“May the Lord bless you and guard you. May God shine His face upon you, and bestow you with grace. May God lift His face upon you, and bring you peace,” (Bamidbar 6, 24-26).
There’s a famous story about Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, and Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, known as the Gra, and his main student, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. The Ashkanazi custom, at that time in the 18th Century, and still today, was that Kohanim outside the land of Israel only recite Birkat Kohanim on Mussaf of the three pilgrimage holidays, the Shalosh Regalim. But the Gra insisted that Birkat Kohanim should be recited in synagogue every day even in the Diaspora, and so he decided to reinstitute it in his community. But the night before it was to be, he was arrested on false charges. His student Rabbi Chaim also decided to implement the ruling of his teacher, and instructed his community to allow Birkat Kohanim every day; but the night before, there was a terrible fire in Volozhin, and all the synagogues burned down.
The two great rabbis took this as a sign from Heaven that Bikrat Kohanim should only be said daily in the Land of Israel, and indeed, when the students of the Gra arrived in the Land of Israel, they set up the custom of the Kohanim reciting Birkat Kohanim every day, as is the custom today throughout Israel.
In this week’s parsha we read those three short passages known as Birkat Kohanim in which Aharon and his sons are told to bless the nation. But why were the priests chosen to bless the nation in the first place? And why was Aharon and his sons after him commanded to continue to bless the nation for all time, whether or not the Temple is standing?
First, let’s define our terms; what does the Hebrew word for blessing, bracha mean? On a simple level, it means abundance. When we bless someone, we wish them abundance, whether in happiness or in livelihood, or in health. But there is another important etymological connection: the word baruch also means “to bend”. The word for knees in Hebrew is birkayim, the same root. What happens when one bends? He lowers himself from a higher place and brings himself down to a lower place.
That is exactly what a blessing, a bracha does. A bracha draws down infinite abundance from its Divine source and brings it down into our limited physical world.
So why would Aharon and his sons, the Kohanim, be fitting to give a bracha to the nation?
We learn from the sage Hillel in Pirkei Avot (1,12) that Aharon was a lover and pursuer of peace. In other words, he did not only embody the idea of peace, but he actively pursued it. But how does Hillel know that Aharon was a lover and pursuer of peace? Where do we see this in the Torah?
The Maharal teaches that we don’t need proof of this; it is simply inferred from the fact that Aharon is the High Priest. His entire role is to bring peace between the upper worlds and the lower worlds; Aharon is the joint between the Divine and the nation, and through his service in the Temple and the sacrifices he is the great peacemaker between heaven and earth. So of course Aharon is the great peacemaker amongst his fellows as well.
Let’s elaborate this with a gematria (a gematria is a teaching based on the numerical value of the Hebrew word). The word Kohen, priest, has a gematria of 75. What is the significance of this? The number seven represents the physical world; there are six sides to our reality, and then there is the center or the content, which adds up to seven. But the number 8 represents transcendence, that which is beyond the physical world. So according to the Maharal the numerical value of 75 is to be read like 7.5, i.e., that which stands between the 7 and the 8. In other words, this is another facet of the idea that the Kohen is the bridge between this world and the next, and he brings peace to the world.
The unique role of the Kohen as the bridge between the two worlds is not dependent on the Temple; it is a quality that was bestowed upon Aharon HaKohen, and this gift is an inheritance to all his children even to this day.
Is this true for all Kohanim, you might ask? Aren’t there some bad apples in the Kohen bunch? The Tamud asks this exact question in a very Talmudic way. What about a Kohen who is a wicked person? Should he be able to stand in front of the congregation and bless them?
The answer is yes; even an evil Kohen can bless the community. Why? Because the power of blessing, of abundance is not from him. He is only a vehicle for this Divine sustenance, so in this way, he simply acts as a pipeline to bring down this Divine blessing from above.
Even though we don’t have the Temple today, we appreciate the unique role of the Kohen to serve as a bridge between Hashem and Am Yisrael. Of equal importance, we can all be students of Aharon, as Hillel teaches, by bringing more blessing into the world, more love in the world, and pursuing peace, whether we are Kohanim or not.
In what ways can you make peace and pursue peace in your own relationships? In what ways can you act as a pipeline for God’s abundance in the world?