Blessing Those Who Bless Us

The Priestly Blessing, Birkat Kohanim

This week’s Torah reading, Naso, begins with God instructing Moses to take a census of the Levites between the ages of 30 and 50, who are responsible for the maintaining and transporting the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary and its furnishings, in the wilderness. Following a counting of the descendants of the three sons of Levi; Gershon, Merari and Kohath–Moses records the numbers and each group’s responsibility. The descendants of Moses’ brother, Aaron, were the Kohanim, the priests, who would be responsible for carrying out sacrifice and other ritual duties.

Fast forward a couple of chapters, to one of the most well-known sets of verses in the Torah, Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. “May the LORD bless you and protect you! May God’s light shine upon you and may God be gracious to you! May the Divine face be turned towards you, and may God grant you peace! (Num. 6:23-26 [translation, mine!]). The final verse of this chapter, however, says, “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

We might wonder, if Aaron and the Kohanim are invoking God’s blessing on the people Israel, wouldn’t they assume that there’s a link between them and God? It’s perplexing, and apparently it was also to our Sages of Blessed Memory. One possible understanding is that the priests will bless the people using the “ineffable name of God,” which we write in Hebrew as yud-hey-vav-hey. Another is that God will approve of the priests’ blessing.

The one that most resonates with me comes from the Babylonian Talmud, in tractate Chullin, where Rabbi Yishmael says, “We learn from this verse about a blessing for Israel from the mouth of the priests, but we have not learned about a blessing for the priests themselves.” He goes on to say, that this final verse means that “The priests bless Israel, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, blesses the priests.”

Part of being human is caring for others, whether we’re caring for children, parents or partners, whether we’re paid caregivers or members of a caring, helping profession, clergy, or going about our daily lives or being part of an organization, we bless each other by our presence and by acknowledgement of the humanity, the “face of God” in everyone.

God’s blessing the Kohanim after they have blessed the Israelites acknowledges the tremendous work they do in caring for the spiritual life of the community. May we be blessed to be mindful that those who care for others also need to be cared for, both by others and by themselves.

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