MAY G-D BLESS YOU AND KEEP YOU.
MAY G-D SHINE HIS COUNTENANCE UPON YOU AND BE GRACIOUS TO YOU.
MAY G-D LIFT HIS COUNTENANCE TO YOU AND GRANT YOU PEACE (Numbers 6:24-26).
This, of course, is the text of the Priestly Blessing which Hashem dictates to Moses for transmission to Aaron, for use eternally as the formula by which the Kohanim (priests) will serve as the conduit of blessing from G-d to the people, receiving a Divine blessing for themselves as part of the process. To this day, the Birkat Kohanim is used, more or less in its original context, when the Kohanim bless the people on holidays, and when quoted liturgically in the daily Amida and when we bless our children on Shabbat and at numerous other times. With words so familiar and iconic, it’s not surprising that we don’t often take the time to consider what may possibly be happening underneath the surface. As you may expect, Chazal (our blessed sages) have spent many centuries and much ink trying to unpack what could be going on in these three elegant verses. While it would be possible to spend years exploring every nuance of G-d’s formula for His own blessing to be delivered by priestly proxy, here is one possible interpretation: G-d’s blessing is really an opportunity.
MAY G-D BLESS YOU AND KEEP YOU: Almost universally, Chazal interpret the first line as a reference to material blessings; the basic necessities of life which are necessary for our physical survival. Absent food, economic means, social interactions, shelter, and safety, fragile beings such as we would quickly perish. The first three Hebrew words assure that G-d will bless us with our physical needs, then keep (literally, “guard”) us so that we remain sustained forever. Should we remain deserving, this will be our legacy. These opening words, however, are not an end unto themselves. They are intended as a foundation for the second verse:
MAY G-D SHINE HIS COUNTENANCE UPON YOU AND BE GRACIOUS TO YOU: The Rabbis stress that the suggested anthropomorphism of G-d’s face is not the point here. The important part is the first of the five words in this verse: “Ya’er” in the Hebrew, denoting an active act of illumination. The same root is used in Genesis when the sun and the moon are created, and the same verb form is used before the crossing of the Reed Sea when the pillar of cloud supernaturally illuminates the night. This line is taken to refer to the light of Torah (a classic metaphor), the illumination of G-d’s presence in our lives, and/or both. G-d’s light smiles upon us, and then, as suggested by the conclusion of the verse, the Divine “graciousness” refers to the opportunity we have to reflect Hashem’s light. With our fundamental needs assured, and with the spiritual tools we need at our disposal, it’s now our turn.
MAY G-D LIFT HIS COUNTENANCE TO YOU AND GRANT YOU PEACE: Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn (?-1862) wrote that actively turning your face to someone is an expression of a positive attitude. If we are angry with someone, guilty, or ashamed, we will look away or avoid them. G-d here, in the final seven words of the blessing, looks to us hopefully to see if we have put the pieces together. The final line of Birkat Kohanim is where we have the mandate to combine the material blessings of the first verse with the spiritual opportunities of the second. The “peace” referred to here is not the translated word which denotes the opposite of “war.” It is rather the Hebrew concept which comes from the root “shalem,” meaning “complete.” Our task is to create the balance of the physical and the spiritual; recognizing that the true blessing is having the opportunity and the ability to take the lead from Hashem and combine the duality into a holy whole.
In essence, therefore, G-d’s blessing is a conditional proposition. That’s why the text is constructed as it is: 3 words, 5 words, 7 words. Each step of our mandate becomes more complex but represents a further potential connection to the Divine. Once we have united body and soul in harmony with Hashem, we will have fulfilled the terms of the Birkat Kohanim bargain, in which G-d opens the doors, and bids us enter. Buried in the structure is the real blessing. Its 15 words equal the gematria (numerological value) of the name of G-d. Birkat Kohanim is not an invitation to sit back and bask in the benefits of a heavenly blessing. It’s a challenge to take our G-d-given opportunity to become one with Hashem.
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen