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Shabbat Parashat Naso 5781

Parashat Hashavua: Whose Blessing?

Rav Daniel Mann

Birkat Kohanim (Bamidbar 6:22-27) is nestled in between the laws of nazir and the gifts of the heads of tribes. This was on “the day that Moshe completed to erect the Mishkan” (ibid. 7:1), which was the 1st of Nisan of the second year from the Exodus, which is also called “the eighth day” of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Vayikra 9:1). On this day, Aharon lifted his hands and blessed the people (ibid. 22), which, Rashi explains, was with Birkat Kohanim. 

The Ramban (Bamidbar 6:23) posits that there were two commandments given concerning the same blessing on that day: Aharon, specifically, was to recite it on a one-time basis; all kohanim would recite it throughout history. However, he continues, there is always a special connection between the berachot and the Mishkan/Mikdash – it is performed in a special, higher-level manner in the Mikdash (Sota 37b).

It is likely that Birkat Kohanim is alluded to one more time in the Torah: “At that time (Rashi – when the Levi’im did not sin with the Golden Calf) Hashem separated the Tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of Hashem, to stand before Hashem and serve Him and bless in His Name (levarech bishmo) until this day” (Devarim 10:8). Rashi and several others claim that this blessing in Hashem’s Name is Birkat Kohanim.

Usually when a person blesses his friend, he makes up his own text, and when he blesses Hashem, he uses a set text (some found in the Torah, most composed by the Rabbis). Birkat Kohanim has a set text, and is one of the few recitations that can only be done in Lashon Hakodesh (Mishna, Sota 7:2). There are a few indications that it is not that the kohanim were given the power to bless others, like Avraham was (see Rashi, Bereishit 12:2), but that they simply do Hashem’s bidding by reciting Birkat Kohanim. In the pasuk in Devarim (above) it is presented in the context of service of Hashem (carrying the aron, serving Him, and blessing).

The term used there, levarech bishmo, can be explained two ways – bless by means of using His Name (which is what makes it effective); bless Bnei Yisrael on Hashem’s behalf. These two possibilities also find expression in our parasha. The section of Birkat Kohanim concludes with the pasuk: “They shall place My Name on Bnei Yisrael, and I will bless them.” Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael disagree (Chulin 49a). Rabbi Yishmael says that “I will bless them” means that Hashem will bless the kohanim, as the rest of the nation are blessed by the kohanim. However, Rabbi Akiva claims that Hashem will bless all of the people, and all the kohanim do is “place Hashem’s Name on Bnei Yisrael.” In other words, it is not the kohanim’s beracha but Hashem’s. The kohanim only assist by saying the words for Bnei Yisrael, upon which Hashem attaches his beracha, i.e., the real beracha. This connects further to a dilemma (Kiddushin 23b) whether kohanim are agents of Hashem or of Bnei Yisrael. Perhaps when people follow the practice of blessing their children with Birkat Kohanim, they are tapping into the approach that it is a beracha that humans give to humans, with there being different contexts in which it is appropriate.

Being blessed is most viable when both Hashem and man take part in the beracha. Let us strive to act in such a way that we will find favor in the eyes of Hashem and man.

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