Three Parts

The priestly blessing (birkat kohanim) is one of the most well-known passages in Jewish liturgy. Traditionally it is interpreted as a blessing for physical wellbeing and sustenance, and many people make a point of being present in synagogue when the kohanim bless the congregation during holiday services. (In Israel and in some Diaspora communities, birkat kohanim is recited more frequently.)

The blessing, which is found in this week’s Torah portion, is divided into three It is a blessing for physical wellbeing and sustenanceparts:1

May the L‑rd bless you and watch over you.
May the L‑rd shine His countenance to you and favor you.
May the L‑rd raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.2

Although the traditional interpretation of the blessing is a physical one, the actual words speak of something more lofty. The kohanim stand before us and, with three blessings, nourish our relationship with G‑d. When you think about it, these three verses represent the arc of our spiritual climb. First we serve G‑d, then we know G‑d, and finally we rise to the pinnacle of unification with G‑d.

In the first verse, G‑d blesses and “watches over” us. He is the patron, the benefactor and protector, and we are the beneficiaries. In the second verse, we rise to a level of partnership with G‑d. He shines His countenance to us, rather than upon us from above. In the third verse, G‑d raises His countenance to [see] us. When He seeks to bless us, He doesn’t look down to find us in creation. Rather, He looks up from creation and into Himself, because we become completely united with G‑d.

The Curve

These three levels comprise the full spectrum of our relationship with G‑d. When we embark on our Jewish experience, we are G‑d’s subjects. He commands and we obey, with or without understanding. But when we delve into the the inner meaning of the mitzvahs, we realize that we play a critical, even cosmic, role in creation. G‑d created the world for the sake of Torah. When we study and practice the Torah, we fulfill the mandate of creation. It is as if G‑d allows us to be His partner. He creates, and we give His creation meaning.

The first level is accessed through the practice ofWe play a critical, even cosmic, role in creation mitzvahs; the second level, through the study of Torah. The third and final level—that of utter unification—is accessed through self-sacrifice: risking our lives for G‑d’s sake. When we risk our lives for G‑d, we embrace our seminal bond with our creator, acknowledging that life is worthless without Him. With that we ascend the ladder of spirituality and tap into the endless well of inspiration that is the soul, realizing its true depth and untold power to unite with G‑d.

Thought and Speech

G‑d spoke the world into existence. Souls, however, emerge from a higher order—that of divine thought. Thoughts are more internal than words. We think for ourselves; we speak for others. Words are external; thoughts are internal.

Just as we tell others what we first think to ourselves, so did G‑d, in creation, reveal ideas that He first conceived for Himself. Since souls emerge from the dimension of divine thought, the soul transcends the world.

The Midrash teaches that before creating the world, G‑d consulted with righteous souls. This is understood to mean that He visualized the delight that He would derive from their worship and service of Him.3 It was only because G‑d visualized the pleasure that He would receive from the soul’s descent into this world that He proceeded with the project of creation. Thus the soul is the purpose of creation, the reason G‑d created the world.

Yet the soul resides in a human body, within the physical world. When G‑d views the soul as it functions within the body, He sees it as an object of the world. When G‑d views the soul as it is for itself, He sees it as His partner, a partner that was present and involved when He conceived of the world.4

Unification

The soul emerges from divine thought, but it doesn’t originate there. The soul’s origin is wrapped up with G‑d’s essence—it is merely projected through divine thought into creation. This is akin to the bond between father and The soul emerges from divine thoughtchild. The seminal point of contact between a father and child lies within the father’s essence, even though the child later emerges as a separate being. The soul emerges as a separate entity, but in origin it is utterly bound with G‑d.

When we access this level of the soul through self-sacrifice, we unite completely with G‑d and rise above creation. Rather than being facets of creation, or even partners in the project of creation, we become part of the creator. Thus, G‑d looks up from creation and seeks us within Himself—the third of the priestly blessings.

The priestly blessing empowers us to make this three-step climb. In the first blessing, G‑d protects and sustains us. In the second, G‑d treats us as partners who have the power to work with Him on His project and give meaning to His creation. In the third stage, when we have reached the pinnacle of devotion and perfected our connection with G‑d, we reach a state that transcends the universe completely and is completely at one with G‑d.5