One of the central points in the Torah portion of Naso is the Priestly Blessing, “God shall bless you and keep you. God shall shine His countenance towards you and grace you. God shall raise His countenance towards you and grant you peace.” The verse that follows these three verses is, “And they shall place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I will bless them.” Rashi explains that the meaning of this additional verse is, “I will bless them – i.e. the nation of Israel—and I will consent with the kohanim (priests). Another meaning is, I will bless the kohanim.” These two interpretations that Rashi mentions appear in the Talmud as two differing opinions,
Rabbi Ishma’el said, “We have learned that the Jewish people be blessed by the kohanim, but we have not learned that there is a blessing for the kohanim themselves. But, when the verse states, “I will bless them,” it means that the kohanim bless the Jewish people and God blesses the kohanim.
Rabbi Akiva says, ‘We have learned that the Jewish people be blessed by the kohanim, but we have not learned that they [the Jewish people] are blessed by God Himself. But, when the verse states, “And I will bless them” it is to say that the kohanim bless the nation of Israel and God consents to their blessing. (Chulin, 49a).
Although in the Talmud Rabbi Ishma’el’s opinion is mentioned first, Rashi in his commentary first mentions Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, that the words, “And I will bless them” refer to the Jewish people.” We can learn from this that Rashi considers this opinion the more literal interpretation, more than that of Rabbi Ishmael, whom Rashi quotes second.
However, the Zohar emphasizes the opinion that “And I will bless them” refers to the kohanim” (in the Zohar this interpretation is stated in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, not Rabbi Yishma’el), implying that this is the more mystical interpretation of the verse. In fact, this explanation is alluded to by the numerical equality between the Hebrew words for, “And I will bless them” (ואני אברכם) and the often repeated phrase, “Aaron and his sons” (אהרן ובניו), who are of course the kohanim!
In the Talmud, the question is asked, where do we learn that the kohanim are also blessed, and the answer is given that we learn this from the promise God gave Abraham that, “I will bless those who bless you” meaning that whomever blesses a Jew will be blessed himself. The Talmud then asks further, if so, then when Rabbi Ishmael explains that God blesses the kohanim, what is he adding? And the reply is that this phrase sets the kohanim in the same context as the Jewish nation so that they are blessed together with them. So, everyone agrees that the kohanim do receive a blessing, but Rabbi Ishmael adds that this is not merely by virtue of their having blessed the Jewish people (and then God’s promise to bless those who bless the Jewish people sets in), but that they also receive their own blessing from God.
A similar explanation is offered for the second interpretation, referring to the blessing with which God blesses the Jewish nation. According to Rabbi Ishmael this is the literal explanation of the verse so it does not need to be stated, because if God commands the kohanim to bless the Jewish nation, then it is obvious that He consents to the blessing and blesses the Jewish nation. Yet Rabbi Akiva assumes that there is an additional blessing and that the verse, “And they shall place My Name upon the Children of Israel,” refers to the blessing that the kohanim bless the Jewish nation, while “And I will bless them” – means that God will add even more blessing.
A Blessing to Kohanim to Bless Jews
In order to see how these two interpretations complement one another, let’s return to Rabbi Ishmael’s statement in the Talmud, which in the Zohar appears as Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion: “And I will bless them” refers to the kohanim. If we contemplate this special addition, it is quite clear that this blessing is not just for the benefit of the kohanim but to add even more blessing to the Jewish people. The task of the kohanim, sons of Aharon who “loves peace and pursues peace,” is to bring blessing and peace upon the Jewish nation, both as God’s messengers and as envoys of the nation. So, we cannot reasonably explain that mixed into their blessing of the Jewish people is an egotistic interest in bringing blessing upon themselves. The whole point of the blessing of the kohanim is to “bless His people of Israel with love.” This idea is especially emphasized in the Zohar, which states immediately following this explanation, “Any kohen who is not loved by the people, should not bless them.” To illustrate this statement, an anecdote follows, which relates of a kohen who “did not bless with love” and was gravely punished for doing so. Indeed, this is even the legal ruling. This explanation of the additional blessing of “And I will bless them,” therefore comes to teach us that the blessing that the kohanim receive in order to bless the Jewish nation is from a much higher source than the blessing that any other person receives as a result of blessing a Jew, because they receive their blessing from God in the context of the entire Jewish people, thereby augmenting enormously the impact of the blessing.
