God spoke unto Moshe, saying, “Speak to Aharon and unto his sons,
saying: ‘In this you shall bless the Children of Israel …’ ” (Bamidbar
This week's parshah contains the mitzvah of Birchas Kohanim—the Priestly
Blessings—which happens everyday in Eretz Yisroel, but only on holidays in
the Diaspora, except in a Sephardic minyan where the tradition is to do it
even outside of the Land of Israel. It is just one of the many important
distinctions between living in the Holy Land and outside of it.
As most people are probably aware, one is not supposed to look at the
fingers of the kohanim while they bless the congregation. They are usually
held at head height, and spread in a certain formation under the tallis of
the kohen. This is because the Divine light came down into the world and
through the kohen, leaving through his fingers onto the people he was blessing.
Of course, it is hard not to cheat sometimes when Birchas Kohanim takes
place during the holidays at the Wall. There thousands of kohanim gather to
bless a rather large gathering of people, many of whom have come just for
that part of the dovening. It is quite an experience, and many either do not
know the law, or ignore it to get a glimpse of so many kohanim in action.
Does it really make a difference today? Not like it used to in Temple times,
when looking at the hands of the kohanim during the blessing could, in fact,
be dangerous for a person. I do not know if a person actually went blind
because of it, but there probably was some adverse effect, since it was
tantamount to treading in a place in the Temple that non-kohanim were not
allowed to go.
On occasion, I have made the mistake of looking up and catching a glimpse of
the kohanim’s hands a little early, and though my eyesight is worsening, I
don’t know if that has played a role. That’s because today, nothing really
works the way it once did. It’s been a couple thousand years since we had a
Temple, and even longer since the Divine Presence filled it and dwelled on
the Jewish people, at least the way it once did.
Indeed, so much of what we do today is just to make sure that we don’t
forget how to do it, lest the Final Redemption occur, and the Temple return,
in our time. Instantly we will have to perform all of the relevant mitzvos,
and if we don’t remember what they are or how to do them, then it will take
even longer to properly fulfill our responsibilities.
It wouldn’t be the first time in history that it happened. In fact, after
the Purim miracle and the return of many Jews to Eretz Yisroel, thousands of
years ago, so many had forgotten so much in 70 short years. As a result,
after Ezra finished sorting out just who was Jewish and who wasn’t, they had
to go about re-educating the Jewish people in the way of Torah. It was a
mess, and we probably never really sorted it all out, and probably won’t
until Moshiach comes and finishes the job.
Just take a look around. The assimilation rate is over 80 percent. 80
percent!! The intermarriage rate is well over 50 percent, and so many
conversions take place daily that are halachically invalid. But the converts
or their families don’t necessarily know that, or even care if they do. As
far as they are concerned, they are card-carrying members of the Jewish
people, which creates major halachic confusion, especially when they are
women and they have children.
It has happened that young men or women, who have grown up believing that
they come from Jewish families, have returned to traditional Judaism later
on in life. They may go so far as to change their entire lives, completely
living and dressing the part, and even going to learn full time in yeshivah
or seminary. And then, all of a sudden, one day they find out, after doing a
little research that they are 100 percent gentile, shocking them and
everyone else around them.
Usually when that happens, I am certain, such people quickly convert
officially. It is unlikely that a secular Jew who has voluntarily returned
to Torah and mitzvos is going to throw off all their obligations after
finding out that he or she is not even obligated to keep them. Unlikely, but
not impossible, and you have to wonder if for a moment, the thought doesn’t
cross such a person’s mind.
The point is that the Jewish people is a mess today. True, each faction has
splintered off neatly into its own group as if it is a separate religion,
after which each group neatly splinters into even small groups, which is not
very neat at all. The Orthodox world may look at itself as being a complete
unit, as may the Conservative and Reform groups. However, God looks at all
of us as one people, and the situation as a it really stands.
As a result, the Orthodox world sees itself as the preservers of Torah
tradition, which is correct, but not a lot more than that. The Conservative
Movement sees itself as the balance between the old and the new, which is
really a wish, not a reality. And, the Reform Movement sees itself as almost
a new religion, which doesn’t bother them since they believe that God never
really gave Torah at Mt. Sinai in the first place.
