By Dr. Irwin Gelman
“What the world needs now, is love sweet love; that’s the only thing that there’s much too little of.” As written by lyricist, Hal David, music by Burt Bacharach, and release by Diane Warwick 55 years ago, this seemingly saccharine sentiment is as important now as it was then.
In this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) of Naso, we learn how God teaches the Priests, the Kohanim, to bless the People of Israel with a three-part blessing: “May Adonai bless you and protect you; May Adonai shine His face upon you and be gracious to you; May Adonai turn His face toward you and grant you peace.”
As pointed out by the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in addition to this being the oldest continuously-used blessing in Jewish tradition, recited in daily morning prayers and when we bless our children Friday nights, they are used to sanctify the bride and groom under the chuppah canopy, and they are used universally by non-Jews. But most significant is that when Kohanim bless the congregation during the duchanin part of service on Jewish holidays, they first chant that they are commanded to bless God’s people with ahavah, with love. There is no other example where we are actually commanded to bless something or someone with love. According to Rabbi Sacks, this is because the Kohanim are teaching us what love of one’s fellow human looks like, “because love is how blessings enter the world.”
We also understand from the Zohar that the love coming from the Kohanim should be genuine and not a formality, as it was said, “a Priest who does not love the people, or a Priest who is not loved by the people, may not bless.” Again, as Rabbi Sacks accounts, this public display of love, this “common good”, is about producing a society in which there is welfare for all, not one in which private interests are prioritized over the interests of the whole. Such as society, Rabbi Sacks argues, is blessed by God through the Kohanic 3-part blessing, whereas the selfish society is not. As he put it, “a society whose members seek one another’s welfare is holy and blessed.”
As has been the case for the past 15 months, the COVID pandemic has infused itself in all my thoughts. This has been a game-changer, an event that has pulled at the foundations of all we believe in as a society and as Jews. Some want to argue that a fundamental American right is the freedom not to wear masks or get vaccinated, outweighing the general welfare. Even on its surface, I can’t square this with the knowledge that during the Second World War, Americans sacrificed for the common good, living with food rationing, without metals, rubber or silk products needed for the war effort.
Jewish principles seem straightforward in this regard- we are mandated from the Torah to preserve human life, pikuach nefesh, and in order to do so, we are obligated to set aside even the most stringent of laws, such as the sanctity of Shabbat. This is because the laws of the Torah are given so “that you shall live by them” (v’chai bahem). Perhaps, when Thomas Jefferson penned in the Declaration of Independence that “all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” he chose to start with the right to have life, because without that guarantee, there can be neither subsequent liberty nor happiness.
The development of efficacious, safe vaccines at a record pace, and the mass vaccination of people in the U.S. has begun to allow us to get back to a life that seems much more like a pursuit of happiness. I understand those with vaccine hesitancy; people are nervous about side-effects, whether they will be fully protected. As a formally trained virologist, I am happy to address any questions (Irwin.firstname.lastname@example.org). To find where you can get a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, Erie County Dept. of Health sponsored sites can be found online or by calling (716) 858-2929, and now, vaccines are available at multiple local pharmacies.
We are all members of an organic society that needs and depends on each other. Let’s heed Rabbi Sacks teaching so that by seeking one another’s welfare, we truly become a people that is holy and blessed.
Dr. Irwin Gelman is the Director of Research Integration at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, as well as the Hazzan at Congregation Beth Abraham.