The commandment to Aharon and his sons to bless Am Yisrael appears in our parasha in between the section dealing with the nazir and the account of the Mishkan’s completion and the inaugural offerings brought by the nesi’im (triba leaders). At first glance, this sequence is far from clear. Not only does the sequence require explanation, but so do the content and essence of this beracha.
Most commentators explain the juxtaposition between the laws of the nazir and birkat kohanim as teaching us that the kohen may not lift his hands to recite birkat kohanim if he has recently drunk wine. (Just as a nazir abstains from wine, so must a kohen refrain from drinking wine when administering this beracha.) The relationship between birkat kohanim and the Mishkan and sacrifices is explained on the basis of the fact that birkat kohanim was recited in the Mikdash. However, a deeper look at the content of this blessing might help us understand further the underlying significance of this beracha and its location here in Parashat Naso.
Birkat kohanim – the blessing of the kohanim – is actually the blessing of God, a beracha conveyed to the nation through the kohanim. The need for kohanim as “agents” flows from the fact that the beracha’s recipients, Am Yisrael, at times fall short of the spiritual level required to earn the divine blessing. Hashem therefore designated the kohanim, who are referred to as “people of God,” servants of Hashem, to bring His blessing to the people. In effect, according to the approach taken by most mefarshim, the spiritual level of this kohen or the other kohen as they ascend the platform to bless the people is of no consequence. (The exception to this rule is that a kohen who has worshipped idols or murdered may not recite birkat kohanim; furthermore, as explained by the Mishna Berura, if a kohen despises the congregation, of if the congregation despises him, he does not go up for birkat kohanim.) This is because the kohen represents the entire community of kohanim – which includes sacred, distinguished people – whose role among Am Yisrael is to teach the laws and mitzvot and serve as the conduits between the Almighty and His people. In essence, their job is to bring Am Yisrael to the realization of its ultimate purpose, to become a “kingdom of kohanim and a sacred nation.”
But how exactly do the kohanim connect the nation to Hashem, and how is this role manifest in the beracha?
We can find the answer to this question in the final words of the beracha recited by the kohanim before they begin birkat kohanim: “… to bless His nation Israel with love.”
The Hebrew verb “b.r.ch.” has an additional meaning beyond the more common meaning of “bless,” and that is “graft” (“le’havrich”). Grafting involves taking a branch attached to the tree and planting it in the ground in order to grow a new tree. The act of grafting in essence returns the branch to its source, to its roots, and allows it to grow into its own tree. This is the role of the kohanim: to bring Am Yisrael back to their roots, to the Almighty. Such a task can be performed only out of love; a person cannot help his fellow return to his source if he does not truly love him. Therefore, in order for a kohen to go and administer birkat kohanim, a sense of social harmony must exist between the congregation and the kohanim. (This is the reason why Chazal added this requirement, that the blessing be recited “with love,” as indicated by the text of the introductory beracha, despite the fact that the Torah makes no mention of such a requirement. And, as mentioned earlier, Chazal even established that a kohen who despises the congregation, or vice-versa, cannot recite birkat kohanim, since he cannot properly execute his task.) In order for us to receive Hashem’s blessing, the “shining of His face” upon us, His favor, peace – all the elements included in birkat kohanim, we must achieve a certain level of social holiness, the point where feelings of love and peace are felt between the people and the kohanim.
On this basis, perhaps, we can understand the relationship between birkat kohanim and the nazir. The concept of nezirut is elevating one’s spiritual level (for which reason he isolates himself and takes upon himself added restrictions). Similarly, we, too, before receiving Hashem’s blessing, which, according to Rav Kook, not only bestows God’s goodness upon us, but also, to the same extent, demands of us a higher spiritual level, we must raise our personal and social level of holiness. This does not mean that we must all become nazirim. Social holiness can be achieved by inculcating values such as tolerance, mutual respect, assisting others, love towards our fellow, and so on. If we do so, then we can truly proceed to complete the construction of the Mishkan, we can proceed to offer sacrifices and serve in the Mikdash – we can realize our highest ambitions.
In conclusion, just as the kohanim serve as the conduits connecting Am Yisrael with the Almighty, so does Am Yisrael, which is enjoined to become a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation, serve to attach the other nations of the world with the Almighty; its purpose is to raise the level of social sanctity throughout the world. This, too, can be done only by creating a sense of social harmony based on love and peace between us and the other nations (if only we could first establish peace among our own people!), and we will thereby do our share in ushering in the day on which “Hashem will be one, and His Name one.”