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’s Presence enlighten you and bestow grace to you. May God lift His face toward you and grant you peace.” (Num. 6:23-26)
The third blessing in particular needs clarification. What does it mean when it says: יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ — that God will “lift His face toward you”?
While the first blessing refers to God’s assistance in the material realm, the second blessing speaks of enlightenment and spiritual attainments. Greater enlightenment, however, brings with it greater responsibility. As we grow in knowledge and wisdom, we are expected to display a higher level of moral sensitivity. Our thoughts should be purer, our character traits more refined, and our lives more ethical.
If one takes into account the resulting moral demands, one may become apprehensive and even discouraged. In order to assuage this concern, the kohanim bestow a third blessing: “May God lift His face toward you”.
To “lift one’s face” is a Hebrew idiom meaning to give special consideration or leniency. The Torah cautions a judge, for example, not to “lift his face” toward one of the litigants (Lev. 19:15). The judge must be careful to avoid giving 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 expectations which come with a higher spiritual level, 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 closes with the gift of peace — peace of mind. “And may He grant you peace.”
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 62)
Illustration image: Mosaic by Nachum Gutman, 1961, House of the Chief Rabbinate, Tel Aviv-Yafo