In the early summer of 1970, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner was sitting at the Kotel praying for peace and tranquility. The War of Attrition in the Sinai had intensified, and Israeli soldiers were being killed daily. Heartbroken by the losses, the words of the Mishnah echoed in his mind: “From the day that the Temple was destroyed, there is no day that does not contain curses.”
Suddenly, Gefner had a revelation. He remembered that there is a passage in the Midrash that responds to the Mishnah and says: “Rav Acha said: If so, by what merit do we remain standing? Through the merit of Birkat Kohanim [the priestly blessing].” This inspired Gefner; he later found a tradition from the late-12th-century mystic Rabbi Eleazar of Worms that said: “If three hundred Kohanim would stand on the Mount of Olives and recite Birkat Kohanim, the Messiah would arrive.” Gefner decided to organize large Birkat Kohanim gatherings at the Kotel, and today, because of him, tens of thousands of people, along with hundreds of Kohanim, come to the Kotel from around the world on Pesach and Sukkot for Birkat Kohanim.
Gefner’s choice of Birkat Kohanim is unsurprising. This blessing has been a favorite for millennia. Parents offer this blessing to their children on Shabbat, and the oldest biblical text ever found is that of Birkat Kohanim; it is inscribed on the Hinnom Scrolls, two silver amulets that date to the seventh century BCE. Birkat Kohanim has a unique appeal that draws people to it.
Despite its popularity, the idea that the Kohanim are the ones who bless the community is theologically troubling. Rabbi Isaac Arama articulates this problem in his commentary to the Torah portion: “What purpose is there in this commandment, in having these blessings coming to the people from the mouths of the Kohanim? It is God above who gives the blessing. What can be added if the Kohanim offer this blessing or not? Does God need their help?”
Some are unconcerned by this question. Rabbeinu Bachya says, for example, that “God handed over the gift of these blessings to the Kohanim, that they should have in their hands the power to bless Israel.” Some go even further. The Kli Yakar explains that it is the chazan who brings the blessings down from heaven, by reading its words. The Kohanim repeat the words after the chazan and take that blessing from the chazan to offer it to the community.
The Rambam and many other commentaries find this to be unacceptable; it is God who determines divine blessings, not man. The Rambam writes: “Do not wonder and say, ‘Of what use is the blessing of an ordinary person?’ The acceptance of the blessings does not depend upon the Kohen but upon the Almighty, as it is said, ‘So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them’ (Numbers 6:27). The Kohanim fulfill their duty with which they have been charged, and the Almighty, in His mercy, blesses Israel according to His will.” According to the Rambam, the Kohen’s recitation of the blessing is merely a formality, a ritual no different than the rest of the Temple service. In the end, it is God who provides the blessing. This answer solves the theological dilemma, but devalues the role of the Kohanim and empties their blessings of meaning.
There is a third way of looking at the blessings, one that is suggested by the Rashbam. Birkat Kohanim is a prayer offered by the Kohanim on behalf of the community; God then listens to this blessing-prayer of the Kohanim and blesses the community. (The Sifrei notes that by listening to Birkat Kohanim, the community also brings God’s blessing to the Kohanim.) However, this, too, begs the question: Can’t the community pray for themselves? Can’t the Kohanim, who bless others, obtain their own blessings?
But perhaps that is precisely the point: A community that prays for each other, whose members see each other as worthy of God’s blessing, is a community transformed. That perspective is in itself a blessing.
True love requires both compassion and respect—but respect is the more important of the two. Compassion is the foundation of “love your neighbor as yourself.” When we appreciate that our neighbors are like us, we feel a desire to care for them. However, Ben Azzai, in a passage in the Talmud, says that recognizing that others are created in the image of God is even more important. This is the foundation of respect: One must treat a person who carries the divine image as sacred.
Birkat Kohanim is about respect. It teaches us to bless each other because every human being is worthy of God’s blessing. This perspective is nothing short of transformative, and it is a true moment of divine inspiration when the Kohanim and congregation meet each other face to face and connect in appreciation and love.
The context of Birkat Kohanim in our Torah reading underlines its importance as a communal institution. Instead of being included in Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) with the other laws of the Kohanim, Birkat Kohanim is found at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar (Numbers). The theme of Bamidbar is nation-building. The book begins with a census and the organization of the military and focuses on the development of a young nation in the desert. But the rise of the state brings with it a great deal of discontent. States are big and self-involved, and individuals will be overlooked and excluded. National ambitions pay little attention to the ordinary man, and consequently, states are by their very nature cold and impersonal. The state, in a word, is alienating.
The laws in our parshah all deal with people who are alienated or marginalized: those who are impure, the convert, the estranged husband and wife and the uncomfortable religious striver, the Nazir. Taken as a group, these laws warn us about alienation and the problems of nation-building. Following these laws, the blessing of the Kohanim is introduced; it represents the opposite of alienation. The cold calculus of the state sees young men as a unit of military force, one more soldier available for battle. But Birkat Kohanim reminds us that they are all God’s children.
Alienation is now commonplace around the world. A toxic mix of technology, materialism and polarization has left people feeling more disconnected than ever. It is in times like this that we must relearn how to respect everyone, to recognize the divine dignity of each human being. And that is what Birkat Kohanim does; it reminds us that even the stranger is created in the image of God and deserves our blessing.
Aaron Katz, an American immigrant to Israel, described in Tablet Magazine his experiences reciting Birkat Kohanim in “a moving minyan” on the train to Tel Aviv:
“As I recite the prayer each morning—on a moving train in the State of Israel—the words have taken on an entirely new meaning for me … On a train filled with the spectrum of Israeli society, I have a unique opportunity to provide the passengers, including the soldiers and police officers who risk their lives to defend the State of Israel, with a blessing of protection and peace.
“The Talmud explains … that Birkat Kohanim reaches out to the people ‘out in the fields’ who are unable to be present during the recitation of the blessing. As we literally pass through the fields … of Ramla and Lod … during Birkat Kohanim, I … smile at how literal the Talmudic saying has become in my own life. And I wonder, could the rabbis of the Talmud ever have imagined that an immigrant Kohen to Israel would be passing through the fields with a minyan while reciting the Birkat Kohanim and praying for peace?”
I don’t know what the rabbis of the Talmud imagined. But what Katz describes is precisely the purpose of Birkat Kohanim: to see everyone as worthy of God’s blessing. When we do that, we become just a bit closer to each other, just a bit less alienated. And maybe if we do this often enough, at the Kotel, on trains, and at the Shabbat table, the blessings of peace in Birkat Kohanim will become a reality.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.