​ Mixed Blessings: Comparing Birkhat haCohanim and Isaac's Blessing

Introduction: The High Priestly Blessing is perhaps the blessing par excellence of the Torah. Yet it is not the first nor the last blessing of the Torah. It seems to be different from other blessings of the Torah. Nehemiah Polen, has suggested that the High Priestly Blessing may be usefully compared to the role played by blessings in Bereishit. He writes, "The patriarchal blessings in Genesis seem to be a zero-sum game, provoking envy because the special favor bestowed on one brother appears to detract from what remains for the others. By contrast, in its sweeping generality and embracing language the Priestly Blessing prompts benevolence rather than competition, dissolving much of the dynamic tension of the Genesis story." (from unpublished article by Nehemia called "Birkhat Kohanim in Sefat Emet") In this source sheet we explore that comparison in order to discover more of the nature of blessing, some of the discontents of blessing, and the Tikkun that the Torah works on the act of blessing itself.

Part I: The Fraught Background of Blessing in Bereishit

Pre-Reading Thought Question: What is a moment when you have felt blessed? What was it like? How/Why was it important for you? Keep this in mind as we read about blessings and sibling rivalry.

Reading Questions: Please quickly revisit the story of the blessing of Isaac blessing Jacob and Esau (Genesis 27:1-8, and 14-41) asking the following questions:

1) How does blessing generate conflict between the brothers?

Part II. The High Priestly Blessing

(כג) דַּבֵּ֤ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶל־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר

כֹּ֥ה תְבָרֲכ֖וּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָמ֖וֹר לָהֶֽם׃ (ס)

(כד) יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה' וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ (ס)

(כה) יָאֵ֨ר ה' ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ (ס)

(כו) יִשָּׂ֨א ה' ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃ (ס)

(כז) וְשָׂמ֥וּ אֶת־שְׁמִ֖י עַל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַאֲנִ֖י אֲבָרֲכֵֽם׃ (פ)

(23) ’Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: On this way shall you bless the children of Israel; shall say unto them:

(24) The LORD bless you, and keep you;

(25) The LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you;

(26) The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.

(27) So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.’

1) Write your translation of these verses.

There are some salient structural features. What are they, and would you include them in your translation?

2) Compare the High Priestly blessing to Isaac's blessing. What are the main themes of each? Who is being blessed in each?

3) Thought Question: What work does this blessing do?

Note about the Appropriate Context for the Priestly Blessing

Read (Leviticus 9:22-24), about the blessing by Aaron at the dedication of the Mishkan. Would this setting makes sense as the original context?

Part III: Chasidic Commentary - Sefat Emet

Sefat Emet on Bamidbar 6:23-25 [תרל"ה], starting BeMidrash.

במדרש ישא ה' פניו וכתיב לא ישא פנים כאן כשעושין רצונו של מקום. וכתבנו כבר מזה במ"א כי

כשעושין רצונו של מקום מה צורך לנשיאת פנים. רק שיקבל הקדוש ברוך הוא המעט עבודה כמו הרבה.

והוא עצמו מ"ש במד' הן נושאין לי פנים כו'. פי' הכלל כפי מה שאדם עצמו שמח במעשה הטוב וחביב

בעיניו שזכה לעשות רצון המקום הן רב הן מעט. כמו כן מקבל הבורא ית' ממנו בסבר פנים יפות. והאמת

כי הוא לאות על הפנימיות שבאדם שמשם בא השמחה. וז"ש וישם לך שלום כי בחי' השלימות הוא

הנקודה אמיתיות שבכל הארה מועטת נמצא הכל וזה ענין שנק' הקדוש ברוך הוא שלום שהוא שלימות

הכל. וכשיש לבנ"י זאת השלימות א"כ נחשב נקודה קטנה כמו הרבה והבן כל זה:

Theological Experience Question: What is Penimiut? When/where do feel like you access this piece of yourself in prayer?

Reading Question: How does the Sefat Emet shift your reading of the text? What motifs does he work with? What is the thematic center of his Derash?

Part IV: Conclusions

Questions: 1) How does the High Priestly Blessing shift the nature of blessing compared to the blessings of Jacob and Esau?

2) How does the Sefat Emet's reading of the High Priestly Blessing shift the nature of blessing?

3) Which makes the most sense to you?

4) Given these two interpretations, how would you define "Blessing" now?

5) What have you've learned that you think might affect the way that you make Berakhot (blessings)?

Key Insight: Nehemiah Polen suggests that the High Priestly blessing resolves some of the problems of blessing that surface in Bereishit. If the blessing in Bereishit is imagined as a zero-sum competition for a father's blessing, here the blessing is bestowed upon all Israel. If the blessing generates conflict, here it brings peace. As such, it is a response to the theme developed in Bereishit that divine blessing may bring envy and with it undesirable consequences.

Extension Thought Question: The Jewish people have suffered partly through a theological "sibling rivalry" with Christians (who figure in classical rabbinic midrash as Esau) who also call themselves Israel. Does does the High Priestly Blessing provide a better model than that of Isaac for calling God's blessing into a world that we are privileged to share with Christians (and other faiths)? If yes, how so?