This week’s parasha contains one of only two prescribed blessings in all of Torah, the Birkat Kohanim. This blessing is so familiar to us, it is part of the morning shacharit, and is traditionally chanted by the Kohanim on Yom Kippur. Parents also say it over children on Erev Shabbat. I find it so meaningful that at Congregation Shuvah Yisrael it is our minchag to have a Kohen deliver this blessing every Shabbat at the end of mussaf.
This blessing is a cleverly crafted gem, which becomes particularly evident when studied in Hebrew. The blessing contains an increasing pattern of words on each line (three, five, seven) and an increasing pattern of both consonants (fifteen, twenty, twenty-five), and syllables (twelve, fourteen, sixteen). The very wording therefore creates a sense of meter, order, climax and completion.
What is ultimately apparent in the recitation of this blessing is that the Kohen serves an appointed and vital, yet limited role. He is not a magician generating magic, the Kohen is but A channel for blessing to pass through on the way from the HOLY blessing One to the Jewish People. For that reason, each line begins by mentioning God as the active agent, and the last line explicitly states the words of Hashem, “I will bless them.”
Interestingly the entire blessing is phrased in the singular, an extremely unusual phenomena in Torah, which generally speaks to Israel in communal language. So why this anomaly? The simplest answer is that Torah does not conceive of any one person to be holy in a way that is different from the holiness of any other human being. At the same time, the priestly blessing reminds us of the sanctity of all humanity, and the awesome otherness of the God of Israel. This is of course an answer that would satisfy the universalistic spirit of this age. It sounds great but is it true? In fact Torah makes a point of establishing unique roles not only for Israel as a whole, but within Israel. The entire book of Vayikra establishes the role of the sons of Aaron as priests, as does this blessing itself. And the blessing follows the precise details of Nazarite dedication, a path to a greater exhibition of holy behavior and commitment to Hashem. Torah establishes specific leadership positions and much of the book of Bamidbar exposes the folly of transgressing Godly leadership. In fact this very idea is expressed by the villainous Korach when inciting mutiny against Moses querying, “Aren’t all of Israel Holy?” Holy yes, but he same…? I don’t think so.
I think there is a more plausible explanation, that it is not always possible, or even wise to extend the same blessing to everyone uniformly. For the farmer rain may be an anxiously awaited blessing; but for a beach port vacationer, not so much. Wealth, good looks, or extraordinary talent might be tremendous gifts for one person, yet a tremendous burden for another. The fact is that only the Designer of all creation and the Endower of all gifts and resources knows absolutely what blessing is most appropriate for whom. Therefore he instructs the kohanim to bless the people in the singular; so that each person might receive the blessing that is most appropriate for him or her.
To this effect Rashi comments on the first verse of the Birkat Kohenim, “May God bless you and safeguard you.” (6:24) by saying that we will be blessed with wealth and talent and guarded from dangers. Though the order may seem incorrect, and an individual needs to be protected before he or she is blessed, not all dangers are physical and external. A person who is given much wealth for instance may find that the money is their downfall. The Kohen’s blessing then asks, therefore, that we be blessed with much wealth and safeguarded against its evil effects. Isn’t this what Yeshua meant when he taught us to pray, “Grant us our daily bread and lead us not into temptation.” I often pray for my children that they should never want for that which they need but never have so much that they would enter into perdition as a result.
This blessing is more than an ancient link to our tradition; it is an ongoing instruction to rely upon the beneficence of God. On exhibit in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem are artifacts from the excavation of a burial plot from the end of the First Temple period. Among the exhibit is a small thin silver plaque the size of a thumb. Inscribed on it in Hebrew is the Birkat Kohenim. An observant Jew wore the same prayer that we are blessed with each week some 2600 years ago! We are blessed with the same prayers that have been echoed through countless generations.
Much in human history changes; our customs, styles and cultures swell and shift radically. But there are three constants:
1) The human heart retains many of the same needs, urges and concerns throughout time.
2) The God of Israel has not changed or faltered despite our changing perceptions of the Divine.
3) The covenant with Israel is still the tie that binds all of humanity to the God who gives us His Good Name – the Greatest Blessing of All!