MAKING BLESSINGS COUNT
Rabbi David Walk
Many years ago when I studied with the Rav (Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik) in
In this week's Torah reading we read the famous blessings delivered daily in the holy Temple by the Cohanim: Tell Aaron and his sons, 'This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them (Numbers 6:23-27). I want to add an interpretive translation of the third part of the blessing from the Message Bible: May God look you full in the face, and make you prosper. I like that.
Nowadays, in synagogues throughout the world, we attempt to recreate the solemnity of that daily procedure on our holidays. But what's the message behind these gentlemen standing prominently before the community to deliver these benedictions? We don't for a minute believe that the Cohanim are actually bestowing anything upon us. That's the source of the custom to not actually look directly at the Cohanim during this process. We believe that these men are directing God's blessings in our direction. The purpose of these middlemen can be understood in two ways. According to the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550-1619) the Cohanim represent those who have been abundantly blessed by God and have become vessels full of God's grace and they then turn this plenty towards us. I'm not sure that we feel that way about the Cohanim in this period without the
On the other hand, Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1503-1598) suggests that this ceremony and its serious tone are meant to teach us another idea. No one ever seriously assumed that the blessings come from the Cohanim. These guardians of the
Now, I think that we can use these two opinions to help us understand a famous argument. Most Ashkenazim or European Jews only perform the ceremony of the Priestly Blessing on Jewish holidays, except in Israel, where the custom of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, 1720-1797), who was a maverick on this issue, is followed. This is based on an opinion of the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1520-1572) in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chayim, 244:44) that a Cohen should only perform the blessing ceremony if he is immersed in a joyous spirit. He goes on to explain that only on chagim is one truly happy, because on other days, even on Shabbat, one is concerned for livelihood. Sephardim (Jews from Arab countries), however, generally allow the performance of this rite throughout the year.
What are the two great communities of Judaism arguing about? I think that the opinion which prohibits the recitation of the blessings except on the holidays when joy is mandated by the law, is based on the premise that the continued reenactment of this ceremony is to keep the memory of the
Let's go back to the story about the Rav and the chasid. The chasid sees the example of the Cohen in any human vessel filled with Torah and good deeds. So, requesting that blessing, to him, is like standing in the
Where does all this leave us? Just trying our best to access the blessings and holiness of this world. But whenever you stand there in the midst of the Priestly Benediction, close your eyes and try to transport yourself to a hallowed place and open your soul to receive the Divine benefice. It sometimes works.
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