Birkat Kohanim, the well known priestly blessing which lies at the heart of Parashat Naso, raises many questions. If God is the source of all blessing, why doesn’t God bless the people directly? If the priest who delivers blessing to the people isn’t the ultimate source of that blessing, what is her/his role? And what does conveying or sharing blessings with or to another person even mean?
A pair of teachings, both found in Midrash Tanhuma, aim to answer the first question.
It does not suit My dignity that I should have to bless My creatures [Myself]. Rather, I am handing the blessings over to Abraham and to his progeny, and so, whosoever they bless, I will back up his blessing, as it is written: “and be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)
[Midrash Tanhuma, V’zot ha’Berakha 1]
And it came to pass, [on the day that Moses had made an end of setting up the tabernacle] – the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “In this world, I commanded Aaron and his sons to bless them, but in the future, I, in My glory, will bless them, as it is written, ‘YHWH bless thee out of Zion; even He that made heaven and earth.’” (Psalm 134:3)
[Midrash Tanhuma, Naso 18]
Similarly, Midrash Tanhuma explains the role of the priest.
“In this way you shall bless” (Numbers 6:23) – Speak [amor] to them [using the ‘full’ spelling, i.e. with a vav], thus meaning: Say to them, to the priests, that just because I have told you to bless the people Israel, this does not imply that you may bless them begrudgingly or hastily [b’angaria u’v’vehilut]; rather, you should bless them wholeheartedly, so that the blessings have power for them; and thus is it written amor lahem, using the ‘full’ spelling.
[Tanhuma Buber, Naso 18]
Put these teachings together and you get a possible answer to my third question. By facing one another and desiring goodness for one another with a full heart, we get to bring a bit of Divine goodness into the world. Priests partner with God to draw down goodness, and, remember, we’re all priests. To bless one another is to increase the flow of love and compassion in the world. No wonder birkat kohanim is (perhaps) our oldest and most beloved prayer!