Birkas Kohanim: A look inside

כד יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. The LORD bless thee, and keep thee;כה יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; כו יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם. The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
(text from here)

This past Shabbos, in Parsha Naso, we find the Mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim. I admit that when I give my children these brachos every Shabbos night, I’m quite aware of the translation of what I’m saying, but until this week, while reading up on the fomulation of Birkas Kohanim, I really never gave the words too much thought. That, of course, has all changed.

My reseach included Rashi, Rav Hirsch’s commentary, and Rav Schwab on Prayer. I found it interesting that when the Kohanim bless B’nai Yisrael, they (the Priests) are not actually blessing “the people; rather, they are commanded to express their wish that HaKodesh Baruch Hu may bestow His blessings.” (straight out of Rav Schwab on Prayer pg 528)

This means that I’m also only wishing that Hashem blesses my own children when I say these same brachos every Shabbos night.

The first bracha, יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ is for protection and physical/material things. Food, clothing, a place to live, parnassah. All of the physical, maybe gashmius-type things that we need to live and function in this world.

The second bracha, יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ is for one’s spiritual needs. Asking that Hashem’s face should shine towards us implies that we should see the hand of Hashem in what transpires in our own lives. Hashem is in direct control of everything. The whole “being gracious unto thee” is really a hard way to translate ” וִיחֻנֶּךָּ”, which come from the word “chain” meaning favor, gift, or pleasantness. Rav Hirsh (both in his commentary and quoted by Rav Schwab [no surprise there]) say that this refers to a “spiritual endowment”. Artscoll actually quotes the Degel Macheneh Ephraim) and he says that this bracha is about finding “favor in the eyes of others”. One must have a great relationship with other and be appreciated by others, as this builds mutual respect.

The third bracha, יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם is about our relationship with Hashem. We ask for a bracha that Hashem should “lift His face” towards us. In the world of Mitzvos and Aviros, we either have opportunities to come closer to Hashem or we distance ourselves from our creator. This bracha reminds us that Hashem is never far from us. The last three words, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם “and give you peace”, descibe the peace and shalaimus (completeness) between the first two brachos, that Hashem should bless our phyiscal needs and our spiritual needs together as one.

These thoughts were said over in loving memory of my mother-in-law, Rivka bas Chaim Yosef a’h, on her first yahrzeit. A person who was protected and survived the Holocaust, had a stong attachment to Yiddishkeit, saw the chessed that Hashem did for her thoughout her life, and always knew that Hashem was with her.

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