In ancient times the priests uttered this blessing on a daily basis. In Sephardic synagogues as well the priestly blessing is recited during the morning prayers. In Ashkenazi synagogues, however, it is only recited on Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This priestly ritual, known by its Yiddish name dukhanen, is re-enacted by those who trace their lineage to the ancient priests.
Among those who attend Reform synagogues, this threefold priestly blessing is associated with the blessing the rabbi offers at weddings, baby namings and b’nai mitzvah. On these occasions it is offered not to the Jewish people as a whole but to an individual or couple.
In its traditional formulation it was a blessing offered for the Jewish people. “Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them…” But the grammar is then incorrect. The “you” of the blessing is in the singular not the plural. Why would a blessing directed to “them” be formulated in the singular?
Rabbi Simhah Leib, a Hasidic rebbe, comments: “The priestly blessing is recited in the singular, because the most important blessing that the Jewish people can have is unity. This was attained at Mount Sinai, where our Sages tell us on the verse, ‘and Israel camped there’—and the word for ‘camped’ is in the singular—that ‘they were as one person with one heart.’”
People often mistake unity for agreement. A group can be unified but not always agree. Disagreements, passionate debates, are part of any marriage or community. There must, however, be a unity of purpose and mission. Sometimes I wonder if the Jewish people have lost this unified vision. Do we continue to share the belief that the purpose of leading a Jewish life is not only to teach Jewish observance to our children and our children’s children, to make sure that each and every child has a bar or bat mitzvah, but instead as Elie Wiesel once said, “to make the world more human?”
That remains the vision I hold before my eyes. “The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.” Perhaps this is why unity is our most important blessing and prayer. Can we ever fulfill such a grand vision if we remain divided?
Unity must remain our most fervent prayer. “…May the Lord grant you peace.”