Before we can examine the special nature of the priestly blessing, we should ask, what is any blessing? What does it mean for one person to bless another?
The word berakha or blessing particularly refers to a material undertaking which is granted special success by special Divine favor. This suggests that the key to a blessing is creating a connection between the spiritual and the material. The material world isolated from holiness is bereft of blessing, but spiritual attainments also translate into blessing only when they are channeled into this world.
So in order to be a conduit of blessing, a person needs to be on the one hand elevated above this world, so as to maintain a living connection with the transcendent world of holiness, yet maintain a connection with this world so as to maintain the ability to infuse this holiness into the material world. Various aspects of birkhat kohanim exemplify this duality.
The Kohanim themselves are elevated in holiness above the people through various restrictions, including special sanctity in marriage, prohibition on becoming defiled to the dead, and the need to maintain purity in order to eat truma, challah, and sacrifices which are their portion. Yet the Kohanim are not hermits; like other Jews they marry, make a living, and engage in most ordinary activities. This makes them specially suited to be a vehicle of blessing.
The posture of the blessing also shows this idea. On the one hand, the Kohanim raise and obscure their hands, symbolizing the connection to the lofty and hidden world of holiness above. Yet at the same time they remove their shoes, demonstrating that they have their “feet on the ground”, that they maintain a firm connection to this world.
The choreography of the blessing carries the same message. The Kohanim ascend the platform facing the Ark, the abode of the Torah scroll, showing their connection to the Author of the Torah. But just before they pronounce the blessing they demonstrate their connection to mankind, as they turn their faces away from the ark and face the congregation. “Rav Yitzchak said, Always be in awe of the community, for the Kohanim face the people and turn their back on the Divine Presence.” (Sota 40a.)
A NATION OF PRIESTS
This understanding of the role of the Kohanim can help us understand the role of the Jewish people as a whole, whom the Torah refers to as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. (Shemot 19:6.) We are priests and holy, set apart from mankind by our covenant with HaShem and by the commandments of the Torah. Yet at the same time we are a kingdom and a nation, so that we are able to imbue human activity with holiness.
This is one explanation of why, among Ashkenazim, there is no birkhat kohanim outside of the Land of Israel except on Yom Tov. Our national priestly blessing to mankind is only complete when we are elevated above other nations, as the kohanim ascend the duchan to bless the people. Yet the general state of the Jewish people in the diaspora is one of subordination. Outside of our land, we can overcome this handicap only on Yom Tov, when we particularly celebrate our special status among the nations. The Yom Tov prayer emphasizes that HaShem “chose us from all of the nations, loved us, and favored us, and elevated us above all of the languages”. (This is intimately connected to what we wrote last week, that Yom Tov is the time when we have a special ability to subdue our material natures, including subduing the harmful effects of alien culture.)
But in the land of Israel we never have a feeling of subordination. On the contrary, we are conscious of a special sense of elevation. A Jew who moves to the Land of Israel always speaks of going on aliyah; we consider Eretz Yisrael the highest place on earth. (See Rashi on Bereshit 45:9.)
From the land of Israel we are particularly able to spread blessing to the whole world, and indeed Chazal tell us that all other lands receive their providence via Eretz Yisrael. (Sifri on Devarim 11:12; see Taanit 10a.)