“So shall you bless Bnei Yisrael…. ‘May Hashem bless you and safeguard you; may Hashem illuminate His countenance for you…’ Let them place My name on Bnei Yisrael and I shall bless them” (Bamidbar 6:23-27) .
In this week’s parshah, we learn about Birchas Kohanim, the priestly blessing that’s bestowed on the Jewish nation. The Shulchan Aruch records a very interesting halacha regarding this blessing: Even if all 10 people praying in shul are kohanim, they nevertheless should raise their hands for Birchas Kohanim.
But whom are they blessing? The Mishnah Berurah writes that they’re blessing their brethren in the fields. Nonetheless, the image of a group of kohanim facing an empty shul reciting Birchas Kohanim seems very strange. The Magen Avraham (1633-1683) offers this intriguing explanation:
The root of the Hebrew word “l’varech” (to bless) is also the root of “l’havrech” (to graft). Grafting entails taking a branch of an existing vine and planting it in the ground to grow a new vine. Thus, the growth of the new vine is nourished by the existing plant.
The blessing of Birchas Kohanim is similarly “attached” to an earlier “plant.” Since Avraham Avinu promoted emunah in the world, Hashem told him: “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Bereishis 12:3). He thereby empowered Avraham to be the conduit between humanity and its source. Whenever the name of Hashem is invoked, Hashem comes to bless.
That’s why the Torah says, “Let them place My name on the Jewish people and I will bless them.” The Alshich explains that by “placing the name of Hashem” on the people, the kohanim help connect them to Hashem.
And the kohanim have a unique nature, pronouncing their blessing on the Jewish nation with love. Hence the blessing: “Blessed are You, Hashem…who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aharon and has commanded us to bless His people with love.”
The Zohar writes that if the kohen doesn’t love the congregation, or the congregation doesn’t love the kohen, he shouldn’t raise his hands to bless the people as per Mishlei 22:9, which states, “One with a good eye will be blessed,” and the Kli Yakar writes, “Al tikri yevorach ela yevarech – Don’t read ‘will be blessed,’ but ‘should bless.’”
The Zohar relates that a kohen who despised the congregation once rose to bless the people, and before he concluded the blessing, his soul departed.
In order for a kohen to serve as a conduit of blessing for each member of the Jewish nation, he must form a connection of love for that person; he must have a “good eye,” and see each individual in a positive light. Only in that fashion will he be able to encourage the individual to grow closer to Hashem.
Despising another person, or being despised by others, is a sign that you don’t see your brethren in a favorable light. And such a person may not bless the people. But a kohen whose love for his brethren overflows can even bless his brethren in the fields – those people who don’t come anywhere near a shul and are not affiliated with holy gatherings – to experience the proximity of the Shechinah.
In his explanation of Pirkei Avos (1:12) – “Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to the Torah” – the Rambam writes that when a member of the Jewish nation transgressed or sinned, Aharon would embrace him with extra love. He was, in effect, doing an act of grafting by placing the name of Hashem on the individual, inspiring him and bringing blessing upon him so that he would be nourished from his source, Hashem. That enabled him to continue to grow by himself – to do teshuvah and come closer to Hashem.
R’ Yaakov Eliezer Schwartzman, rosh yeshiva of the Lakewood Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, related this story about his grandfather, R’ Isser Zalman Meltzer.
In writing his famous sefer, Even HaEzel, a commentary on the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, R’ Meltzer came to the topic of Tefillas Shacharis and Krias Shema. After explaining many pertinent considerations related these topics, he noted that the Rambam maintained that the preferred time to say these prayers is at netz (sunrise) and that saying Shemone Esrei later is not ideal.
R’ Isser Zalman Meltzer always davened Shachris in Batei Rand, a central shul in the neighborhood, where Shachris took place later in the morning, not at sunrise. However, R’ Meltzer decided that he really wanted to follow the Rambam’s opinion and pray at sunrise.
He informed his disciple, who stayed at his home to help him and his rebbetzin, that he would be rising early the next morning to daven with the netz minyan. The following morning when the young man came to help him, he saw that R’ Meltzer was already up and pacing back and forth as if deliberating on a serious issue.
He mentioned to the rosh yeshiva that it was time to leave, but R’ Meltzer seemed hesitant. He then respectfully reminded the rosh yeshiva that if they didn’t leave immediately, they would miss the minyan.
To his shock, R’ Isser Zalman responded: I have carefully reviewed this matter, and I have concluded that I will not join the netz minyan. There is an established minyan of good people from the neighborhood where I have been davening all these years. These men have forged a friendship among themselves, and each morning when the prayers are over, they wish each other well.
There are many congregants there who derive great pleasure when I show interest in their welfare. We are strongly connected, and our short exchange in the morning gives them inspiration and encouragement.
If I no longer continue this practice, I will be depriving them of that moment of enjoyment at the beginning of their day, and they will be discouraged. It’s better that I not follow the Rambam in this instance; it’s more important for me not to disappoint a fellow Jew.