The Ritual

If you have ever been to the synagogue during the Priestly Blessing, you know it is a celestial experience. The kohen removes his shoes1 and approaches the podium, his face hidden behind his prayer shawl. He extends his hands towards the congregation, fingers parted and palms stretched outwards. He waits, in anticipation of the holy moment. Those in the congregation hide behind their own prayer shawls to avoid gazing directly upon the kohen, for it is believed that the divine presence rests upon the kohen during this time.2

Prompted by the cantor, the kohen soberly intones the sacred words of the blessing (Numbers; 6:24–26): “May G‑d bless you and keep you. May G‑d shine his countenance upon you and may he be gracious to you. May G‑d lift his countenance upon you and may he give you peace.”

As the blessing concludes, a sense of rapture envelops the congregation, and many communities break out in joyful song. Somehow we sense that we have just been especially blessed by G‑d, the Bestower of all blessings. Somehow we feel elated, lifted to a higher plane, almost as if G‑d had just reached down from His celestial throne, scooped us up and drawn us close.

What is it about the Priestly Blessing that triggers such euphoria? Why does it have the power to uplift? How does this blessing differ from those we utter ourselves?

Two Forms of Request

My son loves to play ball in the yard. He often asks me to play with him, and I enjoy every minute of it. How I wish that I could grant his request every time. Unfortunately, I am often forced to turn him down because of my time constraints.

My son knows how much I enjoy his company, and he feels sorry for me. There are times when he actually suggests that we play for my sake. Instead of saying, “Can you play with me, Dad?” he says, “How would you like to take a break, Dad, and I’ll play with you?”

When he puts it that way, I find it almost impossible to resist. Here is my little son, who instead of being concerned with his own fun, is eager to provide me with the enjoyment of his company. Only one thought floods my mind at that time: I love this little boy, and nothing is more important to me than my time with him.

When he phrases it that way, all other considerations somehow fade. All other tasks somehow lose their significance. At that time, only one thought consumes my mind: my son loves me and I love him.

Two Forms of Prayer

Typically, we approach G‑d in prayer to ask for something. We contemplate our lives and our needs and then proceed to make our requests of G‑d. G‑d listens carefully. He listens to our words but he reads our hearts. “You have needs that you want me to fulfill,” G‑d muses, “but I have desires that I want you to fulfill. Let’s see how well you tend to my desires. Then I’ll decide how well I shall tend to yours.”

A kohen approaches G‑d differently. He pours his heart out in prayer and says, “Dear G‑d, I know how much you love your children and how much you enjoy providing for them. Happily, I am in a position to offer you one such opportunity. This is what your children lack, and here is how you might engage in your favorite pastime of providing for them.”

The kohen, a descendant of Aaron, inherits Aaron’s spiritual qualities. Aaron was famous for his loving character. Indeed, the Hebrew name “Aharon” is an abbreviation of two Hebrew words, ahavah rabbah—“great love.” Aaron loved G‑d and he loved his people. When he prayed for the people of Israel, he reflected on the two objects of his love. On the one hand, he thought of the people and their needs. On the other hand, he thought of G‑d’s love for the people and of how much G‑d enjoys giving to them.

Aaron prayed completely without guile, in absolute devotion and love. His loving fervor, in turn, aroused G‑d’s love. G‑d would listen attentively and say, “You desire to provide for me, and I desire to provide for you.” The kohen, who inherits this quality from Aaron, is endowed with the ability to do the same.3

Extended Palms

This explains why the kohen extends his palms outward towards the congregation, rather than the traditional posture for prayer, upwards towards G‑d. With his palm, the kohen forms a vessel into which G‑d pours a blessing. A palm extended upwards forms a vessel for ourselves from which we may later drink. A palm extended outwards forms a vessel through which G‑d channels his blessing to others.

The kohen at this time is not a supplicant but a conduit. He asks not for our sake but for G‑d’s sake. He asks not so that we can gather but so that G‑d can give. It is this manner of asking that G‑d loves most. It elicits an accelerated response from above that is impervious to any and all obstacles.4

In Love

This is why the kohen introduces his blessing with the words, “to bless His people Israel with love.” He speaks of the love between G‑d and the Jewish people. He also speaks of the love among the Jewish people themselves, for when G‑d’s children are united, the vessel is made whole and properly performs its function.

Our sages write that the “vessel” best suited to hold blessing is unity.5 Without unity the vessel is fractured; with unity the vessel is strong. The Hebrew word for vessel, keli, is an acronym of the three groups of which the Jewish community is comprised—kohanim, Levites and Israelites. When Jews love each other, the three components of the keli are united and our vessel is strong, enabling the kohen to successfully channel blessing to the community.6