The results vary from group to group. The Reform Movement has built-in
obsolescence; it will disappear by virtue of its own policies regarding
conversion and intermarriage. The Conservative Movement is not far behind,
but it will last a little longer. And, the Orthodox world (with exceptions
at the top), is either passively religious, actively aggressive, or losing
its youth to secularism.
Hence, when the kohanim go up to bless the congregation, it is not that big
a deal to many. It is a tradition, a break in the service, and a moment to
pause, and often rushed because, well, what difference does it make anyhow?
It doesn’t really work, does it? “Are you going to tell me that Divine light
comes through the fingers of the guy who dovens right next to me,” someone
might say. “I watch him doven, and, quite frankly, I find that hard to believe.”
Interestingly enough, when Ezra came back with the returning exiles, they
had the same problem. It was 70 years later since the destruction of the
First Temple, and probably few people were alive, if any, who still
remembered the miracles that occurred daily at that time. And, they were not
repeated in the Second Temple period to be experienced anew. Rather, they
performed the Temple service the best they could, with what they had, unable
to see the impact down on earth that they were having up in Heaven.
Does that mean there wasn’t any? Absolutely not. For, everything we do on
earth, for good or for bad, has an impact above, and therefore one below as
well. The difference? The difference is that, in earlier generations, there
was sufficient merit to see the results of our efforts in everyday life.
Creation and history allowed it because, given where man was holding, such a
direct revelation of the Heaven-earth interaction did not interfere with
man’s free-will and therefore the purpose of Creation.
However, after the Jewish people were exiled and history turned a dark
corner all that changed. And, when the entire nation did not return from
exile with Ezra, and many remained behind in Babylonia, the situation was
not fully rectified in spite of the redemption that occurred through
Mordechai and Esther. As a result, we lost the ability to see how the Divine
light filtered down through man and his actions, such as Birchas Kohanim, in
the everyday world.
However, that does not mean that it doesn’t. It just means that we are
unable to see that it does, or how it does. But, filter down it does,
maintaining the Jewish people and the world in general, even causing deserts
to bloom and nations to be kept at bay when, according to the laws of
nature, they should be able to run the tiny Jewish state into the sea.
Indeed, this is how Rashi will later explain the concept of Hester Panim, or
the hiding of God’s face (Devarim 31:18). It doesn’t mean, as Rashi
explains, that God will cease to be involved in the affairs of man, but
rather, He will do it in a way that cause and effect will not be so readily
discernible. God will bury His trail of involvement by engineering events in
such a way that we will have great difficulty locating their official cause.
But involved He is, very much so. And, Divine light comes into our world
prompted in various ways, one of which is Birchas Kohanim. And, if looking
at the fingers of the kohanim does not directly affect one’s eyes, that may
be a bigger miracle than when it did, and it may still happen at another
time and in another way.
In the meantime, blessing flows through the fingers of the kohanim, even if
you happen to notice that they don’t take dovening as seriously as they
ought to. For the time that they are up before the congregation blessing the
people, they are conduits for Divine light. As they function in their role
as blessers of the Jewish people, their own personal lives are pushed aside
as they act as human sefiros to receive and pass on the light of God.
This is true not only of the kohanim, but of Mamleches Kohanim as well.
That’s another name for the Jewish people: a kingdom of priests (Shemos
19:6). This means that, just as the kohanim act as conduits for the Divine
light to reach the Jewish people, likewise do the Jewish people act as
conduits for the Divine light to reach the rest of the world. This is what
it means when it says:
I, the Lord, have called to you in righteousness, and have taken hold
of your hand, and submitted you as the people's covenant, as a light unto
the nations. (Yeshayahu 42:6)
Perhaps a more accurate expression would be as a conduit for the light of
God unto the nations. For, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun to
the earth, the Jewish people are meant to reflect the light of God to
mankind, and through our mitzvos, channel Divine light to the entire world.
If we do not do this, then no one else will, or even can, the result of
which is a world of darkness until God Himself is forced to shine His holy
light directly on Creation to make up for where we, the Jewish people, fall
This week will be the holiday of Shavuos, Zman Masan Toraseinu—the time of
the giving of our Torah. It is not only instructions for life, but the
spiritual connection we need and depend upon to fulfill our mandate as a
nation. We receive it to pass it on, and in doing so, we become a light unto
ourselves, the nation, and the entire world.