Yom Kippur Dvar Torah
Updated: Sep 27
Darchei Noam, thank God, has grown tremendously over the 18 years since we began: we now have three times as many member families as when we were founded in 2005. Many of you here today did not experience how different it was in the beginning: for the first couple of years, we did not have a Rabbi: just an out-of-town posek for halachic questions. Members had lots of opportunities to give divrei Torah: about 60 times each year. I was one of the many members who pitched in with divrei Torah in those years, including on the High Holidays.
When I was invited to speak today, I thought, what new idea or insight can I offer about Yom Kippur? It’s all been said already, although not always remembered from year to year.
I’ve always been interested in the portion of the Yom Kippur musaf service devoted to the Kohen Gadol and the rituals they perform. Today I’ll focus on the more familiar job of the kohen, the Priestly Blessing, Birkat Kohanim.
You may have heard of Ishay Ribo, a modern orthodox Sephardic Israeli singer who has taken Israel by storm in the past 4 years with his religious, spiritual, and haunting songs. Ishay Ribo is hugely popular in Israel with young secular Israelis, in addition to traditional and even Haredi youth. His 2019 song, Seder HaAvodah, takes its lyrics directly from the machzor and creates a beautiful, moving song. My Israeli son-in-law tells me that Ishay Ribo was only the first of many: today there is a huge swell of religious texts being transformed into popular music that is widely embraced by secular Israelis.
Another modern application of the Priestly blessing, probably familiar to many of us: In the mid-1960s, actor Leonard Nimoy, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, used a single-handed version of the priestly blessing hand gesture to create the Vulcan salute for his character Spock, on Star Trek. He explained that while attending Orthodox services as a child, he peeked out from under his father's tallit and saw the gesture. Many years later, when introducing the character of Spock, he and Gene Roddenberry thought a physical component should accompany the verbal greeting "Live long and prosper.” The Jewish priestly gesture looked sufficiently alien and mysterious, and became part of Star Trek lore.
Birkat Kohanim comes from the book of Numbers 6:22-26 “And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, In this way you shall bless the Children of Israel, saying to them: The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord shine his face upon you and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance to you and give you peace”. At its most basic level, this three-part prayer starts with material blessing, then moves on to spiritual blessing, and concludes with peace, without which no other blessing can be enjoyed.
The Torah rarely tells us the exact words we must say in performing a mitzvah. Some other examples include the Sotah ceremony, the Bikkurim ceremony at Shavuot, the words an Eved Ivri or Hebrew slave must declare in order to stay with his Master forever, and the Chalitza ceremony concerning Levirate marriage. But the vast majority of our prayers and rituals are formulated by the Rabbis, not from the Torah. Our seder text is Rabbinic, all the liturgy (except the Shema) is Rabbinic; our bensching is Rabbinic. Our shabbat kiddush, candle lighting, and chanukah blessings are all Rabbinic. We often quote Biblical verses, but usually the Torah doesn’t say, You must say this. Rather, it usually says “You must do this”. So it is clearly important, this 3-part blessing which God dictates to us word by word and commands Aaron and his descendants to repeat verbatim, forever.
Another unique aspect of the Priestly Blessing is the blessing the kohanim say before they bless the congregation: “…v’tzivanu l’varech et amo Yisrael b’ahave”: God commanded the kohanim to not only bless us, but to bless us with love. This stipulation appears nowhere else in the Torah. Hillel suggests it was Aaron’s unique capacity for love and peace that made him and his descendants the chosen conduit for divine blessing.
The Rabbis were quick to separate Bikhat Kohanim from any appearance of Idol worship: they stress we are being blessed not by the kohanim, but rather through them: we are being blessed by God, who symbolically uses the priests’ hands to represent his canopy of peace, His Sukkat Shalom. But even with this distinction, the idea of kohanim as conduits is an ancient concept that feels alien to many of us, almost Christian, with an intermediary, like the Pope. We have always prided ourselves on being a people who all have equal access to God, through prayer and mitzvot. Still, Birkat Kohanim dates back as far as we can go: it is the oldest known Biblical text found by archaeologists; amulets with these verses written on them have been found in graves at Ketef Hinnom, dating from the First Temple Period.
This photo of my necklace shows a replica of an ancient scroll fragment depicting the Birkat Kohanim from a very early period, which was found by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the City of David. It shows the Birkat Kohanim in the original ancient Hebrew text on one side, as it looked on the scroll fragment, with the modern Hebrew on the other side. The original fragment in the Israel Museum, spotted by Leah Golberstein, is even smaller than it is on the necklace.
Ashkenazic tradition says the kohanim’s gesture under their tallitot represents the Shin of Shechina, which is why we don’t look at the kohanim during the blessing. (And we also don’t turn our backs on kohanim, as we would not turn our backs on God). In another interpretation, the open fingers symbolize the kohanim’s generosity of spirit, and the open spaces between the fingers allow the Divine Presence to shine through.
What about the long paragraph in our siddurim after each line of the Priestly Blessing that talks about dreams? It comes from Song of Songs, chapter 3 and a midrash connected to it. In Shir Hashirim, Shlomo said 60 guards surround his bed to protect him from evil as he sleeps. (In masechet Gittin, the Gemara says he is being protected from Ashmedai, the king of the evil spirits.) Because the Priestly Blessing has 60 letters in its 15 Hebrew words, it is connected to bad or troubling dreams that we should focus on as the kohanim intone their blessing.
