We hear it from the Cohanim each Yom Tov (and every week, or even every day, in Israel and in some communities). Many parents say it to their children every Friday night. They even feature in the lyrics of “Fiddler on the Roof”. And these three verses from this week’s sedra are amongst the most well-known in the Bible.
Indeed the Priestly blessing of “May G-d bless you and keep you. May G-d light His face to you and be gracious to you. May G-d lift up his face to you and give you peace” is so prominent in Jewish tradition and practice, that it comes as a surprise to find it mentioned so briefly in the Torah, appearing almost as an afterthought following on from a lengthy discussion of various other subjects.
The sedra begins with the conclusion of the counting of the Levites and continues with the exclusion from the Israelite camp of those who are ritually impure as a result of the affliction of “Tzara’at” (often mistranslated as “Leprosy”). The next topic is the offerings brought as atonement for those who have misused sacred property. This is followed by the treatment of a wife suspected of adultery and then the laws of the “Nazir” – one who has chosen to abstain from wine. Only then is the Priestly blessing mentioned.
Two themes run through each of these subjects – the involvement of the Cohanim – the Priests – and the possibility that the Cohanim will see some members of the Jewish people in a negative light. The rabbis tell us that Tzara’at is a physical disease that affects those with a spiritual imperfection and Cohanim are responsible for determining when sufferers are healed. The Cohanim perform the sacrifices that those who misused Temple property must bring.
The investigation of a woman suspected of adultery - which is performed by a Cohen - inevitably raises questions about her character. Similarly the Nazir – who abstains from wine because – has, according to one opinion in the Talmud, sinned by denying himself the pleasures of G-d’s world. Therefore he has to bring a sin-offering which, again, is to be administered by a Cohen.
Only then does the command come to the Cohanim to bless the Jewish people. The singular grammatical form shows that the blessing is directed to each and every individual Jew, irrespective of their character or conduct. The message is clear; it is not for Cohanim to divide the people into “good Jews” or “bad Jews” – but to give the blessing freely and willingly to all.
Before pronouncing the blessing in shul, the Cohanim preface their words with a blessing of their own – thanking G-d for giving them the commandment to perform this act. They declare that they, uniquely, have been ordered to bless the people of Israel, “with love”. The blessing is worthless, unless it is accompanied by genuine and sincere love for each Jew.