This week’s Parsha—Parshas Naso—contains a Mitzvah that I hope all our friends had the opportunity to witness and partake in: Birchas Kohanim—the Blessing of the Congregation of Israel by the Kohanim, the Priestly class, the descendants of Aharon who served in the Temple and who blessed the people every day. In Sephardic communities, the custom is that Kohanim bless the people every day, but among Ashkenazim, the custom is that the Kohanim bless the people only on Yom Tov. Thus, a few days ago, in Ashekenazic synagogues all over the world, the Kohanim blessed the people along with the Kohanim in Sephardic synagogues. The power of the Priestly Blessing is the greatest of blessings and I hope everyone was able to be there on Yom Tov a few days ago to receive BIrchas Kohanim.
This Mitzvah is described in this week’s Parsha—Bamidbar (Numbers), Chapter 6, Verses 22–27— and if we take a close look at the Mitzvah and how the rabbis analyze it, we find some strange goings on. First, the language of the Torah: Verse 23 has Hashem telling Moshe to say to Aharon and his sons, “So shall you bless the Children of Israel, say to them—” and the next three verses contain the text of the blessing. Why the extra words, “say to them”? Without that phrase, we would understand that what follows is the text of what the Kohanim should say. The Rabbis of the Talmud derive from this that the Priestly Blessing must be said in Biblical Hebrew, just as the words appear in the Torah. There are other prayers that can be said in translation—the Shema, for example—but not the Priestly Blessing. That must be recited in Lashon HaKodesh—the “Holy Tonugue,” meaning, Hebrew. Why is that the case? The Shema is, after all, among the most revered and sanctified prayers of our faith. If that can be said in translation (so that it will be well-understood by the person reciting it), why can that not apply to the Priestly Blessing?
Then, at the end of this section, the Torah tells us that after the Kohanim will bless the People, “V’ani ava-re-chem”—“then I [meaning, Hashem] will bless them.” Now, just who is being blessed after the Kohanim bless the people? The Talmud (Hullin 49a) relates a dispute between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Yishmael says that “them” refers to the Kohanim, so that Hashem is saying that He will bless the Kohanim after they bless the people. Rabbi Akiva, says, no, the “them” referred to here is the Jewish People the Kohanim already blessed, meaning, Hashem will confirm the blessing of the Kohanim. The question arises, what about the Kohanim—are they deprived of a blessing from G-d? Why should that be the case, after they have loving blessed the People? But Rabbi Akiva answers, no, the Kohanim are also blessed by G-d, but that is derived from a different Verse: Hashem says to Avraham (Bereishis 12:3), “I will bless those who bless you,” and Tosafot comments that even people outside the Jewish Faith will be blessed if they bless the Jewish People because Israel is the Chosen People, precious to Hashem. So Rabbi Akiva also believes the Kohanim are blessed, but they are not included in the blessing that the Kohanim bestowed on the people. Rabbi Yishmael, on the other hand, includes the Kohanim in their own blessing, so that all of Am Yisrael, including the Kohanim, receive the blessing they themselves uttered. The Talmud goes further and says that Rabbi Yishmael believed as he did because he himself was a Kohein and so was partial, loving and protective of his fellow Kohanim.
It seems clear from this that, though Hashem has promised Avraham that He will bless those that bless Israel, the blessing of the Kohanim is even greater. (Otherwise, why would including the Kohanim in the Priestly Blessing be a case of Rabbi Yishmael showing favor to the Kohanim?) In order to understand this, we have to take a closer look at the very concept of blessing.
A blessing—a beracha—is an outflowing of kindness and goodness from Hashem. The word “beracha” implies this; the word is used, for example, to describe a grafting of a vine by another vine so that the life of one vine can flow into and give life to another vine. A blessing thus represents the flowing of Chesed—kindness—from above, from the source, to one in need. What flows may be health to one who is sick; a child to a couple who is barren; understanding to one who is confused. This is also why the Mitzvah of blessing the people was assigned to the Kohanim. The Kohanim are the very personification of Chesed, kindness. The Kohein gives the sinner an opportunity to repent and find forgiveness—and he will bestow his blessing on the People “Be-ahava”—“with love,” as the blessing the Kohein recites before he performs this mitzvah says. He bestows the blessing without judgment and without demands—he lovingly blesses the Children of Israel no matter whether the blessing is deserved or not.
