This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most well-known passages in the entire Bible, the Priestly Benediction. This blessing which the descendants of the priests (kohanim) bestow every morning in Israel and during the major festivals in the Diaspora is introduced with the words: “Praised are You, O Lord, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and has commanded us to bless His nation with love.” Where do we find the religio-legal requirement that the priest-kohen must deliver his benediction with love for all of Israel? In order to understand the intent of our Sages in this formulation of the priest-kohen’s blessing, we must remember that the Torah reading of Naso always falls in close proximity to the Festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. This, more than any of the other of the biblical holidays, brings with it the message of redemption.
First of all, it is the culmination of the Festival of Passover, since it goes beyond our exodus from Egypt into an alien and unwelcoming desert by transporting us to Jerusalem with its celebration of the bringing of the first fruits to the altar of the Holy Temple (Hag Habikkurim).
Moreover, it is the only festival completely devoid of any symbol of exile: Matza is called bread of affliction and the succa hut is reminiscent of the Israelites wanderings through the desert; Shavuot has no such symbol.
Most importantly, our Sages ordain that the Scroll of Ruth be read on the Festival of Shavuot. This is the biblical book which records the ancestry of David-Psalmist- King of Israel, initiator of Jerusalem as the capital of a united Israel, and forerunner of the messiah-redeemer.
And this Scroll of Ruth, from beginning to end, speaks of love as the most necessary condition for the birth of David and the advent of redemption.
Lot, nephew and adopted son of Abraham, returns Abraham’s loving-kindness with disinterest and disdain by leaving his “father” as well as his father’s land and faith for the greener pastures of the wicked Sodom.
Lot’s descendant Ruth repairs her great-grandfather’s transgression by returning to that very land and faith with Abraham’s great-granddaughter and her mother-in-law (adopted mother, in a sense) Naomi.
Moab, the nation into which Ruth was biologically born, forfeited the possibility of converting to the Israelite faith and nation because the founder of that nation selfishly and hatefully refused the wandering, embattled Israelites bread and water (Deut. 23:4-5). Ruth enabled the female descendants of Moab to be allowed to convert to Israel because she treated her mother-inlaw with the ultimate in love and kindness by sharing her life’s values and providing her with sustenance.
Indeed, the entire love story between Boaz and Ruth, grandparents of David, was forged by loving-kindness.
Boaz first notices Ruth when, as a homeless immigrant- convert, she comes to gather the forgotten sheaves, the gleanings and the produce in the corner of the field – a law of loving-kindness towards the poor dictated by the Torah. Boaz is immediately attracted to Ruth, despite the fact that she is a stranger, since “it has been told, yes, told to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law, by leaving your father and your mother and the land of your birth and coming to a nation you did not know yesterday and the day before” (Ruth 2:10-11). Ruth is pictured as an Abrahamesque figure – he, too, “left his land, his birthplace and his father’s house for a land he did not know” (Gen.
12:1) – and Abraham is the very quintessence of loving- kindness.
Elimelech, elder kinsman of Boaz, left Bethlehem, Israel during a famine – for the greener pasture of Moab – because he was too selfish and distanced from his people to help them in the time of their need. Boaz repairs his relative’s mean-spirited lovelessness by redeeming Naomi’s sold land and performing a levirate marriage with Ruth the stranger; yibum, a levirate marriage, is considered the ultimate in loving-kindness, whereby a brother-in-law gives respectable marital status and financial security to his childless widowed sister- in-law, as well as providing a name and heir for his deceased brother. At the same time, Boaz is repairing his ancestor Judah’s transgression of selfishness in not providing a brother-in-law to husband the widowed and childless Tamar. And Boaz’s kindness towards and love for the foreigner Ruth is the most profound expression of genuine loving-kindness.
The Scroll of Ruth teaches our tradition that the world will only be repaired and redeemed through loving-kindness. Is it any wonder, then, that the kohen- priest-teachers must bless the nation of Israel with love? The representatives of God and Torah must feel love in their hearts for every Jew – as did Boaz and Ruth – so that they can communicate to Israel the greatest blessing of all: the love of every sibling for their fellow Israelite, the profound and causeless love which will ultimately bring redemption and peace.
■ Shabbat shalom
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, and chief rabbi of Efrat. The fifth volume of his acclaimed Torah Lights series of parsha commentary will be available this summer.