Our tradition is full of restrictions on kohanim that other Jews do not have, many which continue to this day in spite of the absence of the Temple, which in ancient times formed the center of a kohen’s work life. What interests me is not the restrictions, but rather the entitlements of our modern-day kohanim, and how we regular Jews, members of the tribes other than Levi, feel about that entitlement. I interviewed two kohanim of my acquaintance to ask how this genetic status feels and how it affects their lives.
Both of my interview subjects said they feel honored by their kohen status and never burdened by it. One said it’s a “love/hate relationship”, as it pressures him to come to shul on time. One said the camaraderie among kohanim when they duchan together from the bema is a meaningful and warm feeling, and teaching the specifics of duchaning to his sons was the most enjoyable aspect for him. They both enjoy the Pidyon HaBen ceremonies they have done, but those are rare. They enjoy wearing interesting socks, to add a little spice.
Asked whether they feel their Kohen status leads to higher expectations for them than for other Jews, both of my subjects replied no, although both admitted that it becomes uncomfortable for them when they get many aliyot at weekly services, and the rest of the congregation has few aliyot by comparison: an “embarrassment of riches”. In fact, during the first months of Darchei Noam, a congregant gave a dvar torah in which he confessed to feeling resentful of the kohanim and levi’im in our midst, for that reason. The kohanim and levi’im are very aware of this inequity, but short of boycotting shul, can’t do anything about it.
One kohen told me that after expressing this guilty feeling, he was comforted by a friend who said to him, “You know, that’s your job. Everyone has something the shul needs them for, and this job is assigned to you.” One kohen said he is deeply touched when his friends, who may otherwise be cynical and funny, become very serious about designating him as the leader for bensching after a meal or to lead davening, and sometimes he uses his prerogative to pass the honor on to others.
What is it like for the Cohanim during the duchaning ritual itself? Both my subjects reported the need to focus intently, which isn’t always easy to achieve. They try to get into the mind-set in advance, to shut out other thoughts, to not lose their place during the nigun that separates each segment from its final word, and to keep in mind the reason God gave this particular job to them. One kohen told me it feels more special and meaningful in America than it does in Israel, because in Israel the kohanim duchan every morning and it becomes very perfunctory and therefore very fast: in fact, it’s hard to participate, it happens so fast and suddenly in Israeli shuls. Sometimes in Israel the kohanim don’t wait for levi’im to wash their hands before duchaning; they do it themselves.
Regarding the nigun: there are many tunes for the nigun around the world and even around the country, and in most Sephardic shuls there is no singing. (In Darchei Noam we sing with the cohen and that is unusual.) One kohen reported that during his year of mourning, he was not allowed to duchan in America and he must duchan in Israel.
My final question to my kohen subjects was to ask how they feel about this genetic inheritance, the only one in our tradition: Moshe’s sons didn’t succeed him in leadership. The ancient kingship was hereditary from King David onward, often with disastrous results, and some Hasidic sects have dynasties, but we generally don’t consider Jewish leadership a hereditary process.
My subjects reported that it feels a bit weird, and more than a little embarrassing when they try to describe it to non-Jews or to less observant Jews. One confessed that he used to wonder if it was true, until he saw a 150-year-old headstone in a cemetery confirming that his family were, in fact, kohanim. My husband Jerel had the same doubts about his Levi status, until it was confirmed for him by a paternal cousin. I guess we are so immersed in the values of equality and meritocracy that we are a little embarrassed by this sort of royal implication of “the priesthood”. Back when our shul met in the education building of St. George’s Church, there was a sign in the parking lot that said “Reserved for the Priest,'' and I used to tease Mark Glotter that only he could park in that spot.
I have these reflections about the kohanim and the role they play in our lives in shul and especially on Yom Kippur, in the Avodah Service we read during Musaf.
I have the same questions about the Priestly Blessing in shul as the kohanim I spoke with. I am happy to repeat it each erev Shabbat over the heads of my children, and consider it a beautiful statement of our love and hopes for them. Being blessed by the kohanim, whom we know to have feet of clay like the rest of us, has always given me pause. With the help of the insights from my interviews, I consider that God is using these particular people, through no choice of their own, so that we can more graphically feel the blessings God bestows upon us. We are not so different from our ancestors, who needed the sacrifices to feel connected to God. Maybe we, too, need something a bit more physical than just reading endlessly from our siddurim and machzorim, though singing can help us reach higher and we strive for kavanah.
The physical evidence, the fragment with the Priestly Blessing dating back nearly 3,000 years, astonishes me. This prayer, these words, and probably done the same way, go back that far, and we do it many times each year, here, today in 2023. Most things in the written Torah have become inaccessible to us because there is no temple and no sacrificial rite, or we don’t live in Israel. Many are so changed over the millenia by Rabbinic tradition as to be almost unrecognizable. If Moshe Rabbenu were to pop into Darchei Noam today, he wouldn’t have a clue what we are doing most of the time. But not this prayer: it is amazing that Moshe Rabbenu would recognize it immediately, (except for the socks). Most of us who did not grow up in an Orthodox shul did not see or participate in this prayer. I believe this is due to its pre-modern and anti-democratic nature, and I think that’s unfortunate.
Perhaps the Priestly Blessing is a way to “plug in” to the ritual our ancestors needed to feel God’s presence, and perhaps it is a good lesson in humility to admit that we too, who see ourselves as modern and sophisticated, need this ancient and physical ritual to feel God’s presence in our lives. I am grateful that we participate in this blessing, on every chag and especially today.