Parshat Naso: Birkat Kohanim – God’s Eternal Blessing

In excavations on an escarpment overlooking the Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem in 1979-80, two silver amulets were discovered, dating to the late seventh century BCE. Texts inside the amulets preserve the language of Birkat Kohanim – the blessing with which the Kohanim were commanded to bless the children of Israel [1] (Numbers 6:24–26):

May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the Lord make His face shine light toward you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift His face toward you and give you peace.

These amulets are the earliest occurrence of a Biblical text in an extra-Biblical source. One can only wonder what has kept this blessing so meaningful over the course of millennia.

What’s The Connection?

At first blush, the three verses of Birkat Kohanim might seem to be an almost random collection of good wishes. On closer examination of the plain meaning of the text, however, we will see that it is highly structured and comprehensive, directing God’s blessings into every corner of human life. Indeed, Birkat Kohanim can be thought of as structured in concentric rings—from the outermost ring of human life to one’s most internal life. [2]

The Hebrew root bet-resh-khaf, translated as “bless,” denotes increase. Thus, Rashi explains, “May the Lord bless you” means “may God increase your possessions.” As Rashi points out, it is no blessing if God increases your possessions but robbers take them away. Indeed, robbers are only one of a great many potential dangers that may threaten one’s accumulated possessions and wealth.  So the blessing of increased possessions is followed by “and [may the Lord] protect you” from loss of your possessions. The first verse of Birkat Kohanim, then, is a blessing of material wealth.

One’s possessions are in the outermost ring of one’s life. They are surely not the essence of one’s life. Possessions come and go. They may make one’s life more comfortable, but only for a while. When a person has possessions, they mediate between one’s self and body, on the one hand, and the rest of the world around him or her, on the other hand. Possessions serve as tools that one can use to engage the world—creating, molding the material world to the benefit of one’s self and others, and improving the quality of life on earth.

The second verse of Birkat Kohanim begins “May the Lord make His face shine light toward you”. Rashi explains this metaphor as follows: “May God show you a smiling face, a yellow face.” Rashi’s use of this modern image is astounding; his description is precisely that of the graphic image, the “smiley” which hundreds of millions of human beings recognize from the internet:

Smiley Face

Apparently, the idea has been around for millennia. smiley brings a smile to the viewer’s face. It conveys a feeling that the world is smiling at you. It expresses a sense of general well-being, of joy, that all is well with the world. The priestly prayer that God should “shine His face” toward you means that you should feel pleased in your encounter with the world around you, that your efforts should be crowned with success, the things you do will succeed.

The actions that one does with one’s own body are closer to one’s person than one’s possessions. Unlike possessions, one is bound to one’s body throughout one’s life. Through one’s body, one interacts with the surrounding world and engages it in direct physical contact. The ring of one’s deeds in the world is closer to one’s self than the ring of one’s possessions.

The second verse concludes with the single Hebrew word, viḥunneka – “and [may the Lord] be gracious to you.”  Rashi, following the Sifrei, suggests that a more accurate translation is: “May God grant you good favor.” This is an intentional ambiguity, for it means both “may the Lord grant that you find favor in the eyes of others” and also “may the Lord grant that others find favor in your eyes.” Thus, this blessing calls for mutual pleasure in our relationships with other people: may we all like each other, may God grant that we all get along well.

Other human beings — who live, breathe, feel, and think, like us; who share our humanity; who, like us, choose freely how to live—are closer to us than are the inanimate objects and the non-human animals that serve us for utilitarian purposes in the world. Only with other human beings can we create the personal “I–thou” human relationship of which Buber wrote, a relationship of trust and love. The quality of our lives as social creatures is determined by the nature of our interactions with our family members, our friends and neighbors, our work colleagues, and our communities in general. This blessing, then, encompasses the entire area of our interpersonal, social, work, and communal relationships. It is a prayer that both we and others succeed in creating a social world that is pleasant for us all. Thus, Birkat Kohanim has moved one step closer to our inner selves.

The third verse of Birkat Kohanim begins “May the Lord lift His face toward you.” This metaphor is based on the behavior of a person who was so furious that he could not look directly at the object of his anger. After his anger subsided, he became able to lift his face again, and look at the other person directly — or, as we say, “in the face.” Thus Rashi explains this part of Birkat Kohanim with two Hebrew words: yikhbosh ka·aso, “may the Lord suppress His anger toward you.” This is a highly startling “blessing”! Would not “May the Lord not be angry with you!” be more of a blessing?

The key to understanding this lies in a truth about us human beings. The likelihood of one being angry with someone is proportional to the degree of closeness between them. One can hardly be angry at one with whom one has no contact. Indeed, one can love billions of human beings easily — in the abstract, from afar. But spouses, parents and children, friends and neighbors find it more challenging to ignore the sometimes offensive behaviors to which they are exposed.

In the first part of this third verse, then, the priests are blessing each individual with closeness to God. It is not possible for a human being to be truly close to God, while yet remaining human, without in some way angering God. If Birkat Kohanim were to include a wish to the effect that God not be angry with human beings, then that could only mean that a deep chasm would separate those being blessed from God. So instead, acknowledging the risks that come with closeness, Birkat Kohanim wishes that although we, as humans, will inevitably anger God in some way — that is a measure of how close we will be with God — nevertheless, may God understand, accept, forgive, and suppress any anger we may arouse. Thus, Birkat Kohanim has moved one step closer to our deepest internal lives by blessing each of us in our relationship with God.

Birkat Kohanim concludes with “and [may the Lord] give you peace.” This is a blessing for personal peace of mind. Rashi makes no comment on this phrase, for the necessity of internal peace—in order for all of the other blessings to be meaningful — is clear. A life of material prosperity, success in all one’s endeavors, friendly relations all around, and even acceptance by God are not blessings for a person who suffers internal torment. On the other hand, the equanimity, calm, self-assurance, and confidence that come with a state of internal peace of mind will allow all the other blessings to be appreciated, to be truly blessings.

With this, Birkat Kohanim has encompassed all of human life, from the most external to the most internal. Birkat Kohanim – in its plain meaning – has a simple, clear structure, and constitutes a comprehensive formula for a blessed life in every possible way.

May God shower all His blessings on Israel, and bless Israel with peace, Amen.

This Dvar Torah is in memory of my father, Rabbi Dr. Moses Mescheloff zt”l, and my mother, Rebbetzin Magda Mescheloff zt”l.

[1] Many parents, too, recite Birkat Kohanim to bless each of their children on Friday evenings, upon returning home from the synagogue.

[2] Elsewhere we will show that Birkat Kohanim is comprehensive and structured in that it blesses human beings in the four (five) spheres of life in which human beings act as free agents, on the one hand, and yet must deal with the fact that our freedoms are inherently restricted – thus requiring God’s blessing.

Rabbi Dr. David MescheloffRabbi Dr. David Mescheloff, a member of Beit Hillel, was ordained in 1968 by Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik זצ”ל. After earning his Ph.D. in mathematics at Northwestern University he moved to Israel in 1973, and lectured in mathematics for ten years at Tel Aviv University. He subsequently earned a second Ph.D, in Talmud, and lectured at Bar-Ilan University for fourteen years. He was certified as a community rabbi by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel both under Rabbi Avraham Kahana Shapira זצ”ל and by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau שליט”א. Rabbi Mescheloff writes, translates and edits articles and books in a variety of areas, and has published numerous articles in the areas of Jewish law, Jewish thought and education.

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