Be a Blessing: The Priestly Imperative


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:53 p.m.
Torah reading: Numbers 4:21-7:89
Hafarah: Judges 13:2-25
Sabbath ends: 9:00 p.m.


Parshat Naso describes ancient priestly functions that have long since disappeared from Jewish life. Yet one priestly activity remains with the Jewish people and our spiritual life: the beautiful priestly blessing: “Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus you shall bless the people of Israel and say to them: ‘May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord deal kindly and be gracious onto you. May the Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.’” [Num. 6:22-27]

Although more than 1,900 years have passed since the priestly rituals of the Second Temple ended, the kohanim of every synagogue in the diaspora still ascend the bima (stage) on major festivals, extend their hands and bless the community. In Israel, the kohanim do this every Shabbat, and in Jerusalem, every morning. Of all the ancient priestly functions, why has blessing the community survived the passage of time?

Perhaps this ritual provides a key to understanding the eternal importance of the priesthood, and even of the Jewish people. The traditional Midrash Aggadah sets forth the idea that bestowing blessing on others is the essential purpose of Aaron and his descendants: “Priests are ones who are blessed and who bless others.” And as the text of the blessing makes clear, it is God who is the source of the blessing, not the kohanim. The priests are merely conduits for bringing God’s blessing to the people.

The priestly blessing expresses our yearning for all the elements that make for a good and meaningful life: fulfillment, security, loving-kindness (graciousness) and peace. So beloved are these values in Jewish tradition that many Jews — not merely Aaron and his descendents — have adopted the custom of bestowing this blessing on their children before the Friday evening Shabbat meal. 

How has the widespread practice of Jewish parents reciting this blessing over their children developed, when the Torah prescribes its recitation only to kohanim? The Torah suggests that its ideal is for all Jews, not only Aaron’s descendants, to act as priests: At Sinai God challenged the entire Jewish people “to be a holy people and a nation of priests” (Ex. 19:6), so the practice of Jewish parents bestowing the priestly blessing over their children has biblical roots.

Traditional rabbis like Obadiah Seforno and Samson Raphael Hirsch understood the imperative to be a nation of priests as the reason for Israel’s election for its unique role in history. Through this challenge, God commanded the Jewish people to play an essential role for all humanity, to teach the world about God’s presence and divine moral values. The late-19th-century chasidic master, R. Yehudah Leib Alter (“the Sefas Emes”), agreed. He believed that the function of Jewish priests is to bestow God’s blessing on other Jews, and if all Jews are to be a nation of priests, it must be the nations of the world that entire Jewish people is asked to bless.

This idea beautifully connects the spiritual life of our patriarch Abraham with his post-Sinai descendants. Just as God told Abraham (and his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob) to “Be a blessing … Through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” [Gen. 12:2-3], God bade the Jewish people at Sinai to be the carriers of blessing to all peoples in the world. A number of early rabbinic texts even describe Abraham as a priest among his neighbors because he dedicated his life to bringing them blessing and teaching them “the way of the Lord to practice righteousness and justice” [Gen. 18:19]. Abraham foreshadowed the eternal national mission of the Jewish people by being the role model for others of the God-centered moral life, which enables human life to flourish. 

A great late-19th-century rabbinic authority, R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berliner (“the Netziv”), also interpreted the Sinai imperative to be a nation of priests as giving the Jewish people a universal purpose. He claimed that Sinai was the culmination of the universe’s creation. Only there did God finish the Divine plan for redeeming humanity by commanding the Jewish people to teach the nations of the world about God and moral values. Without the nations of the world, the biblical covenant would have no purpose and Israel would have no raison d’etre. For the Netziv, the world was not created for Israel. On the contrary, the Jewish people were created for the world!

All these rabbis were articulating the mysterious paradox of sacred history. In the Torah, God chose one particular people who were to live in one particular place to bring the message of divinity and morality to all people, everywhere.

It is contrary to the Torah’s covenant for Jews to be an isolated ghetto people, an insignificant minority relegated to a footnote in the larger human story. Because of our painful history of persecution and suffering, Jews were long forced to devote most of our energies to survival. Yet the Torah demands that we not merely survive, but be a priestly charismatic people, a holy message-bearing people. Our covenant with God at Sinai calls on us to be a major player — the major player — in the culture and history of the world. Or in God’s simple but powerful words to Abraham and his descendants, “Be a blessing.”

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is the American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, and editor of Meorot—A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse.



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