ollega / iStock / Getty Images PlusBY RABBI ALAN ISER
One of my dearest childhood memories is going under my father’s tallit when the time came during the holidays for the recitation for Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing. Not only did I feel the warmth of my father’s presence at that moment, but also the embrace of community and the love of God.
After the Torah gives us the well-known words of the priestly blessing, which we read in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we read: “They shall link my name with the people of Israel and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:27). What need is there for this additional instruction after God dictated a specific blessing?
Rashi’s explanation is that “I will bless them” means that I will give My approval to their blessing. But if the priests have divine approval, did God have to determine the script of the approval blessing word for word? Perhaps if left to their own devices, the priests would have thought God wants us to give a purely spiritual blessing with no hint of people’s material needs.
Rashi and Ibn Ezra understand the first part of the blessing, “May the Lord bless and protect you” as referring to concrete, physical blessings, abundant material possessions and the security of those possessions. Similarly, Ibn Ezra interprets the second verse of the blessing, “The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you” as God answering all requests, especially in a time of trouble. Similarly, one could understand the end of the priestly blessing, invoking the gift of peace, as connoting physical and emotional peace and well-being.
To me, this suggests that in order to properly worship and serve God by fulfilling the commandments, on some basic level, we need to feel secure, and God’s formulation of the priestly blessing recognizes this.
One of the most amazing religious figures from the Shoah, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira, the last Chasidic rebbe in the Warsaw ghetto, expands on this theme in discussing the priestly blessing.
In his collections of sermons, Aish Kodesh (Holy Fire), which miraculously survived the destruction of the ghetto, he notes that in order to serve God, we have to take from the material world, from the animal within us, and transform these aspects of our life into spiritual light. Before praying, he says in the name of the Chasidic master, the Maggid of Mezeritch, a person should remind themselves of the love they have for their spouse and children, or even their possessions, to arouse within them the love of God.
He goes on to say that in the difficult times in which his community was living, they needed God’s lovingkindness more than ever. It is very hard, he admits, to observe the mitzvot, study Torah and have passionate devotion to God, when everyone is so broken and suffering. We need not just spiritual blessing but physical salvation; that is the blessing we now require. The need for concrete, physical blessings in life is why God formulates the priestly blessing in such specific language which addresses our basic needs.
It seems appropriate at this time to ask God to bring to fruition this understanding of Birkat Kohanim, to grant us physical safety and economic security as so many of us face the multiple effects of the pandemic. Then we can once again better serve God joyously and be lifted up by His manifold blessings and, most of all, enjoy shalom.
Rabbi Alan Iser is a former Hillel director and synagogue rabbi who is an adjunct professor of theology at St. Joseph’s University and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.