Five Rashis, Naso: Birchat Kohanim

A project in memory of Baruch Leib haKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

As attentive readers know, this Five Rashis a Week is a project dedicated to the memory of a chavruta of mine. When we first started learning together, he suggested we learn more about Birchat Kohanim, a privilege of his own kehunah he greatly valued. We started with Rashi on the relevant verses, which appear in this week’s parsha. Despite the remarkable richness of the rest of the parsha, I’m going to spend this week’s discussion on five comments on those verses.

The Recitation

The command to Aharon and his descendants, 6;24, says “thus shall you bless the Children of Israel, אמור להם, say to them.” Rashi’s first substantive comment on the word אמור reads it as saying that the kohanim have to say it so that “all” can hear. This isn’t true, halachically–people unable to be at shul to hear the blessing are still covered by it, as long as they do not demonstrate their disinterest (such as by being there and turning their backs).

Even as Rashi knows this, he sees some value in the reminder that it be said such that the people who are there can hear it. As we read through the blessings, I think we’ll see that it’s because one part of the blessings isn’t only that Hashem should act in these ways, but that we should know and experience Hashem’s love in these ways, realize that the God we serve is not only a Being so Other as to be indescribable (although Hashem is that), but is also immanent, intimately involved in our lives, providing us with all these blessings. It’s as much for us as for Hashem.

The second comment picks up on the word being written plene, which means it includes a vav that could have been left out.  For Rashi, it’s to remind the kohanim to recite the blessings with full intent and heart (not quickly or rushed). It is not a ceremony or ritual, it is the administration of a blessing, which takes attention and consideration.

Although that’s odd, since the kohanim here are serving only as conduits of Hashem’s blessing, as human representatives expressing the blessing to the people. Perhaps it’s that role itself which takes care and concentration to succeed.

The First Blessing

I remember that when my chavruta and I went through the brachot, I was struck (and have been as I listened to Birchat Kohanim on several occasions since) by how hard it can be to remember what Rashi thinks these blessings are conveying (let alone the range of commentators). It’s easy to remember the English translation of the words, but Rashi takes each phrase in ways that make the blessings more specific, more practically directed at our lives. Although harder to remember.

For example, Rashi takes יברכך, the Lord should bless you, as referring specifically to our possessions. The “keeping” the next word promises relates directly to that, that robbers should not take our wealth. While most benefactors cannot guarantee their gift will survive to be used (one of my most valued wedding gifts, from dear friends, was stolen before we had a chance to use it), Hashem can bless us with both bounty and the assurance others won’t take it from us.

That’s the first beracha of Birchat Kohanim for Rashi, our financial comfort and safety.

The Second Blessing

Rashi explains יאר in 6;25—often translated as “Hashem should shine His face towards you,” as meaning that Hashem should show you a laughing face, a yellow face, which I think means  Hashem’s attention towards us (His “shining of His face,” as it were) should be all for the good, all that which produces a positive impact. Notably, he does not attempt to define that impact; we are being blessed with a certain attitude, and that itself seems to be the blessing.

Although it might be connected to the next word, ויחנך, which Rashi reads as “and will give you חן, grace or appeal.” This blessing, then, doesn’t promise to do something to us so much as to produce an effect within us that will lead to others experiencing us a certain way. To have חן is often a result of one’s character and goodness, but it focuses on the reaction of others. I have met wonderful people not blessed with חן, whose thorough goodness nevertheless did not lead to their being attractive to others.

Especially if we connect the two operative verbs in the verse, the blessing here seems to be that by virtue of Hashem showing us a radiant countenance, as it were, we will become the apple of others’ eyes, will appeal to those around us, such that they like and want to foster good relations with us.

The Third Blessing

Hashem’s turning His face towards us, for Rashi, was His conquering His anger. It’s a remarkable comment in that it takes for granted that there is always anger Hashem could be showing us, an attitude I think is usually rejected. Rashi’s comment assumes an awareness of human fault that many today vigorously deny.

Looking at a world populated with greatly imperfect human beings, Rashi’s idea of the blessing of Hashem’s turning to face us, as it were, is that Hashem will suppress the reasonable reaction to those transgressions and flaws. That’s a plausible blessing, but also reminds us of the folly in simply trying to ignore those flaws, to pretend that humanity has not, always, been worthy of great anger but for the kindness and deliberate choice to disregard those.

As a Unit

Taken together, what did Hashem want Jews to hear once a day or more (there is no limit to how often kohanim say these blessings—they do not say them at Mincha only because of the fear that they will have drunk wine and be unfit to say them; Ashkenazim do not say them daily outside Israel, but Sefardim do, and in Israel everyone does, twice on days with Mussaf, at Mincha on fast days, and more on Yom Kippur)?

For Rashi, the answer is a guarantee of financial well-being (a prerequisite for any other kind of meaningful blessing—those without basic material security generally cannot benefit from other blessings), an experience of Hashem’s attention that either leads to or joins with a character of our own to inspire good wishes in others, and a suppression of the anger we might otherwise deserve, such that we can live lives of peace and tranquility, presumably as we work to improve and lessen the amount of anger Hashem is suppressing in giving us these blessings.

(This isn’t the place to expound on it, but I find it interesting that Rashi seems to place the blessings of finances and laughing Face before that of the suppression of anger—seemingly, those first two could happen even without that suppression. Only peace cannot. That assumes that the blessings are sequential, which I think seems likely, but Rashi does not say specifically).

Placing the Blessing

As Jerry Seinfeld never said, you can know how to recite the blessing without knowing how to place the blessing, how to make sure it takes effect (the important part of the blessing). For Rashi, there are two steps, the kohanim using the שם המפורש, the explicit Name of Hashem (how he reads 6;27’s ושמו את שמי, they shall place my Name), and then Hashem blessing them.

The referent of “them” is unclear, and Rashi offers two options, the Jewish people, with Hashem promising to ratify that blessing, or the kohanim themselves, in which case there is no promise to fulfill what they called for. That might be because it’s implicit in the command—why command them to offer it without the understanding that Hashem will back it up?

Or, perhaps, because in this version the kohanim never bless us, they articulate the blessings Hashem is always looking to give us, the vehicle for the Jewish people to become aware of blessings Hashem brings daily, to which we can become so accustomed as to forget to notice and celebrate, especially when life gets challenging.

In that scenario, Hashem need not speak of blessing us, that’s what the previous verses spoke of; it’s only for Hashem to assure the kohanim of their reward for playing their proper role among the people.

If we really knew that that is the role Hashem plans and hopes to play in our lives, if we heard those blessings daily and absorbed their message, where could and would we go?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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