By: Rabbi David Bibi
One of the best-known paragraphs in the week’s portion of Nasso and perhaps in the entire Torah, is that of Birkat Kohanim – the Blessing of the Kohanim where the Torah states: Hashem spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them: “May Hashem bless you and watch over you. May Hashem cause His countenance to shine upon you and favor you. May Hashem raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.
Rabbi Abittan z’sl would often tell us that the moment we are blessed by Hashem through the Kohanim is an auspicious time. While people travel the world in search of blessings from great talmidey Chamamim – Torah scholars and while others travel to graves of the righteous, they fail to realize that this blessing of Birkat Kohanim is directly from Hashem and surly outshines any other blessing we might hope for. In fact, this blessing has the ability to change our fate.
While there may be chatter, although forbidden, during the repetition of the amidah, when the hazan reaches birkat kohanim, people generally quiet down and focus. In recent years we have adopted, what for us is a new yet beautiful custom where children run to their fathers to find temporary shelter under their fathers tallit and the weight of the father’s hands. Every father, at this moment, while facing the kohanim with their heads covered and their hands lifted upward and outward yet hidden, and with his children’s heads below his own hands, undoubtedly concentrates intensely begging Hashem that He should bestow fully this blessing upon his own children and family.
Rashi comments on the words, Amor Lahem, Say to them, that Amor is in the infinitive tense, meaning it is constant using the example of Shamor – watch and Zachor – remember the Shabbat as stated in the two versions of the Ten Commandments. In a sense this blessing of the Kohanim is constant and never ending. I can sometimes hear in my mind, my grandfather David Gindi, a’h, giving the blessing or imagine the blessing coming from my mother’s uncle Haham Moshe Gindi, z’sl, who my mother speaks of very fondly. I imagine hearing the blessing spoken by my great grandfathers, Yaakov Gindi or Hayim Cohen in Aleppo a century ago. I doubt they could have imagined the world of their grandchildren and generations to come when they bid farewell to their own departing children from the piers of Beirut and a world which is for the most part forgotten and destroyed.
We are commanded to say the blessing aloud in a strong voice. I wonder how far the sound waves of those blessings of our ancestors travel. Certainly in a spiritual sense, we are the beneficiaries even a century or millennia later.
Rabbi Abittan would explain the words of his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, z’tl who noted that the commandment of Birkat Kohanim entails two separate aspects: the transmission of a direct blessing from Hashem and hashra’at ha-Shechinah (the manifestation of Hashem’s presence). The Rabbi would explain that Birkat Kohanim is a direct meeting with the Shechinah that presents us with an intimate encounter in which we come [so to speak] face to face with Hashem. Rabbi Abittan certainly felt this and our custom in our synagogue while I was there together with the rabbi and while I was hazan, was for the rabbi to come up to the bimah during the repetition. When I arrived at the blessing of the Kohanim, I would pause and lower my head. The rabbi would place his hand on my head and he would call out each word of the blessings for the Kohanim to repeat. The weight of his hand and with it the feeling of a resting shechina or Divine Presence, can still be felt.
There is still a question which needs to be asked. What is the true nature of blessings and more specifically, Birkat Kohanim? Are we not blessed or rewarded based on our actions? If we merit, are we not rewarded and if we sin, are we not punished? Do blessing really override a sense of justice? Does the presence of the shechina change things?
Rabbi Eli Mansour suggested an insight he saw in a sefer given to him by the Bobov community, Lev Aryeh. The Talmud states: Rava said: The length of one’s life, the amount of his children, and his sustenance are not dependent on merit, but rather on mazal (fate). (Rava’s statement is meant to explain that while both Rav Chisda and Rabah were on the tremendously high level that they could bring rain to the world, Rav Chisdah lived 92 years while Rabah died at 40. Obviously, Rava feels that merit has little to do with their life span and the length of their days was dictated by their mazal, their fate, or as we have explained before, the script each of us writes before we are born.)
Thus these three items, length of life, number and type of children and our blessing are subject to our fate. And we have seen this time and again through history. One can ask why someone with obvious merit is lacking while someone who apparently has no merit has everything. This is one possible explanation.
The Lev Aryeh continues that keeping the Torah and Misvot can assist on everything else, but with regard to these three how can we change them? He suggests that Birkat Kohanim is the answer to children, life and wealth.
How? May Hashem bless you and watch over you … Yevarechehca VeYishmerech with children with boys and girls.
Yaer Hashem Panav elecha VeYichnecha: May Hashem cause His countenance to shine upon you and favor you. As we state in the daily amidah prayer – Ki Beor Panecha Natata Lanu Hashem Elokeynu Torah VeChayim. Through the light of your countenance you gave us Torah and life.
And finally Yisah Hashem Panav Elecha VeYasem Lecha Shalom – May Hashem raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace. The Talmud teaches when there is sustenance then there is peace. And we know that when finances are tight people more often than not tend to fight. We read that when the barrel of barley is empty, there are loud noises in the house – machloket – dispute is banging on the door. On the other hand, we read Hasam Gevulech Shalom Chelev Chitim Yasbiyaych – Hashem shall put peace at your borders, and satiate you with the fullness of the wheat. We are more often at peace when we are not lacking. We find this at home and we find this in business among partners. When the money is coming in, people don’t complain and don’t fight, but when the money stops, the accusations begin.
While Tosefot explains that to overcome fate takes a super human effort of merit, the Lev Aryeh is telling us that Birkat Kohanim is such an amazing blessing because it has the ability to overcome fate. What a tremendous chizuk – strength we are being given! What an incredible gift Hashem has given us through the Kohanim! We now have something amazing to focus on as we hear each of the words each day of the year. We are blessed with the Shechina resting over us and making the impossible, possible.
If you want a blessing, before you search the world, come to synagogue! Hear the blessing of the Kohanim. Feel the presence of Hashem. Hear our ancestor’s words; whether a grandfather, great grandfather or Aharon the High Priest himself. Realize that this is a direct blessing from Hashem, Himself! And know that the impossible becomes possible during these precious moments.
May Hashem bless each of us, with children and grandchildren and great grandchildren who will bring us pride and joy all of our days. May we be blessed with long and healthy lives. And may we be blessed with peace and sustenance to better serve our Creator in Heaven.