Unconditional Blessing and a Bonus Blessing from the Righteous
Explaining this further, we may observe that there are two levels of blessing within the Priestly Blessing:
The first level is a direct blessing from God to the Jews that stems from the phrase, “And they shall place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I will bless them.” What is special about this particular blessing is that it does not depend on the deeds of the Jewish nation. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, the blessing of the kohanim has an advantage over all the other blessings that appear in the Torah portion of Bechukotai (such as, “I will grant you rain… I will grant you peace… I will grant My dwelling… etc”), because they are all conditional upon, “If you walk in My statutes.” But, the blessing of the kohanim is absolutely unconditional. In fact, not only is the Priestly Blessing not affected by the state of the Jewish people being blessed, it is also independent of the deeds or spiritual level of the kohanim who confer the blessing, and it does not demand any special intention on their part. Even kohanim who are sinners are permitted to bless the people (except under certain circumstances). As Maimonides explains (Hilchot tefilah venesi’at kapayim, 106):
Even though he [the kohen] is not a sage and is not meticulous in his observance of the mitzvot, or even if people complain about him, or even if his business profile is not clean, he can still raise his hands [in blessing] and may not be prevented from doing so. Because this is a positive commandment for every single kohen that it is fitting for him to raise his hands… Also, you should not question to what use this simpleton’s blessing might be?’ because receiving the blessing does not depend upon the kohanim, but upon God, as it says, ‘And they shall place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I will bless them.’ The kohanim do as they are commanded by God in His compassion to bless the Jewish people as He pleases.”
So, the first level of blessing found in the Priestly Blessing is dependent only on God, and independent of both those blessing (the kohanim) and those being blessed (the Jewish people).
But, above and beyond this first level of blessing lies a second level, which is dependent on the kohanim, who act in this case not just out of God’s command that they bless the people, but out of a willingness to assume the role of figurative heads of the Jewish people. This same role is assumed by the righteous individuals, tzadikim, through whom blessing is transmitted to the Jewish nation. Tzadikim are like a clear conduit through whom abundance flows. Apparently, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Yehudah (who interpreted the words, “And I will bless them” as referring to God blessing the kohanim themselves) were aiming at this second level of blessing flowing through the kohanim. At this level, the blessing increases in proportion to the spiritual level of the kohen conferring the blessing. The closer the kohen is to the level of Aharon, who loves peace and pursues peace, the more the blessing of abundance will flow through him. So, we can interpret the words of Rabbi Ishmael in the Talmud by saying that in fact, the blessing that the kohanim receive from God is on behalf of the Jewish nation, meaning that the kohanim are blessed from a higher source in order to bring down additional blessing to the Jewish nation.
The distinction between these two levels of blessing is hinted at in the difference between the two references to God, “My Name” and “I” found in the verse, “And they shall place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I will bless them.” “My Name” is the level to which the entire nation ofIsrael belongs, for God calls His Name upon us all, whereas “I” is the level that is above, “My Name” and indicates God’s essence, above all names and connotations. The truth is that even this level belongs to every Jew, whoever and wherever he may be, because we are all God’s children and we all have a Divine soul that is, “An actual part of God above,” but this level only manifests in the righteous, so much so that one can look at a righteous person and actually see the Divine Presence (as the sages teach us that the phrase “before the Lord God” refers to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). In fact, combining the letters of “My Name” (שמי) and “I” (אני) forms the word נשיאים, referring to the leaders ofIsrael mentioned in the Torah immediately following the Priestly Blessing.
“The lips of the kohen will guard knowledge… for he is an angel of the God of Hosts.” When we have the privilege of kohanim who are at the spiritual level of righteous tzadikim, full of the grace and sanctity of angels, then they receive their blessing from the highest source of blessing and we receive unlimited blessing through them. Through kohanim such as these, the entire Jewish nation receives great light, “God shall shine His countenance towards you and grace you… and grant you peace.”
From Harav Ginsburgh’s class, Sivan 8, 5772