Parashat Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
“That man has no right to bless me! He’s a no-good good-for-nothing!” Ah, the good old days. The days of duchening. The days when the Kohanim (those of priestly lineage from the line of Aaron) would come up onto the bima and bless the congregation. This week’s Torah portion Naso contains the Priestly Blessing. “May God bless you and watch over you. May God’s light shine upon you and show you the way. May God lift you up and always give you peace.” “Thus shall you bless the people of Israel” (Num. 6:23). Some of our congregations still do this today.
Before the Kohanim come up onto the bima, the Levites (those who descend from the tribe of Levi) in the congregation wash the hands of the Kohanim, and the Kohanim remove their shoes. Then the Kohanim cover their heads with their tallitot, recite the blessing over the performance of the mitzvah, turn to face the congregation, and then the cantor/rabbi slowly recites the three-verse blessing, with the Kohanim repeating it, word-by-word, after him/her. After each verse, the congregation responds “Amen.” During the course of the blessing, the hands of the Kohanim are spread out over the congregation.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, be careful. Don’t look at the Kohanim! According to the Talmud, Chagigah 16a, it can lead to losing one’s vision. However, ways to avoid this include covering oneself with a tallit or turning around and facing sideway or backward. But, don’t tell that to Leonard Nimoy (z”l) who played Spock on “Star Trek.” Peaking during duchening is where he got his famous Vulcan salute, “May you live long and prosper.”
Many congregations have stopped duchening over the years for one reason or another. But one of my favorites is the “he-doesn’t-deserve-to-be-a-Kohen” reason. “How dare that person bless me, I’m so much better than him.”
Now, wait a second, who said that Kohanim, even biblical priests, were better? In fact, all it took to be a Kohen is that your father was a Kohen, as is still true today. It has nothing to do with merit. And, if you’re a Kohen, then that’s your job. Not because you deserve it. Our Kohanim are not holier than anyone else. Kohanim are not holier than Israelites. Rabbis are not holier than congregants. Jews are not holier than non-Jews.
“They” have priests and we have priests. Their priests are holier. Their priests have studied hard, worked hard and earned their titles and positions. Ours just happened to be born into it. The Kohen on the bima may be a no-good good-for-nothing, but he/she is still a Kohen. Why? Because it has nothing to do with how good a person is. That’s “them”; that’s not us. For us, no one is holier than anyone else. And, no, Kohanim don’t bless us anyway. Kohanim don’t bless, rabbis don’t bless, only God blesses. What do the Kohanim say: “May God bless you and watch over you.” Only God blesses and we are all holy.
Rabbi Alex Greenbaum is spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.