This Shabbat we read the Torah portion describing one of the most ancient and beautiful prayers in Judaism, which once again proves to be a prophetic inspiration for today’s challenges. The Birkat Cohanim, or Priestly Blessing included in this Shabbat’s portion is just 15 words promising knowledge, wealth, security, shalom and a steadfast relationship with the Almighty.
What more could we ask?
In the synagogue as the Cohanim rise to deliver the blessing they must face the people. This requires them to turn their backs on the Torah Scroll and the Aron Koshesh or Ark of the Torah, which teaches us that to communicate effectively with someone we must face them (and not be on the telephone!). That is the only way to truly connect with another person. Looking at one another face to face and giving our full attention shows the kind of dignity and respect needed to communicate.
Not only must he face the people to deliver the blessing, he must lift his arms up over his head, open his hands and spread his fingers towards the people. This signifies that both he and the Almighty, through the Cohen’s mediation, embrace the nation with open arms, holding us in His everlasting arms, as it were. Open hands tell us that God will provide all that we need. Like a handshake it says, “I am here for you. We are friends.” Compare this open-handed gesture to a clenched fist which indicates anger and enmity. Instead, the Cohanim act as channels through whom God’s blessing flows into our lives and into the world.
The Jewish sages understood this deeper meaning of the commandment to face the people with open arms and instituted a further requirement when pronouncing God’s blessing on the people. “Blessed are you … who has made us holy with the holiness of Aaron and has commanded us to bless His people Israel with love.” This is the only commandment for a blessing that must be pronounced “with love.” Here we learn that a blessing is not truly a godsend unless it is given in love.
The Cohanim (priests and priesthood) were at one time leaders of the people of Israel and still today hold crucial functions of leadership within the Jewish community. What we learn from the Birkat Cohanim is that anyone who aspires to lead the People of Israel today must also give full attention to others, welcome them with open arms, and let all they do come from genuine love of our fellow citizens.
In Israel the Birkat Cohanim is repeated everyday as part of the Amidah, the central prayers in Jewish liturgy. It is also pronounced by parents as they bless their children on Friday nights and is often used to bless the bride and groom under the chuppah.
In the face of external enemies intent on destroying our nation, it is crucial that the Jewish people cease our infighting and come together. With the troubling internal conflicts within Israel between right and left, religious and secular, and a toxic political quagmire, now is the hour for the Jewish people to exchange arms for arms, and to fight our enemies together as one.