Parashat Naso contains the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing: May the Eternal bless you and keep you; may the Eternal shine God’s countenance upon you and favor you; May the Eternal lift God’s countenance upon you and put peace upon you. The Chassidic work, Kedushat Levi written by Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, focuses on the introduction that the Torah gives to this blessing: Thus (“koh”) shall you bless the Children of Israel….

The principle is thus, as the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Chassidut) always reminded his students through the verse (Psalm 121:5) “The Eternal is your shade/shadow….” Just as the shadow does what the person casting it does, so does the Blessed Creator, so to speak, do what human beings do. This is why people must do mitzvot and give tzedakah and have compassion upon the poor so that the Blessed Creater will likewise do good things for God’s people. This is the meaning of the word “thus (‘koh)”…. When a person stands in prayer… one should do so only for God’s enjoyment, as they said in the Mishnah (Avot 2, 9): If you learned a great deal of Torah, do not think yourself great,  for that is simply what you were created to do. Therefore, when one prays to God with requests, one turns the backs of their hands downwards and their palms upwards. But when one prays solely to give God pleasure, one turns one’s palms downwards. In this way, it is as if the one praying influences God to act in a certain way…. This is why during the birkat kohanim the priests hold their hands with their palms turned downwards….

The Kedushat Levi teaches that Jews who performs mitzvot and pray solely for the pleasure of the Creator are simply doing what they are created to do. We exist to give praise and pleasure to the One who brought us into being. What we do for God’s pleasure, God will repay us for our pleasure. Midah keneged midah, measure for measure.

It is telling that the quote from Pirkei Avot that the Berdichever Rebbe chose here is “If you learned a great deal of Torah, do not think yourself great,  for that is simply what you were created to do.” It could have been Antignos of Socho’s teaching “Do not be like the servants who serve the master for the sake of a reward, but be like the servants who serve the master not for the sake of a reward…. (Avot 1, 3).”

The Berdichever does pass on that message as well, in emphasizing the importance of serving God for God’s pleasure. That element of making God central, and not ourselves, is clearly part and parcel of his teaching. Why, then, does he couch that message in a broader teaching about God responding in kind to human beings’ actions? Does this not make the reader consider how their actions and religious life will affect them personally?

The answer can be found in the Torah that we learned recently, on Shavuot. Rabbi Yehoshua in the Talmud (Beitzah 15b) taught that we should divide half for ourselves and half for God. Obviously, our own needs, physical and emotional, matter. If they did not, anything that we do for the good of others would be meaningless. What the Berdichever comes to teach us is that by acting as if we ourselves are not the center of our own universes, then our own personal needs will be better met, as will the needs of those around us.

Shabbat Shalom!

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