The word Berachah, blessing, appears three times in the section of Birkat Kohanim in Parashat Naso. The object of the blessing in the first two appearances is plainly clear. In the first instance, God instructs the Kohanim, “Koh Tivarechu Et Bnei Yisrael,” “Like this you should bless Bnei Yisrael” (BeMidbar 6:23), while in the second instance, the Kohanim bless the nation saying, “Yivarechecha Hashem,” “May God bless you” (BeMidbar 6:24). The recipient of the third mention of Berachah, however, is uncertain. In the concluding verse of the section, God states, “VeSamu Et Shemi Al Bnei Yisrael VaAni Avarecheim,” “And they shall place My name on Bnei Yisrael, and I shall bless them” (BeMidbar 6:27). Rabi Yishmael and Rabi Akiva debate (Chullin 49a) whom the concluding phrase, “And I shall bless them” refers to. Does the final word, “them,” relate to the subject of the opening clause, the Kohanim, or the object, Bnei Yisrael?
According to Rabi Yishmael, the concluding phrase asserts that the Kohanim, too, are the recipients of God’s blessing. The Kohanim bless Bnei Yisrael, and, in return, God blesses the Kohanim. Rabi Akiva disagrees and instead explains the verse as communicating God’s assent to the Kohanim’s blessing. The Kohanim bless Bnei Yisrael, and God grants His approval to their efforts in blessing the nation.
Rabi Akiva does not disagree with Rabi Yishmael’s point that the Kohanim themselves are similarly blessed; however, in Rabi Akiva’s opinion, this notion is already established based on God’s promise to Avraham, “And I will bless those that bless you” (BeReishit 12:3). In fact, Rabi Yehoshua ben Leivi’s teaching reinforces this connection to the promise made to Avraham when he states (Sotah 38b), “Any Kohein that blesses will be blessed, whereas any Kohein who refuses to bless will not, as it states, ‘And I will bless those that bless you.’” As such, the reiteration here in this specific context of Birkat Kohanim that “one that blesses is blessed” seems unnecessary.
Rabi Akiva’s reading of the verse as describing God’s endorsement of the Kohanim’s blessing nevertheless seems troubling. As the Torah Temimah notes, since the Kohanim’s blessing stems from a divine imperative, it would seem self-evident that God would grant His approval to their gesture. Furthermore, if God Himself grants His blessing to Bnei Yisrael, of what need or value is the Kohanim’s blessing to them? A comment of the Sifri (Parashat Naso 43) underscores the notion that all blessings ultimately stem from God, and how both Bnei Yisrael and the Kohanim are conscious of this reality during the moments of Birkat Kohanim. The Sifri questions, “From where do we know that Bnei Yisrael should not state that their blessing depends on the Kohanim, nor should the Kohanim state that they are the ones blessing Bnei Yisrael? From the verse which states, ‘And I will bless them.’” As such, Rabi Akiva’s reading of the verse that God assents to the Kohanim’s blessing seems to grant misplaced importance on the Kohanim’s role, one which was suspect to begin with.
The fundamental point that might underlie these difficulties is the recognition that Bnei Yisrael’s deservedness of blessing from God ultimately depends upon the manner in which they conduct themselves and interact with one another. Receiving God’s blessing, kindness, favorable countenance, illumination and peace requires that we first treat one another with those same attitudes and qualities. Only once one segment of Bnei Yisrael, the representative Kohanim, turns toward a second segment and bestows blessing, kindness, and favor upon them will God then give His assent toward blessing the people as a whole, both Kohanim and Yisraelim alike. For this reason, the role of the Kohanim is vitally important, even if their blessing ultimately stems from God. Furthermore, the blessing received by the Kohanim is not simply a function of their issuing words of blessing toward another as in the promise to Avraham; rather, it is as a result of the harmony and goodwill that they have generated within the nation to which they inherently belong.