The Natural Limits of Freedom:
On the Tight Structure and Comprehensive Contents of Birkat Kohanim
At first blush, the three verses of Birkat Kohanim might seem to be an almost random collection of good wishes (Numbers 6:24–26):
May the Eternal bless you and protect you.
May the Eternal make His face shine light toward you and be gracious to you.
May the Eternal lift His face toward you and give you peace.
We will show, however—in two distinct but overlapping ways—that Birkat Kohanim is, in fact, so tightly structured and comprehensive as to direct all of God’s blessings into every corner of a meaningful human life—that is, a life characterized by free choices made under five types of constraint.
The Plain Meaning
First, let us reflect on the plain meaning of the text, as explained by Rashi2 in his classic Torah commentary. We will see that Birkat Kohanim can be thought of as structured in concentric rings—beginning with the outermost ring of human activity, and spiraling in step by step toward a human being’s most personal and intimate internal life. Each verse contains two verbs, calling God’s blessings upon the individual who stands before the kohen.3 We will examine the plain meaning of each verse, considering each verbal phrase separately.
The First Verse (Numbers 6:24)
VERSE 24A: “MAY THE ETERNAL BLESS YOU.” The fundamental meaning of the Hebrew root bet-resh-kaf, translated as “bless,” denotes increase. Also derived from the same root is the word b’reikhah,4 a natural or artificial pool into which the waters of a spring flow gently, filling the pool via an ever-increasing accumulation.5 Since a natural spring may ebb and flow, the pool in which the water accumulates serves as a reservoir, making it possible to regulate the water supply so that one can provide a steady supply of life-giving water to one’s fields, vineyards, and orchards. Such pools, constructed at the mouth of springs centuries and millennia ago, are a common sight in the hill and mountain regions of Judea and Samaria. Thus, Rashi explains, “May the Eternal bless you” means “may God increase your possessions.”
VERSE 24B: “AND [MAY THE ETERNAL] PROTECT YOU.” God’s blessing of possessions is followed by “and [may the Eternal] protect you.” That is, Rashi writes, “may no robbers come to take away your property.” He continues: “If a human being gives a gift to a servant, the human giver cannot guard it from everyone. If a band of robbers attacks and takes away the gift, then of what benefit is it to the recipient? But God both gives and guards that no one will take the gifts away from you.” Of course, robbers are only one of a great many potential dangers that may threaten one’s accumulated possessions and wealth. This part of Birkat Kohanim, then, is a prayer that the Eternal protect from all possible harm all of those material blessings that God showers upon us.
One’s possessions are in the outermost ring of one’s life. They are surely not the essence of one’s life. Possessions come and go. They may make one’s life more comfortable, but only for a while. When a person has possessions, they mediate between one’s body and one’s self on the one hand, and the rest of the world around oneself on the other. Possessions serve as tools that one can use to engage the world—creating, molding the material world to the benefit of oneself and others, improving the quality of life on earth, and bringing blessing to the world.
The Second Verse (Numbers 6:25)
VERSE 25A: “MAY THE ETERNAL MAKE HIS FACE SHINE LIGHT TOWARD YOU.” Rashi explains this metaphor as follows: “May God show you a smiling face, a yellow face.” Rashi’s use of this modern image is astounding; his description is precisely that of the graphic image, the “smiley” that hundreds of millions of human beings recognize from the internet and countless other arenas of public culture.
It is generally thought that Harvey Ball created the smiley in 1963, but, apparently, the idea has been around for millennia.6 The smiley brings a smile to the viewer’s face. It conveys a feeling that the world is smiling at you. It expresses a sense of general well-being, of joy, that all is well with the world. The priestly prayer that God should “make His face shine” toward you means that you should feel pleased in your encounter with the material world around you, that your efforts should be crowned with success. “Smile, because the world is smiling at you; things are working out well for you!” Those actions and deeds that one does with one’s own body are closer to one’s person than one’s possessions—which, as we have noted, are attached only externally, and which may come and go. By way of contrast, one is bound to one’s body throughout one’s life. Through one’s body, one interacts with the surrounding world and engages it in direct physical contact. The ring of one’s deeds in the world is closer to one’s self than the ring of one’s possessions.
