Rabbi David Walk
It's interesting that there are so many words for a grouping of three items. There is threesome, trio, triad, troika, triplet, triumvirate, trilogy, and the ever popular trinity. There seems to be a fascination with groups of three. I think that this interest goes beyond and predates Christian theology. A group of three is the smallest grouping with which one can make arrangements, and people like to see patterns in the world. It's a stable configuration, like a three legged stool. It seems right, perhaps because we usually describe our world as three dimensional. So, it should come as no surprise that our Sages like that number too. Three is the basic court arrangement. Three occurrences make a chazaka or presumed status. Three are the Patriarchs, and the basic schematic for the mystical sefirot or levels of emanations. Three are the daily prayers and Pilgrimage festivals. And, probably most famously: The world stands on three principles, Torah. Divine Service and acts of loving kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2). Well, this week's Torah reading adds another outstanding threesome, namely the Priestly Benediction. Let's consider the significance of that blessing which manifests itself as a threesome.
First of all, let's examine the blessings: May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace (Numbers 6:24-26). Everyone who has heard the blessings in synagogue or temple should notice that the three-ness of the blessing is emphasized because we respond three times to its recitation. That's either amen when presented by the Cohanm or kein yehi ratzon (thus be the Divine will) when chanted by the Chazan. The short paragraph introducing the blessings actually refers to it as the bracha mishuleshet (three fold blessing). We consciously force ourselves to see these blessings as a threesome, three parts combining to form a unity.
So, we must ask, what are the sections of our Priestly Benediction? And as expected there are many answers to this question. Some say that the blessings emanate from the three contributions of the Patriarchs (chesed or kindness, gevura or courage, tiferet or splendor). Others say that the blessings are a troika because that gives them strength based on the verse: A cord of three strands is not quickly torn asunder (Ecclesiastes 4:12). The Sfat Emet suggests that the three blessings are an exhortation to rise to the three levels of nefesh (life force), ru'ach (spirit or connection to heaven), and neshama (soul or the piece of the Divine within us all). We need all three to maintain our unique position of being half way between heaven and earth. We share nefesh with the animals, and we share neshama with the angels and we have ruach as the agent which combines the two.
There is another grouping of three which can be applied to the Priestly Benediction. There are, I believe, three kinds of blessings which humans want or need. They are physical blessings which include all of the worldly needs of an individual to survive in this world. This, of course, includes the basics of food, clothing, shelter and safety. That's the first blessing, 'may you be blessed and protected.' Then there is another category of blessing which humans often seek and that is enlightenment. This includes intelligence and knowledge. We humans are curious animals. We want to know about the world around us, and sometimes that knowledge is necessary to our survival. That's the second blessing, 'may God's face shine upon you and enlighten you.' Finally, humanity desires more, a connection to something greater than ourselves, spirituality. We feel a yearning to rise above our environs and bask in a relationship with God which grants us a sense of completion, so, that we can feel at peace. This is a tranquility gained through attachment to God (dveykut). That's the third blessing, 'may God's face rise towards you and bestow serenity.'
I think that we can understand those three categories better by plugging them into an essay written by Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik in 1978. The Rav wrote Prayer, Redemption and Torah Study as an attempt to better understand the role of prayer in the spiritual development of the religious personality. He stressed that most of our spiritual longings can be sought after only if we develop our own voice to produce prayer, but the kinds of religious growth that he describes, I believe can be applied to Birchat Cohanim.
If prayer is gaining our voice, then what do we pray for? I think that the first blessing relates to this issue. In that blessing we are granted more than just things. We are bequeathed hope. The Hebrew word barech probably means increase. We are promised both more and shemira or safety. The granting of our needs and wants will have no down side. We will remain safe and secure. That's the true essence of the list of things worth praying for in our Shmoneh Esreh prayer.
Then we study Torah, but why? We want to gain a special form of enlightenment. The Rav says, 'What man fails to comprehend is not the world
around him, but the world within him, particularly his destiny.' Humans are good at analyzing the world; we're bad at understanding what makes us tick. That's where Torah comes in. That's the second blessing which grants us grace (chen), that awareness of our inner goodness.
Now we turn to Redemption as an expression of the spiritual success hinted at in the third blessing. What does it mean to be redeemed? The Rav posits, 'Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community from the periphery of history to its center.' Redeemed mankind is relevant; unredeemed humanity watches the parade go by without realizing that they've missed the opportunity to join.
The protection in the first blessing is the aptitude to pray successfully. The enlightenment and grace of the second blessing is the awareness of our inner self and its destiny. The shleimut of the third blessing is the connection to the stream of Jewish history which makes our lives relevant and attached to God's will. The three blessing are a flow chart from a voice for our needs, to enlightenment of who we are, to fulfillment of our role. It's a three course repast, and the meal is table d'hote, not a la carte.