Naso – A Mitzvah in Theory
Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly blessing, appears in the center of Naso. God speaks to Aaron and his sons and instructs them “just so shall you bless the children of Israel…” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that ‘just so’ teaches us many rules concerning the manner in which the priests perform this blessing. It must be done similar to the way Aaron performed this blessing. The words of the blessing are pronounced aloud, the priests must be standing… etc.
R’ Hirsch also notes that this was not a power invested in the priests. The blessing of any Jew is valuable and a priest has no greater advantage. The priests, however, were commanded to give this blessing, it is a Mitzvah for them to recite the Birkat Kohanim.
A young autistic boy accompanied his father every week to shul. Both descendants of the priestly family, father and son would ascend each week before the ark to recite the priestly blessings during the repetition of the prayer. Surely there were many limitations this child had, and many Mitzvot he was unable to perform, but father and son would perform this Mitzvah together every day, the child performing his Mitzvah and the father fulfilling the Mitzvah of educating his son at the same time.
Today, in Ashkenazi congregations outside of Israel, the priestly blessings are not recited by the Kohanim daily, only during Yom Tov, as part of the Musaf repetition. Otherwise the verses are recited by the cantor leading the service, a narrative of the priestly blessings rather than the actual blessings. For many centuries this has been the practice in Ashkenazi communities. Why is this so?
Several reasons are given why this Mitzvah is no longer in regular practice. The Rem’a notes that outside of the land of Israel there lacks the sense of joy necessary to perform this Mitzvah. Interestingly, recent studies have found that Israelis are happier with their lives than citizens of most other countries. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see a real difference in joy between those who reside in the holyland and those who don’t.
R’ Soloveichik comments that the last few blessings of the amida prayer are blessings of ritzui, placation, a form of offering, rather than supplication or praise. For this reason, R’ Soloveichik notes, a kohen who does not begin preparing before the recitation of the blessing of retze may not ascend to recite the priestly blessings. Only one who feels the presence of God as when bringing an offering can freely stand to perform the priestly blessings. This is why the custom in Europe was to drop this Mitzvah for most of the year.
During the Yom Tov Musaf, however, the prayer which is most reminiscent of the Temple and the presence of God, it is appropriate to recite the priestly blessings even outside of Israel. A kohen, or any Jew, who follows the prayer service attentively will sense a closer presence to the Temple service and therefore even outside of Israel the practice was retained at these occasions.
Those who live in Israel, however, perform the priestly blessings daily, because the presence of God is felt more strongly in the land of Israel. There are many Jews, secular Jews, who are driven to attend services when visiting or living outside of Israel, even if they never did so when living in Israel. The reason is simple. In Israel there is Judaism all around. Many people don’t feel a need to enter a synagogue in order to connect with that. Even Israelis who live abroad and don’t feel any desire to connect to a broader Jewish base, that is often because their spoken language provides a link to the land of Israel and all it represent. Such people may not look at it this way, but they are living in the presence of God, while most of us merely visit God. Therefore it is not intuitive to recite the priestly blessings on a daily basis.