Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying: So shall you bless the Children
of Israel, saying to them: “May Hashem bless you and safeguard you. May
Hashem illuminate His countenance for you, and be gracious to you. May
Hashem lift His countenance to you and establish peace for you.” Let them
place My Name upon the Children of Israel, and I shall bless them.
The last two of the three sentences of the Priestly Blessing might be
considered multiple layers of icing on the cake. Most people would be
ecstatic to receive the benefit of the first sentence alone. Looking at
these pesukim more carefully, we learn that the three form a sophisticated
sequence that sums up the goals and objectives of the Sanctuary. In a manner
of speaking, the Priestly Blessing takes the Mikdosh and all it represents
and turns it into a text message from G-d to Man.
The first line of Birkas Kohanim speaks of blessing and guarding. Hashem
promises here to grant us something that will make us happy. They cannot
have the desired effect, however, unless they are preserved for us, and
guarded from mishaps. This beracha must refer to a gamut of bodily and
material advantages, but freed and guarded from any material or spiritual
Could anything be better? Certainly. Many who have had the benefit of those
blessings still find themselves troubled and unsettled. The human spirit
demands more than contentment. The second sentence speaks of Hashem shining
His face on us, and being gracious. This shining means illumination,
knowledge. Having all the blessing of the first sentence leaves a person
unsatisfied, unless he understands both its purpose and how he can
participate in achieving it. The text speaks not of Hashem, but of His face
– where, as it were, G-d “looks to” in expectation that His goals be
accomplished. His covenant with us requires that we become His instruments
to get the job done by correctly exercising our free will. This
illumination, then, is the understanding of how the pieces fit together. We
will comprehend what Hashem wants of Man, how the rich assortment of gifts
can be used properly when our only concern is His master plan, and what
contribution we make as individuals. Armed with such knowledge, we not only
accomplish our purpose as Jews, but communicate this vision to the rest of
Can there be more? Yes. The third pasuk has G-d turning towards us again. He
has already turned to us, however, in the previous pasuk. Previously we saw
him looking toward us so that we might receive something from Him: abundant
material blessing, and the insight and vision to know what to do with it.
This time we want the closeness to Him for the experience of closeness
itself. The benefits of the previous two verses now develop a new nuance.
Besides their importance in their own right, they are appreciated as
precursors to this final step. Living a life in which you seem to give up
everything for your personal use in favor of His objectives gains you the
most precious thing of all: Hashem Himself. He now turns towards us with the
most intense closeness imaginable. When we are privileged to enjoy such
closeness, those around us sense that our existence complements their own
existence, rather than threatens it or clashes with it. We then live in the
harmony with all others that we call peace. With that, the three verses of
The next verse describes the consequences of achieving the full potency of
the three parts of the Priestly Blessing. To grasp G-d in human terms, some
turn to images, which of course are forbidden to Jews. The closest we get to
making G-d cognizable is using (with His approval!) different Names, each of
which emphasizes a different facet of His Being that can be put into words.
Here, the Torah tell us that Hashem’s conferring blessing, illumination,
direction, and closeness, placing them upon His people, will itself be a
Name. It will make His Being more evident and manifest to people.
Chazal describe curious differences between the recitation of the Priestly
Blessing in the beis ha-mikdosh and all other places. In the Temple, they
are merged into one sentence, rather than three. The response of the people
changes from the familiar “amen” to “baruch Shem kevod malchuso le-olam
va’ed.” Finally, the kohanim hold their hands above their heads, rather than
at shoulder level.
All of these can be understood if we grasp the core message. What happens in
the beis ha-mikdosh is universal, not particular. When birkas kohanim takes
place within its precincts, it makes a statement that applies far beyond
them, projecting to all of mankind. It is nothing less than a statement of
what the mikdosh, the place on earth that can host and contain a Divine
Presence stands for, what it tells Man, and what it hopes to accomplish. It
is all one message, not three. Individual people standing outslde the Temple
must individualize its blessings. They internalize its values one step at a
time. Each person must make the three parts his own. He declares his gleeful
personal acceptance of those values by answering “amen,” – the standard
manner in which an individual declares his full belief in a statement made
by another. Because the Blessing within the Temple is an ideal, the kohanim
lift their hands heavenward, pointing to the place from which it issues.
Outside the Temple, the purpose of the Blessing is for every individual to
draw from it in his own way. There, the kohanim hold their arms out directly
in front of them, emphasizing that G-d is not remote and inaccessible, but
available wherever we are, waiting just above where we find ourselves.
Just what is this universal message? Nothing less than a word-picture of the
floor plan of the Temple, in all of its rich symbolism. The first pasuk,
with its promise of material success, corresponds to the Shulchan, which
held the loaves of bread that signified that all sustenance comes from
Hashem. The second pasuk, which speaks of illumination, corresponds to the
light of the Menorah.
The Shulchan and Menorah stand in front of, and displaced to the sides of,
the Aron. Together, the Shulchan and Menorah serve the Ark, sitting behind
a partition in the Holy of Holies, just as the first two psukim lead up to
the third. The Aron was the exact spot where the Divine and the human met,
where the Voice of G-d was heard. It housed the luchos, the tablets that
contained the revealed Word of G-d, His perfect instructions to Man.
The three parts of the Priestly Blessing are a Temple in words, conveying
both its message and its potent blessing, wherever we may be.