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   by Jacob Solomon

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“May G-d bless you and safeguard you.”

“May G-d shine His face on you and be gracious to you.”

“May G-d lift His face to you and grant you peace.”

Let… (the Priests) place My Name on the Israelites and I will bless them (Text of the Priestly Blessing: 6:24-7).

Once, so the story goes, a young man went up to his Rabbi and said, “Please Rabbi, I want to be a Kohen (Priest). Will you convert me into one?” The Rabbi told him that he could not oblige. He approached others and got the same response every time, “Sorry, I do not have the power to help you!” Desperate, he approached a rogue, who was known to be amenable if tempted with a very substantial ‘donation’…

“OK”, he finally said, after agreeing on the price. “Trust me; I’ll turn you into a Kohen.” So he performed a home made ‘conversion ceremony’. After the cash changed hands, the well-satisfied young man got ready to go.

Tapping him on the shoulder, he asked him, “Just one thing. Why did you want to become a Kohen?”

“Well, it’s like this – just between us, you see. My father was a Kohen, my grandfather was a Kohen, and before he died, my father told me that his grandfather was also a Kohen…”

However, a serious issue is raised behind the story. The Torah places great importance on Torah learning and Maasim Tovim (good deeds). But virtually any man with yichus – in this case, patriarchal lineage from Aaron, is eligible to take part in conveying G-d’s blessing onto the Israelites. This applies even if he lacks great learning and character. Lack of yichus, on the other hand, is an instant disqualification. Why should that be so?

In addition, why must Birkat Kohanim be pronounced in Hebrew (Mishna Sotah 7:2), unlike the Shema, Amidah, or Birkat Hamazon (the Grace after Meals), which may be said in any language the reader understands? Why is Birkat Kohanim any different?

In answering the above, consider the comment made by the Ralbag, in a very different context. In explaining why Isaac requested Esau to hunt and prepare venison for him, “so I may bless you before G-d before I die” (Gen. 28:4), he says that the tasty food was needed for the following reason. Isaac did not approve of Esau’s way of life. But his act of honoring his father by giving him food to eat would create a bond of gratitude and ‘goodwill’, and arouse Isaac’s love and desire to bless him (despite his deep disappointment with the women that Esau had chosen to marry).

The Kohanim of old felt similar goodwill towards the Israelites. The Israelites gave them material support, in return for their services in the spiritual realm. They thus had a genuine concern that the Israelites would be blessed, as their own material life depended on it. And, like Isaac, they felt closer to the recipients of their blessing, because they were genuinely grateful for what they had received from them. It was this feeling of gratitude towards the Israelite nation that had shown constant concern for their welfare, which created a special desire within the Kohanim to bless them ‘be-ahava’ - with love. That was the common bond between the Kohanim, which arose from their own circumstances, which no ‘outsider’, however learned, could share.

This leads us to the question of the actual text of the Blessings. Why must the Kohanim bless the Israelites in Hebrew, instead of the language that they know best?

R. Chaim Wilschanksi, brings the following answer. The language of Birkat Kohanim is in the singular. Each person is an individual. Each person is different. Each person needs a blessing that is relevant to his personality and situation. Hebrew is the original language of the Torah. And the Divine language may be interpreted in many ways, as exemplified below. As the Prophet Jeremiah put it, the words of G-d are, ‘like a hammer hitting a rock, producing many sparks’ (Jeremiah 23:29). The Torah has ‘seventy faces’ - each word of the Torah has many different meanings. Once the Torah is translated into a different language, it is completely at the mercy of the translator.

One very simple example of this (relevant for Shavuot, to the text recited on bringing the first fruits to the Temple) is contained in the words ‘arami oved avi’. This may be translated as either, ‘an Aramean (Laban) persecuted my father’ (Jacob), or, very differently, ‘my father (Jacob) was a wandering Aramean (temporary resident of Aram). The Hebrew conveys both meanings simultaneously; the translator is forced to pick one at the expense of the other.

Similarly, consider the final word ‘shalom’ in Birkat Kohanim. The word ‘shalom’ is commonly translated into English as ‘peace’. However it can have many different meanings to many different people, all within the very wide scope of the Hebrew ‘shalom’, but not necessarily within the English ‘peace’. The word ‘shalom’ is used by the Torah to embody a different positive quality in each and every individual. So the use of ‘shalom’ in Birkat Kohanim covers the needs of every Israelite at the same time. The word ‘peace’ does not.

‘Shalom’ can mean peace – freedom from arguments and strife. It has as many other meanings as the number of people – if not more. It can, for example, mean peace of mind – including being satisfied with what one has without being mentally tortured by not having more. To another person, it can mean being able to come to terms with something beyond his control. To a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) and a tzadik (righteous person), it can mean the blissful state of mind of being at one with the Creator…



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