Midrash Tanchuma cites a parable to demonstrate just how powerful the ברכת כהנים (Priestly Blessings) are. A king was marrying off his daughter. In those days the betrothal (קִדּוּשִׁין) took place up to a year earlier than the actual wedding ceremony – Nessuin (נישואין).
The betrothal was held in a large public setting and was somehow compromised by עין הרע (the evil eye). The king was so determined to protect his daughter at her wedding that he made sure she wore a special amulet that guards against the evil eye.
We do not understand the concepts of the evil eyes or amulets today. However, the Midrash considers the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to be like the betrothal of God and the Jewish People. The Mishkan, where God’s presence dwelled among the people, was considered as the actual marriage. The Midrash implies that the ברכת כהנים (Priestly Blessings) are presented in the Torah between the betrothal and the wedding to help safeguard the wedding.
What makes the ברכת כהנים so formidable?
The unique nature of the ברכת כהנים
I once heard from Rabbi Saul Berman that each of the ברכת כהנים contains within them protection, an antidote as it were, to the blessing. For example, many commentaries say that the first blessing is for material success. Notice how the words, ‘יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה (May God bless you) is followed up by another blessing, וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ (“and protect you,” (Numbers 6:24).
Material success can bring with it tremendous challenges. Therefore, the recipient needs a special blessing to be safeguarded from any potential harm that a material blessing can bring. (Case in point, many of those who win the lottery are beset with jealous family and friends. They often end up divorced and friendless).
The Second Blessing is about spiritual growth:
יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ “May God direct the light of His countenance upon you and enable you to teach others” (Numbers 6:25)
When one accumulates great Torah knowledge, this too can present certain challenges. Someone may let the knowledge go to their head and consider themselves “holier than thou”. They can lose sight of one’s obligation to spread Torah knowledge. Therefore the Second Blessing also needs an antidote, namely, that you should take your spiritual knowledge – וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ “and teach it to others.”
The last blessing is for the nation at large — that God should find favor with the Jewish people:
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם “May God favor you and grant you peace” (Numbers 6:26)
Showing favoritism to the Jewish people runs the risk of bringing jealousy, hatred and antisemitism. This blessing too needs an antidote — the blessing of peace.
The wedding blessings that continues for all time
In order to preserve and strengthen the relationship between God and the Jewish People, these special blessings are recited by the Cohen every day in Israel and on Jewish holidays in the diaspora.
The idea of a blessing requiring an antidote is, of course, a paradigm for life. Every gift we get from God whether it’s an outstanding talent, character trait, or the mastery of knowledge can be used or abused. As we saw in the second priestly blessing, even the Torah can lead one down two possible paths. It can ennoble one’s life and fill it with meaning and dignity or it can be a force that draws one towards banality — a life devoid of virtue.
Perhaps this is why the Priestly Blessings continue to play such a critical role in Judaism. Understanding that all blessings are from God and that mankind is tasked with using them for the maximum good is a cornerstone of what our relationship with God is all about.