There are few texts from the Torah more ubiquitous, more universally invoked than Birkat Kohanim: the Priestly Benediction. We Jews use it all the time. At weddings. And bat mitzvahs. At preschool graduation ceremonies. At the Shabbat dinner table. Indeed, it has become an integral element of our liturgy incorporated into the conclusion of the Amidah as part of the Birkat Shalom, the prayer for peace. And within the non-Jewish world, the three-stanza blessing has come to be such a central part of the service that most worshipers presume it is indigenous to the Christian tradition. But it is not. It comes right from Parashat Naso (Numbers 6:24-26):
May the Eternal bless you and protect you!
May the Eternal's countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you!
May the face of the Eternal lift up before you and grant you peace!
The words are familiar, are they not? They sound as if we have been hearing them all of our lives, because we have. And yet, as powerful as the words may be, as remarkably resonant even to the least religious among us, I wonder if we ever stop to consider what exactly the prayer is saying. Perhaps there is a reason for the broad popularity of this ancient text.
So let's start with this: Birkat Kohanim may very well be the only liturgical formula preserved within the canon of Torah. There are, to be sure, lots of texts that have become incorporated into the structure of Jewish worship, but where else can we find the actual words that the functionaries of our people recited in the performance of their sacred duties? This is it. In the face of the people the priest would extend his hands and say these words. But the power of the three-fold blessing extends well beyond its historical authenticity.
The structure of the prayer is nothing short of extraordinary, a precise geometric construct that is simply brilliant in design. The first line is comprised of 3 words, the second line 5 words, and the third line 7 words. The symmetry even extends to the letters: 15 letters, 20 letters, and (you guessed it) 25 letters. None of this is by accident. Of course, only those who could read it would have been aware of this structure (at least as far as the "letter" count is concerned). But even to those who could only hear the words, the increasing power must have been inspiring. It certainly has been for me.
As a child, hearing these words being uttered by the rabbi building up to and concluding with the prayer for "peace" was as evocative an utterance as I have ever heard in a sanctuary. Can there be anything more precious, more elusive than ". . . . and grant you peace"? Is "shalom" not the ultimate goal of all that we aspire for? I know of no other prayer that is as moving, as capable of stealing your breath, than this one—especially its last words.
But in our preoccupation with shalom as the grand prize of divine gifts, I think we miss something even more powerful. If, indeed, the three-part blessing grows from beginning to end, if each of the three stanzas builds and expands upon the previous verse—at least in heft of letters and words—then should it not stand to reason that the meaning of those words, that the content increases as well? No doubt. And concluding with the acquisition of the elusive shalom should make it so. But it's not just about shalom. Instead, it's about how we get it. How God gives it to us.
To truly appreciate the Priestly Blessing, we would do well to pay close attention to the verbs.
In the first verse, God "blesses" and "protects" us. To be sure, blessing and protection are not small things. We spend a good part of our lives obsessed with attaining these goals. I have always thought of them as the bare essentials. A home. Food and clothing, the material necessities of life. Perhaps even more important, they are things that God gives to us, or even that God does to us. In this first verse, God transforms us.
In the second verse, however, we move beyond physical gifts. I sense in it the emotional. The word, vichuneka, "and be gracious unto you," comes from the same root as the word chein. Chein is not so easy to translate. It can mean grace, beauty. More than just a thing that I need to survive, chein enhances the quality of living. The implication is that of a life of contentedness, a life of meaning. But even more, it comes via God's light. Not only are we getting something from God, but we also are getting a piece of God. Indeed, in this second verse it's not just about what we get, it's also about what happens to God. It is as if to suggest that there is a dialectic in this act of blessing. God is impacted as well.
Nowhere is this more dramatic than in the third and final verse. Yes, we get shalom. But it's how we get it that is so important. In this climactic blessing, God lifts up God's face; the face we are not permitted to see; the face we are told no one shall see and live (Exodus 33:20). The implication is clear: we get to see not only God's face, but God also is making eye contact. This is the endgame of all religious life. To be at one with the Holy. Just as the many times throughout Torah where God's anger is implied by the turning away of God's countenance, here the ultimate "blessing" is to be in perfect harmony with the Holy One, to be in sacred relationship, panim el panim, "face to face." It doesn't get any better than this. Ever.
And it's the same way with us, in our relationships. The physical gifts we bestow upon each other are nice, but they are not what we really want from each other. We might need them, but they are not at the core of our desire. (And if they are, then we have confused our priorities.) Even the noncorporeal gifts of chein, the "feelings" we pursue from our relationships are lovely by-products, but not what we ultimately seek. As anyone who has ever had a falling out with a dear friend, with a lover, knows the hardest thing to do is to look them in the eye. Because at its core, eye contact is about intimacy. It requires complete vulnerability. And trust. The desire to look into the other's eyes, the strength to overcome our own insecurities and open our eyes to the other symbolizes a relationship of complete openness and mutuality.
This is the pinnacle of the human-Divine relationship. This is what is implied in shalom. Wholeness. Absolute harmony. Intimacy. Trust. Where the distance between the I and the Other is too small to measure. We want nothing more from God. And, as this quintessential three-fold blessing suggests, this is what God wants with us as well.
Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.