R. Hirsch’s view of the priestly blessings: Knowing what to wish for

There is overall agreement that the first part of the priestly blessings (Birchat Kohanim) wishes financial success, even wealth, and perhaps physical welfare, there is less clarity about the next two parts (the Lord should shine His countenance on you and give you grace; the Lord should lift His face towards you and give you peace). R. Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a reading that I find particularly attractive and timely.

From Where Shall Hashem’s Goals Be Found?

He reads the call for Hashem to shine His face towards us as meaning that Hashem will make His purposes for the world clear. The “grace” we are wished is the spiritual abilities to absorb and act upon what Hashem is showing us.

R. Hirsch enumerates three (or four) sources of this enlightenment, ways Hashem shows us what truly matters. His list seems to me countercultural today, when many resist the idea that we might have to accept others’ statements about what’s important, especially when those views don’t match what we thought of on our own. I experience R. Hirsch’s list of the sources of Hashem’s goals as an implicit call to rethink where we do and don’t accept outside guidance.

First, there are prophets who, R. Hirsch is pointing out, do more than predict the future—they give us insight into what Hashem wants from and for the world (if we’re willing to accept and absorb what they say). Unfortunately, the history of prophecy shows that they often say that which is hard for their audiences to hear. We shouldn’t expect to do better with future prophets, unless we start training ourselves for the need to sometimes accept what we’re told, even if it does not yet fit our view of the world.

The Torah is another source of Hashem’s purposes. I add that that’s only when we listen to the Torah, not impose ourselves on it, a challenge in our times. I have seen people reject out of hand simple and well-accepted Torah ideas, and heard and read many articles or speeches that impute to the Torah that which it never meant or said.  If we listen to Torah, we can hear Hashem telling us how to shape our lives in accord with His goals.

The third source is history and nature, the course of the world. As true as this is, it takes the right lens to read properly (as Haazinu tells us when it urges us to ask our elders for the right way to understand history). Just knowing history or nature won’t do it; there are scientists who see Hashem in nature, and others who derive their atheism from their scientific achievements.

The Urgent Need for Experts

Understanding the prophets, the Torah, history, and science so as to reveal Hashem’s purposes requires careful reading and accurate interpretation. Which isn’t so easy. R. Hirsch’s categories confront us with the question of who qualifies to be a guide.

This is an even harder question in a time when many of us reject the idea of expertise in life in general, when reliance on experts is tenuous at best. This is complicated by the fact that some who declare themselves experts aren’t, offering a ready excuse for those inclined to ignore the experts. Yet others follow supposed experts down the wrong path, certain they are doing what’s right.

R. Hirsch’s categories show how desperately we need a way to identify true experts, real guides to understand Hashem’s messages, and the readiness to accept what they tell us. This is not simple; more than that, it’s a task many of us aren’t yet looking to accomplish.

Finding Our Life’s Purpose

The last piece of this chen, this grace, according to R. Hirsch, is that it will help us find our role in life. In many circles, the question of what to do with our lives is phrased as a matter of what we enjoy, what feels good, what we need to do to support ourselves, all relevant but partial aspects of the question. R. Hirsch is reminding us that once we accept that Hashem has goals for the world, the implication is that we have a role (or, I would say, multiple possible roles) in contributing to the fruition of those purposes.

That does not imply we should ask others to identify that role or roles.  But we do need some general sense of what Hashem wants from the world and from us before we can figure out what that says about our best role in Hashem’s world.

So that R. Hirsch’s reading of the second part of Birchat Kohanim seems to me to wish for us insight or illumination (like Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). That insight, if we can access it from one or more of its available sources, can help us see where we can achieve our best life, the one where we are maximally contributing to Hashem’s world.

A Recently Neglected Definition of Success

The third part of Birchat Kohanim says Hashem will lift His face towards us and give us peace. For R. Hirsch, that means that if we’ve directed our money and our lives to advance Hashem’s purposes– Hashem will send us benefit and success. Hashem wants partners; if we make our goal partnering with Hashem, R. Hirsch says, we will find our paths blessed with success.

Let’s notice that R. Hirsch is assuming we can define the goodness of our lives by how well they hew to what Hashem wants of us. This used to be common even among non-Jews but is less so now. Among those who still think in such terms, many narrow it to fulfilling specific rituals, avoiding specific prohibitions. R. Hirsch is bringing us back to the traditional view that the world has an overall purpose (with many sub-purposes), one not immediately obvious to all (since we see so many who ignore it). Just the ability to see that purpose and to have the wherewithal to work towards it is a blessing, because it opens the possibility that we can shape our lives in accordance with Hashem’s goals.

This third part of that blessing is that we can also better expect success when we do that. If part of the human condition is the fear of failure, R. Hirsch is reading Birchat Kohanim as a wish for us to succeed, a wish that comes with a user’s manual—the way to avoid failure, the best way to guarantee success, is to direct ourselves and our efforts in the directions Hashem wants.

The Peace of Companionship

The peace the Torah promises us, according to R. Hirsch, is the assurance that following Hashem’s goals won’t lead to isolation, because all who are sensitive to these same ideals will see us as important to their own self-fulfillment, will come to join us, and will praise our attempts to serve Hashem.

R. Hirsch’s reading reaches across the distance of time, geography, and cultural setting. Many of us think of “blessings” as health, wealth, the freedom to do what we want, to live lives of simple enjoyment. R. Hirsch suggests that Birchat Kohanim is Hashem’s invitation and challenge to remember what we should doing, with encouragement that we will find the money, the guidance to know where to invest our efforts, the merit of our efforts bearing fruit, if we channel those efforts in the right direction.  A wonderful blessing, if we stop to think about it.

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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