“The Challenge of the Priestly Blessings”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Naso, we encounter the very beautiful and well known “Priestly Blessings,” also known as Birkat Cohanim. G-d informs Moses to speak to Aaron and his sons telling them the formula that they should pronounce to bless the people of Israel. Numbers 6:24-26: “Y’var’eh’ch’cha Hashem v’yish’m’reh’cha. Y’air Hashem pah’nav ay’leh’cha vee’choo’neh’ka. Yee’sah Hashem pah’nav ay’leh’cha v’yah’sem l’cha shalom.” May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. May the Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.

The preeminent Bible teacher, Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997), notes a distinction in the blessings, pointing out that the first of the Priestly Blessings is a material blessing, while the second blessing is of a spiritual nature. The third blessing combines the previous blessings, uniting both the material and the spiritual elements. Rabbi Joseph Hertz observes with great insight that these blessings may be fraught with danger, necessitating the special protection of the Al-mighty: “May the Lord bless you” says Hertz: with possessions. “And keep you,” from these possessions possessing you. In effect, Hertz is saying that the blessing adjures G-d to guard us from sin and shield us from all the destructive influences that so often follow in the wake of earthly prosperity.

Although we usually regard all blessings as something positive, blessings in general and the Priestly blessings in particular actually raise many philosophical and theological issues. The Torah tells us that the Priestly benedictions should be spoken by the Cohain, the priest, and if recited properly, indicate that G-d will bless the people of Israel. This appears to suggest that the Priestly Blessings have a special quality that seemingly forces the hand of the Al-mighty. It is as if a human word delivered by the right person, in the right manner, will call forth a predictable Divine response! No small feat to be sure!

Similarly, the Cohanim, by their relationship to Aaron and through their training and dedication, also seem to have special powers. They become the transmitters of the human aspiration, and thereby initiate channels of Divine grace. Can it possibly be that certain human beings have a special, enhanced status in their relationship with G-d?

The Rashbam, Rabbi Shlomo b. Meir (c.1085-1174, grandson of Rashi), finds these possibilities untenable, and consequently sees the Priestly Blessingss more as a prayer than a blessing. He maintains that the Cohanim are praying that their words will open up the hearts of those who pronounce the blessings and those who hear them, and that G-d in turn will grant His blessing in accordance with His own will.

All of this philosophical exploration raises further questions. Can a human being really offer blessing? Is it possible for mortals to truly bless G-d? We say in our standard blessing formula: “Baruch ah’tah Hashem,” Blessed are You, G-d. Does G-d need our blessings?

A number of Rabbinic commentators say that the word for blessing, bracha or baruch, stems from the Hebrew term for knee, berech. They imply that when we say the formula for a blessing, we are not at all blessing G-d, but rather, by bending our knees and humbling ourselves before the Al-mighty, we demonstrate to others how much G-d is worthy of worship. This idea then becomes a blessing, carried on all human lips, to be transported throughout the universe.

The issue of whether human beings can encourage G-d to bless us, or if human beings can actually bless G-d is not easily resolved. But one thing we know for sure. We know that mortals are certainly in need of G-d’s blessings. In light of that, perhaps the most critical of all the blessings the world needs now is to be found in the final words of the Priestly Benediction: “Shalom,” May G-d bless us with peace. Amen.

May you, and all of us, be blessed.