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Shiurim & Adult Education
THOUGHTS FOR PARASHAT SHEMINI BY RABBI WILKINSON
One of the many differences between living in Chutz l’Aretz and Israel is that we only have birkat kohanim on Chagim. Last year, because of the lockdown rules, we couldn’t have shul services over Pesach and Shavuot so we missed the opportunity to receive the bracha from the Kohanim. This year those of us who were in Shul with a kohen could receive the bracha.
The text of Birkat Kohanim comes from the parasha Naso. This week, however, we learn that “Aaron lifted his hands towards the people and blessed them. He then descended from preparing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offerings.” (Vayikra. 9:22)
From the Torah’s account, it seems that Aaron blessed the people before he completed the service in the Mishkan. The Sages, however, explained that the actual order was different. First, Aaron completed the offerings and descended from the altar. Only afterward did he bless the people.
Rav Kook zt”l raises the question that if Birkat Kohanim was performed at the end of the Temple service (which nowadays is recited at the end of the Amidah prayer), why does the Torah imply a different order?
Rav Kook suggests that when discussing the contribution of the kohanim to the Jewish people, and the corresponding honour they receive, we must distinguish between their current state and their future potential. We may respect an individual kohen for his scholarship and piety, but the true honour we bestow to kohanim is in recognition of their holy influence over the entire nation. We honour them primarily for their future potential, for what a kohen should and can be: “for he is an emissary of Hashem” (Malachi 2:7). Even if the kohen is undeserving of such honour in his present state, “You must strive to keep him holy… he will be holy for you, since I am holy” (Vayikra 21:8). His holiness is due to his potential benefit to the nation, as a member of the sanctified family.
The function of the kohanim is not only to serve in the Temple. The kohanim are also expected to teach and elevate the people, as it says, “From the kohen’s lips they will guard knowledge, and they will seek Torah from his mouth” (Malachi 2:7). These two roles are interrelated since the source for their spiritual influence on the people originates in the holiness of their service in the Temple.
Rav Kook says that there is one duty of the kohanim that combines both roles: Birkat Kohanim. This blessing is part of the Temple service, and at the same time, reflects their interaction with the people. The kohanim recite the blessing with outstretched arms, a sign that their efforts to uplift the people are an extension and continuation of their holy service in the Temple.
The blessing also forms a bridge over time, connecting the past with the future and the actualised with the potential.
The kohanim can best fulfil their mission to uplift the people after they have participated in the Temple service and experienced the unique elevation of soul gained through this holy public service. Their blessing will then reflect the highest level of influence and inspiration the kohen is able to impart. Thus, the blessing indicates the present state of the kohen, while being based on his past service, and extending – like his outstretched arms – to his future potential influence.
This resolves the apparent contradiction between the Torah’s account and actual practice. The text implies that the kohanim complete their service after blessing the people. The service referred to here is not their service in the Temple, but their role in uplifting the people, which is their primary mission. In practice, however, the priestly blessing needs to be based on the holy services that they have already performed. Therefore, it is recited only after they have completed their service in the Temple.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom and chodesh tov.