Birkat Kohanim--Blessing of the Priests or of the Community?

How the Priestly Blessing is manifested within the community's needs.

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The Blessing Resides in the Community

The tented shawls, the downcast gazes, shield the community from the inevitable psychological contortions that easily transform a blessing into an act that underscores the hierarchy between blesser and blessed.

The benediction is therefore given and received blindly. The kohanim cannot see those upon whom they confer God’s blessing and the congregation cannot identify the priests who have done so. Rather than simply given or received, the blessing is instead resident within a community of both givers and receivers. The heavy presence of this shared blessing, I would proffer, helps explain the palpable mystery that is experienced as kohanim and congregation emerge together from beneath their shawls.

The aspiration to draw forth the shared blessing resident within a community is a defining feature of the posture taken by organizations, such as AJWS, in their pursuit of global development and justice through grassroots work. Grassroots work means facilitating change that is realized from within the community that seeks it. The goal is not to achieve blessing via the roles of priest and congregant, blesser and blessed. Rather, it is to discover together the blessing that already lives there--forged by a community’s own needs, developed according to its own vision, and pursued via the methods it itself identifies.

The Illusion of Blindness

Of course, the cultivated blindness of the birkat kohanim is in many ways an illusion. We are shielded from the priests’ faces, but we know their identities from other liturgical encounters--such as the calling of the kohanim to the Torah--that are plainly public.

Through these encounters there is thus an already-intact hierarchy of ritual status, in which kohanim are separated and elevated from the congregation of Israel. In the moment of blessing, however, we invoke the illusion of blindness--choosing to shed, or at least mask, the hierarchical relationship that is elsewhere respected.

We strive to cultivate similar illusions in pursuing global justice through grassroots work. Inevitably, there are power imbalances between those who give and those who receive aid and assistance. But through grassroots engagement we gesture toward blindness. We pull our shawls over our heads and turn our eyes downward in an effort to undo the hierarchy between giver and receiver, to render ourselves both recipients and givers of blessing.

May it be God’s will that when we emerge from beneath our shawls, we--givers and recipients alike--find our global community rife with blessing: guarded from harm, infused with grace, and joyful in its peace.

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.