The Birkat Cohanim – A threefold path to God

I doubt many readers here would agree, but I have always been greatly moved by traditional duchening – the priestly blessing (Birkat Cohanim) delivered by descendants of the Cohanim.  This blessing, given on significant festivals (and every Shabbat in Israel, and every day in Jerusalem), is amazingly evocative.  After washing hands and feet, the Cohanim come to the bema with their heads covered, and arms outstretched and chant the ancient words.  For me, the ritual has a sense of antiquity and holiness.  I feel a sense of peace as I close my eyes and experience the blessing.  I even experience sadness and sense of loss that I can’t participate (though my mother is a bat Cohen).  It is unlike anything else we do in Shul, and it is a last remnant connecting us with our ancient Temples.  For me, it provides a mystical moment full of possibilities.

Duchening is not without its opponents.  Many people wonder why Judaism should preserve a tradition of holiness inherited in DNA and only male DNA at that.  Others question the need for an intermediary.  We are all, as the Torah teaches, a Kingdom of Priests.  Why do we need the Cohanim, especially nearly 2000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple?  Others point to specific Cohanim, remembering their failings, and wonder why this particular person should have the honor of blessing the congregation.  It is for these reasons that duchening has vanished from most (if not all) Progressive synagogues.

While the traditional model of reciting the Priestly Blessing is controversial in Progressive (and even many Masorti congregations), the threefold blessing itself retains its power not only in Jewish but Christian communities as well.  It is recited at life cycle events and ends nearly every Progressive service in the UK (at least when I served a community there).  I well remember the phrasing of my rabbi as he blessed me at my Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation. He recited not only the words but also an extended commentary (apparently always the same) quietly to me as I stood under his outstretched arms.

I, too, share this blessing at Simchas, as I bless newborn children, newly minted adults, and happy newlywed couples.  I stick to the words, yet I often think of the commentary shared by Rabbi Robinson.  I have added to it over the years, but the last sentence included below is purely his.

At first glance, the threefold blessing seems relatively simple and straightforward.  “(1) May the Eternal bless you and keep you. (2) May the Eternal’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. (3) May the Eternal’s countenance rest upon you and give you peace.”  Commentators note that the blessings build in effect.  The first is for material wellbeing, the second for spiritual wellbeing, and the third is a blessing, including both.  Other commentators suggest that the third blessing, asks God to preserve and bless us, whether deserved or not.

I believe, learning from my rabbi, that there is a deeper meaning.  Rather than being blessings for prosperity (whether material or spiritual), they are instead a path leading towards the Divine.  The first blessing offers us the opportunity to realize that God is present in this material world.  It is a reminder that hints of the Divine are present everywhere.  It teaches us that we are truly blessed when we begin to break the bonds that bind us to our possessions and, indeed, all materiality, finding only God.

This ascent leads to the second blessing, the blessing of God’s presence.  Here too, we find blessing filled with a world of possibilities, but also a world of traps.  When we open our minds to God’s face, there is an infinitesimal moment of meeting.  A brief moment when we experience the Divine without any definition or othering.  Almost immediately, however, the Divine becomes an “it,” a “face,” which we define, and concretize. We engage in philosophy and theology.  Yet, the blessing demands that we resist turning God into our image.  The blessing asks us to move onward and upward beyond all human conceptions.

The Third Blessing offers us a possibility of the most authentic experience of the Divine.  We have broken the bonds of materiality, realizing that it is but a mask hiding the Divine presence, which is always present.  We have even moved beyond our theologies and philosophies, realizing that often they take the inexplicable and attempt to place it within human terms and understanding.  Now the third blessing points to the absolute, to a unity, expressed through “shalom” (the last word of the Birkat Cohanim).  Rabbi Robinson always ended this blessing with the words, “Not the peace only of the world, but rather the “shalom” of wholeness and unity which is beyond truth and all existence.”  To Rabbi Robinson, a proud Progressive Jew, God was the meaning and unity which fills creation.  It is this ultimate unity of all that exists that we seek as we are blessed and bless with the Birkat Cohanim.

About the Author
David serves as rabbi of Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas in DeWitt, NY. He was formerly the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan and a past chair of the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. He works closely with the emerging Jewish community in Indonesia. He has a strong commitment to interfaith relations, exemplified by, "Beyond the Golden Rule: A Jewish Approach to Dialogue and Discourse."
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