By Shlomo Riskin
Few passages in the Bible are as well known as the Priestly Benediction. In Israel, the kohanim (priests) rise to bless the congregation every morning, while in the Diaspora Ashkenazi Jews are permitted to include this special benediction only on festivals. Nevertheless, there are many life-cycle celebrations such as circumcisions, redemptions of the first born, bnei mitzvah and even weddings which are punctuated by this blessing. In effect, the kohen stands as God’s representative, as the “agent of the Compassionate One,” as the spiritual leader and as the Torah teacher, and in this role of teacher and guide he calls on God to bless the congregation. As Moses declares in his final blessing to the Israelites: “[The Priests and Levites] shall guard Your covenant, shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel¦” (Deut. 33:9-10).
Both the Talmud (the ninth chapter of Berachot) and our prayer liturgy declare: “At the time of the priestly blessings, the congregation responds: ‘Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours.’” Apparently our sages saw a profound connection between the dreams of the nation and the function of its priest-leaders. What is the nature of this connection? I would suggest that, first and foremost, true leaders and educators must inspire their students, congregants and/or nation with a lofty vision. The Psalmist of Israel, King David, declares in the Psalm which we recite each Sabbath and festival before reciting the Grace after Meals: “When the Lord returned with the restoration of Zion, we were as dreamers” (Psalms 126:1). After all, if the Jews had not dreamt of the return to Israel throughout their long exiles, we never would have come back.
One recognizes the very same idea – but from an opposite vantage point – when one understands the cause behind the tragedy of the Book of Numbers. In Numbers, the Jewish people descend from the great heights of the Revelation at Sinai to the disastrous depths of the sin of the scouts, the rebellion of Korah, the sin of Moses and the destruction of that entire generation in the desert. What caused such a mighty fall? The Bible itself begins its account of the descent with the words: “And it happened that the nation ‘kvetched’ (mitonenim) in an evil fashion” (Numbers 11:1). The Netziv, an 18th-century commentator, explains the difficult word mitonenim as meaning “wandering hither and thither” aimlessly, from the Hebrew anna (literally “where to”). Simply put, this great Torah leader was saying that the Israelites had lost the dream which they had at Sinai, when they accepted the Divine mission of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Secondly, the Hebrew word for dream is halom, and – with a simple switch of letters – it spells hamal, which means love and compassion. The leader who inspires with his dream must first and foremost love his nation; only if he loves the Israelites will they believe themselves worthy of being loved, and believe in their ability to realize the dream. Great leaders such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and David Ben-Gurion lifted their respective nations to unheard-of heights because they helped make them believe in themselves.
Third, the same Hebrew word halom, with another switch of letters spells lohem, which means fighting – if need be – to achieve the necessary goals. A great measure of imparting a dream is to sanctify idealistic sacrifice on behalf of that dream. Fourth, the word halom can also be rearranged to spell lehem or bread; a dream must be nourished with the material necessities of programs, tactics and strategy. Fifth, the word halom is also an anagram for melah, or salt. Salt symbolizes tears – the tears of sacrifice and commitment – as well as eternity, since salt never putrefies. Salt is therefore the symbol of our covenant with God, which guarantees Jewish eternity and ultimate redemption. And finally, halom is linguistically tied to halon or window, a light to the outside world. The dream with which the kohen must inspire the Israelites is a dream which encompasses the entire world, the dream that “Through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth,” the dream that “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Yes, the Jewish people – as well as its leaders – must be dreamers. And perhaps only those who believe in a God who is invisible will dare to dream the impossible, and only those who dream the impossible will ever achieve the incredible.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.