comes to teach that man cannot fulfill commandments, to pray or study Torah, while at the same time harming a fellow man, stealing from him or causing him grief. This kind of behavior is a vain attempt to “bribe” G-d; a bribery that has no chance of being accepted.
Elsewhere, the sages of the Mishna expressed this stand in a clearer way when they stated: “One who is pleasing to his fellow men, is pleasing to G-d. But one who is not pleasing to his fellow men, is not pleasing to G-d.” (Masechet Avot 3, 10) Rabbi Chaim Vital (of the great kabbalists in the Land of Israel in the 16th century, a student of the Holy Ari) poses a challenging question in his book Shaarei Kdusha (“Gates of Holiness”): Why doesn’t the Torah explicitly state the requirement that people have to behave to one another humanely and morally?
His answer is that humanism is a basic condition for fulfilling the Torah, so much so that there is no need to explicitly write it in the Torah. A man who lacks proper relationships with his fellow man has not stepped into the doorway of Torah – Derech eretz kadma laTorah – “Good deeds and character come before Torah.”
The basic requirement that Judaism sets up for everyone is humanism. And the term includes proper treatment of others, the understanding that just as I have needs and desires so do others, and I must respect them to the extent that I would want my needs and desires respected.
Only when we internalize this are we worthy of the blessing of G-d and His protection; His countenance and favor; and His countenance and peace.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.