The Torah in Parashat Naso introduces the mitzva of birkat kohanim, which requires the kohanim to bless the rest of the nation. God commands Moshe, “Speak to Aharon and sons, saying: Thus shall you bless the Israelites” (6:23), and He then proceeds to dictate Moshe the precise text of the brief blessing that the kohanim should confer upon the people.
The Sefat Emet observes that God does not actually command the kohanim to bless Benei Yisrael, but rather commands them to use this specific text when blessing them. God does not instruct, “Bless the Israelites,’ but rather says, “Thus shall you bless the Israelites.” Apparently, it was self-evident that the kohanim would bless the people, and now God instructs the kohanim as to how exactly this is to be done. The Sefat Emet offers a remarkable explanation for why the command is formulated this way:
One who serves Hashem must recognize the stature of the simple Jews, that they are worthy of blessing, as it says, “Thus shall you bless” – implying that Hashem knows that the righteous kohen’s desire is to bless the Israelites, and He shows them the way how to bless them.
Indeed, it was taken for granted that the kohanim wanted to regularly bless the people. Having been elevated to the lofty stature of kehuna, to the elite position of God’s ministers in His Mikdash, it was naturally assumed that they loved the people and wished to confer a blessing upon them. Therefore, God did not have to command the kohanim to bless Benei Yisrael, and needed simply to command them which text should use.
In fact, the Mishna Berura (128:37) cites sources forbidding a kohen to recite birkat kohanim if he feels animosity towards the congregation, as the blessing must be recited with love. This halakha is a striking expression of the Sefet Emet’s theory, that the mitzva of birkat kohanim does not take effect unless a kohen truly wishes to bless the nation. If the kohen feels hostility towards the people, then he bears no obligation to bless them, because the obligation applies only once a kohen feels the kind of love and affection that he is expected to feel towards his fellow Jews.
Unfortunately, it often happens that growth in Torah knowledge and spirituality yields an attitude of disdain towards those who have not undergone such a process. “Kohanim,” people who have achieved stature in Torah study and observance, sometimes look condescendingly upon the “simple Jews” whose knowledge and level of observance leave much to be desired. The Sefat Emet’s insight teaches us how grave a mistake it is to allow one’s spiritual achievements to result in disdain or disrespect for his fellow Jews, regardless of their religious stature. From the perspective of the Sefat Emet, love and affection for “simple Jews” is an integral part of avodat Hashem, and, as such, religious growth must deepen, not dull, our feelings of respect and concern for our fellow Jews.