If you have not seen Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel you have not seen Birkat Kohanim.
Twice a year, on the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot, tens of thousands of people crowd into the plaza outside the Kotel; and they are joined by hundreds of kohanim, who in unison recite the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.
This practice began 50 years ago, during the time of crisis. It was in the summer of 1970, at the height of the War of Attrition in the Sinai, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner began to think about prayers for peace and tranquility. He then reminded himself of a tradition from the Chasidei Ashkenaz in the late 12th century that:
ואם היו שלש מאות כהנים עומדים בהר הזיתים והיו אומרים ברכת כהנים היה בא משיח
“If three hundred Kohanim would stand on the Mount of Olives and say the priestly blessing, the Messiah would arrive.”
It was this tradition that inspired him to gather large groups of Kohanim to the Kotel; eventually, it became a yearly custom on Chol Hamoed Sukkot and Pesach, for people to gather from around the world for this unique Birkat Kohanim.
Gefner was also inspired by a fascinating passage in the Midrash. The Mishnah in Sotah says:
"מיום שחרב בית המקדש, אין יום שאין בו קללה"
"From the day that the temple was destroyed, there is no day that does not have some element of curse."
But the Midrash Tehillim (7) responds to the Mishnah and offers a note of optimism:
"אמר רב אחא: אם כן בזכות מי אנו עומדים. בזכות ברכת כהנים".
“Rav Acha said: If so, by what merit do we remain standing? Through the merit of the blessing of the Kohanim.”
Even in the most cursed of times, there is a blessing that sustains us, the Birkat Kohanim. But what exactly is the unique power of Birkat Kohanim?
Part of the story can be told by how the fingers should be configured during Birkat Kohanim.
We are familiar with the custom mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch, one with "five windows".
But there are several other views of how this is done, and described at length by Prof. Daniel Sperber (Minhagei Yisrael, volume 6); one, from the Maharil, has the thumb and index finger of both hands come together to create a window.
But there is another view, found in the name of Rabbeinu Tam, that the fingers switch position during the three blessings, and in the first they are configured to look like a shin, the second a daled, the third like a yud, and together spell God's name Shin Daled Yud, Shadai.
It is this view that I want to focus on. What is the meaning of all of this finger choreography?
I believe by spelling out God's name the Kohen is making a radical statement: the divine blessing that he is conveying is actually in the hands of the Kohen. And this idea is already found in the Midrash and Rabbeniu Bachya.
But the thought itself seems almost heretical; do the hands of the Kohanim create blessing? I believe it is meant to open our eyes to a very different understanding of how Birkat Kohanim works.
The moment that the Kohanim turn to the congregation and bless them with love is a moment that draws God's divine presence into the community. The moment when the Kohanim and congregation meet each other face to face, and connect to each other with love, is a moment of true divine inspiration. God arrives to this special space of compassion and community to bring His blessings.
The blessing, built on the mutual connection between the Kohanim and the congregation, is a blessing that truly is our hands.
A few years ago there was a powerful article in Tablet by an American Oleh, Aaron Katz, about what he calls “a moving minyan”, on the train to Tel Aviv. He describes how as a Kohen, he makes his way to say the Birkat Kohanim on the train. He describes his feelings at that moment:
….as I recite the prayer each morning—on a moving train in the State of Israel—the words have taken on an entirely new meaning for me ….. On a train filled with the spectrum of Israeli society, I have a unique opportunity to provide the passengers, including the soldiers and police officers who risk their lives to defend the State of Israel, with a blessing of protection and peace.
The Talmud explains …. that Birkat Kohanim reaches out to the people “out in the fields” who are unable to be present during the recitation of the blessing. As we literally pass through the fields... of Ramla and Lod...during Birkat Kohanim, I.. smile at how literal the Talmudic saying has become in my own life. And I wonder, could the rabbis of the Talmud ever have imagined that an immigrant Kohen to Israel would be passing through the fields with a minyan while reciting the Birkat Kohanim and praying for peace?
This is what Birkat Kohanim is about: a connection between man and man that is more than the ordinary; a connection that truly is divine.
Our Parsha speaks of Birkat Kohanim, but in our current situation, none of us have the experience to hear them anymore. Even on Pesach, due to the coronavirus crisis, there was a lonely group of 10 Kohanim who went to the Kotel and offered the blessing on television. How can it be that in a time of too many curses that we don’t have the opportunity to hear these blessings?
But in actuality we do have Birkat Kohanim today.
We have high priests of holiness and kindness working in hospitals and helping the elderly and infirm.
We have high priests of education, caring for their students even when they are so far away.
We have high priests of volunteering, chasing one opportunity after another to help others.
This blessing of Birkat Kohanim has never been more present in our community. These Kohanim may be partially hidden from sight, but they are all around us, bringing a unique divine energy into the world.