“Reflections on the Meaning of Peace”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Naso, includes the well-known “Priestly Blessings,” the brief but beautiful, threefold blessing that Moses instructs the Priests (Kohanim)–the children of Aaron, to bestow upon the People of Israel.

Known in Hebrew asבִּרְכַּת כֹּהֲנִים–Birchat Kohanim, the three verses (Numbers 6:24-26), that constitute this blessing consist of only fifteen words. The three blessings have a lyrical rhythmic form, and reflect a majestic solemnity.

According to the Talmud, Birchat Kohanim was one of the most impressive features of the service in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Today, it still holds a prominent place in daily and holiday synagogue worship.

The first and briefest blessing (Numbers 6:24)(only three words) יְבָרֶכְךָ השׁם, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ, is the blessing that G-d will guard over Israel. The second blessing (Numbers 6:25) יָאֵר השׁם פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ, is the blessing that G-d will shine His face on Israel and be gracious unto them. The final blessing (Numbers 6:26), יִשָּׂא השׁם פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם, is the blessing that G-d lift up His countenance toward Israel and grant them peace.

The structure of the blessings indicates that the final blessing of peace is the ultimate blessing. The power of the blessing of peace can be better appreciated from the Talmudic statement in Uktzin 3:12, the concluding statement of the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta said, “The Holy One, blessed be He, found no vessel that could better contain blessing for Israel except that of peace, as it is written, Psalm 29:11, “The L-rd will give strength onto His people. The L-rd will bless His people with peace.”

Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar, cited in Midrash Tanchuma 7, says that peace is great because G-d concludes all His blessings with the word, peace, “Shalom,” a reference to the final blessing of Numbers 6:26, May G-d lift up His countenance toward Israel and grant them peace.

The Da’at Sofrim asserts that after the first two blessings of the Priestly Blessings for G-d to guard His people and give them grace, the Priests must pray for G-d to lift His face to His people, because that gesture of “lifting His face”  is the most effective means of achieving Divine forgiveness for sin. While the promise of the second blessing to make His face shine is sufficient to achieve forgiveness for the righteous, it is not sufficient for the wicked. The blessing for G-d to lift His face is intended as a plea for G-d to lift the sins from off His people Israel, and to treat them with mercy beyond the letter of the law, granting them full forgiveness.

The Talmud in Rosh Hashana 17b tells the story of Bloria, a woman convert to Judaism, who asked Rabbi Gamliel: How can G-d show His people special consideration? After all, the Torah clearly says in Deuteronomy 10:17 that G-d does not lift His countenance to forgive those who are undeserving and is not subject to bribery. From this seeming contradiction, the well-known principle that is invoked on the High Holidays is derived–that G-d mercifully forgives only those who sin against Him. To gain forgiveness for sins committed against a fellow human being, one must first obtain forgiveness from the actual victim.

The Sifra in parashat Bechukotai 7, notes that a person may have prosperity, health, food and drink, but if there is no peace, it is all in vain. The concluding blessing must therefore be the blessing of peace assuring true tranquility.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz cites the British scholar  Rabbi Morris Joseph on his notes on the Priestly Blessing, who writes as follows:

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. Thus it is that the greatest sages made a point of being the first to salute passersby in the street. Peace is the burthen [burden] of prayer with which every service in the synagogue concludes; “May He who makes peace in His high heavens grant peace onto us.” The Jew who is true to himself will labor with special energy in the cause of peace. A war-loving Jew is a contradiction in terms. Only the peace-loving Jew is a true follower of his Prophets who said universal brotherhood in the forefront of their pictures of coming happiness for mankind, predicting the advent of a Golden Age when nations should not lift up sword against nation, nor learn war anymore.

The Midrash Rabba, Deuteronomy 5:15, states that the ultimate purpose of the entire Torah is to promote peace, as Solomon writes in the Book of Proverbs 3:17, Her [the Torah’s] paths are pleasant paths and all its ways are peace.

May you be blessed.