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Birkat Kohanim – The Unconditional Blessing

A friend recently shared me a remarkable passage from the Torah commentary of Rav Eliezer of Worms (Germany, 1176-1238), known as the "Ba’al Ha’Roke’ah," who was a disciple of Rabbenu Yehuda Ha’ahasid (author of Sefer Ha’hasidim, 1150-1217), and a teacher of the Ramban (Rav Moshe Nahmanides, Spain, 1194-1270). (The Hida, in Shem Ha’gedolim, tells that the teachings transmitted by Rabbenu Yehuda Ha’hasid to Rav Eliezer of Worms originate from Shimon Ha’pakuli, one of the Tanna’im.) Commenting on the verse in Parashat Vayehi, "Va’yebarech Otam" ("He blessed them" – Bereshit 49:28), which refers to the blessings which Yaakob Abinu granted his sons before his death, the Ba’al Ha’Roke’ah observed that the word "Otam" is written with the letter "Vav." It could have just as well been written without this letter, and thus the Ba’al Ha’Roke’ah finds great significance to this letter in the context of Yaakob’s blessing.

He explained that all blessings in the Torah are given on condition. Whenever we find in the Torah a promise of great success or prosperity, the promise is made on condition that we faithfully obey Hashem’s commands. However, the Ba’al Ha’Roke’ah writes, the extra letter "Vav" in the phrase "Va’yebarech Otam" alludes to six blessings (as the letter "Vav" has the numerical value of 6) which mark an exception to this rule – namely, the six blessings of Birkat Kohanim. When the Kohanim bless the congregation, they pronounce six blessings – "Yebarechecha," "Ve’yishmarecha," "Ya’er," "Vi’yhuneka," "Yisa," and "Yasem." These six blessings, the Ba’al Ha’Roke’ah teaches, are unconditional. We don’t have to earn them. No matter how deserving or undeserving we are, we are granted these blessings.

This teaching of one of our Rishonim (Medieval sages) should bring our appreciation of Birkat Kohanim to an entirely new level. When we stand in front of the Kohanim as they pronounce their blessing, we receive them irrespective of our "record," regardless of any sins we might have committed. This is a very special blessing which we receive each day directly and unconditionally from Hashem, and we should celebrate this great privilege, and take full advantage of it. This is particularly meaningful for our community, which follows the custom of having the Kohanim bless the congregation each and every day (and not only on festivals, as is done in Ashkenazic communities). We are so fortunate to be able to receive this special blessing, which does not depend on our merits.

Incidentally, this passage also gives us a glimpse into the remarkable "Ru’ah Ha’kodesh" of our great sages. From just a single letter – the letter "Vav" – the Ba’al Ha’Roke’ah was able to deduce this profound insight into the unique nature of Birkat Kohanim, undoubtedly testifying to his exalted level of understanding and insight.


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