Translated and abridged by Rabbi Chanan Morrison
Aaron and his descendants the kohanim were commanded to bless the Jewish people with three special blessings:
"Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you must bless the Israelites. Say to them:
May God bless you and watch over you.
May God make His presence enlighten you, and grant you grace.
May God lift His face toward you, and grant you peace." (Num. 6:23-26)
The third blessing, however, is not so clear. What does it mean that God will "lift His face toward you"?
The Need for Special Consideration
While the first blessing refers to the material realm, the second blessing relates to our spiritual attainments. Greater enlightenment, however, brings with it additional responsibilities. As we gain knowledge and wisdom, we are expected to develop a higher level of moral sensitivity. Our thoughts should be purer, our character traits more refined, and our lives more spiritual.
If we take into account the consequential ethical demands, one may become apprehensive and even discouraged. In order to deflect this concern, the kohanim bestow a third blessing: "May God lift His face towards you."
To 'lift one's face' is a Hebrew idiom meaning to give special consideration or leniency. The Torah commands a judge, for example, not to 'lift his face' towards one of the litigants (Lev. 19:15). The judge must be careful to avoid even the impression of favoring one side. The other litigant may feel that the case is already lost and lose heart.
The kohanim bless us that, despite the ethical expectations that come with increased enlightenment, we should not lose heart. God will be lenient, taking into account the physical reality in which we live.
One may, however, feel embarrassed or uneasy with this Divine leniency. Therefore, the final blessing ends with the gift of peace — peace of mind. "And may He grant you peace."
(Adapted from Olat Re'iyah vol. I, p. 62)
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Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Mitzpeh Yericho runs http://ravkookTorah.org, a website dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community. He is also the author of Gold from the Land of Israel (Urim Publications, 2006).