Though this quality—the flow of Chesed—is characteristic of all blessings, there is something special and unique about the blessing of Kohanim. The blessings of the Kohanim, say the Kabbalists, are fulfilled with lightening speed—faster than all other blessings; faster, one might say, than even such blessings bestowed by Hashem Himself. But how can this be, and why should this be the case? Why, in fact, do blessings of any kind take any time at all to be fulfilled? Don’t the fruits and fulfillment of all blessing come from the same source—Hashem, the Almighty—and can’t those blessing be fulfilled and granted in the wink of any eye? Human blessings and commitments to help someone may sometimes take time; but shouldn’t a blessing that comes from Hashem be fulfilled immediately?
The deeper understanding of what a blessing from Hashem is, is that such a blessing has a profound effect on the entire scheme of Creation, from the supernal World of Emanation (Atzilut) that is the first world through which Hashem relates to the Universe He created, and then through the many myriad chambers and aspects of the other levels or “Worlds” of Creation, so that the blessing should really be beneficial to the person blessed. In those Worlds, the blessing deals with the many spiritual elements of the world and of life, so that when it ultimately reaches the person, it can be accepted and applied to the material needs that the person has. And this takes time—time for the person to prepare to receive the blessing, and time for the worlds to adjust to what the blessings call upon them to do to make the blessing meaningful, effective—and real.
Here’s something else seemingly strange that that this may clear up: We say that the fate of every person is determined on Rosh Hashanah, down to how much they will have to eat in the coming year. So why do we continue to pray to Hashem for sustenance throughout the year, if the decision has already been made? The answer is: we pray throughout the year that we will make ourselves fit to receive the blessing from the upper World—we pray that the way we live our lives will make the blessing a real blessing, and not a curse in disguise—something we’ll fritter away. And, well, we need time to make ourselves worthy and fit to receive the blessing that is wending its way through the upper worlds to us. We need time and effort to turn the ethereal, spiritual form of the blessing into something material—the material blessings that we need in order to live and enjoy life.
That is how blessings usually work in the Heavenly realm, but the blessings of the Kohanim find their way to their recipients quickly and without the grinding of the wheels of the upper worlds. The Kohanim see us both as we are and as we might be—able to almost miraculously make ourselves fit and suited for the blessings coming from the upper worlds. This is a kind of Chesed—a Midah, characteristic of the Divine—that forgoes the mechanism that demands that recipients of blessing be ready and suited for them. The love of the Kohein for the People of Israel taps into a higher level of Chesed—what the Kabbalists call Rav Chesed: Infinite Kindness. It’s a kindness that sees the great need and the dire straits people are in, and calls upon the material blessings that will save them, heal them, help them, give them what they long for; what they need—even if it’s what they only think they need.
The blessing of the Kohanim taps into a deeper level of Hashem’s love and kindness for His creation, and brings it down—quickly, materially, and lovingly—to help in ways that we human beings can feel the urgent need for. Perhaps the person blessed will be able to handle it and it will truly be a blessing; but perhaps not. The Kohein includes in his blessing a prayer that the blessing will be granted, and the person receiving it will find a way to make good use of it. This is why the Priestly Blessing must be said in the Holy Tongue—because it includes a prayer in it that the Kohein’s “rash” act of circumventing the mechanisms of Creation because of the desperate need of one’s fellow Jew will still result in a true blessing.
Is it any wonder that the Bracha the Kohein makes before he blesses Am Yisroel identifies the Kohein’s motivation and his feeling toward those whom he blesses as Ahava—love for us, his fellow human beings.
By: Rabbi Reuven Wolf
Rabbi Reuven Wolf is a world renown educator and lecturer who has devoted his
life to reaching out to Jews of all ages and circumstances and rekindling their spirit
of Judaism. Raised in the Ropschitzer Chassidic dynasty, he was educated in the
Belz and Bluzhev Yeshivos, and later in the celebrated Yeshivos of Slabodka and
Mir. He is profoundly influenced by Kabbalah and the Jewish Mystical teachings of
Chabad Chassidic philosophy. Since 1995, Rabbi Wolf has taught Jews of all ages, all
across North America. In 2006, Rabbi Wolf and Haki Abhesera founded Maayon
Yisroel as a center dedicated to spreading the profound mystical teachings of Chassidic
Judaism and to fostering the love of Jewish tradition among all Jews, particularly the
young Jewish population of Southern California.