VERSE 25B: “AND [MAY THE ETERNAL] BE GRACIOUS TO YOU.” This common translation implies that this is an additional blessing, calling upon God to show favor to the recipient of the blessing. But Rashi, basing himself on the Sifrei on our verse,7 suggests that a more accurate translation would be: “May God grant you good favor.” This is an intentional ambiguity, for it means both “may the Eternal grant that you find favor in the eyes of others” and also “may the Eternal grant that others find favor in your eyes.” Thus, this blessing calls for mutual pleasure in our relationships with other people: may we all like each other, may God grant that we all get along well.
Other human beings—who live, breathe, feel, and think, like us; who share our humanity; who, like us, choose freely how to live—are closer to us than are the inanimate objects and the non-human animals that serve us for utilitarian purposes in the world. Only with other human beings can we create the personal “I–Thou” human relationship of which Buber wrote, a relationship of trust and love. The quality of our lives as social creatures is determined by the nature of our interactions with our family members, our friends and neighbors, our work colleagues, and our communities in general. And the nature of these interactions is a responsibility shared by us and those others.
Thus this single Hebrew word vi-ḥunneka (“and may [the Eternal] grant you good favor”) encompasses the entire area of our interpersonal, social, work, and communal relationships. It is a prayer that both we and others succeed in creating a social world that is pleasant for us all. And thus, Birkat Kohanim has moved one step closer to our inner selves.
We should note, too, that the Hebrew word ḥein (derived from the same root as vi-ḥunneka), usually translated as “grace” or “favor,” has a connotation of being an unpredictable type of relationship. It is something that one “finds,” almost as one finds a lost object by chance. Thus of Noah it is written, “And Noah found favor (ḥein) in God’s eyes” (Genesis 6:8). Similarly, the unpredictability of finding favor in one’s eyes is emphasized in God’s self-description, “I will show favor [or: grace, ḥein] to whomever I will show favor [or: grace]” (Exodus 33:19). This part of Birkat Kohanim, then, is, like the blessings for prosperity and success that precede it: a wish that we be blessed by God with something that we cannot achieve on our own, although our own input is necessary. And the third verse of Birkat Kohanim continues in this same vein.
The Third Verse (Numbers 6:26)
VERSE 26A: “MAY THE ETERNAL LIFT HIS FACE TOWARD YOU.” This metaphor describes the behavior of someone who was so furious that he or she could not look directly at the object of his or her anger. After bringing the rage under control, the angry person becomes able to lift his or her face again, and look at the other person directly—or, as we say, “in the face.” Thus Rashi explains this part of Birkat Kohanim with two Hebrew words: yikhbosh ka·aso, “may [the Eternal] suppress His anger [toward you].” This is a highly startling “blessing”! Would it not be more of a blessing if the kohanim were to say “May the Eternal not be angry with you”?
To understand this idiom, let us examine a different, yet similarly startling, biblical expression. Whereas Birkat Kohanim addresses its blessings to each individual, Leviticus 26:3–13 is a passage of blessings addressed to the people of Israel as a whole. It opens with the conditional “If you will walk in My statutes, and observe My commandments, and do them,” and then follows a long list of blessings addressed to the entire nation. The list begins with rain and an abundance of produce, and continues to enumerate security, success in war, regional peace, and more abundant prosperity. As the list of blessings nears its climax, we read: “And I will place My sanctuary in your midst, and My soul will not detest [or: abhor/loathe] you” (verse 11). Again, one is startled by God’s promise—near the climax of the blessing—not to abhor us. That would have been more understandable at the very beginning, before the blessings of rain and produce, peace and security. What can this mean?
The key to understanding this lies in the context. Note that the promise not to abhor us comes between “I will place My sanctuary in your midst” and “I shall walk in your midst, and I will be your God, and you will become My people” (verse 12). Thus, the risk of abhorrence, loathing, and disgust is actually another measure of God’s closeness! One cannot be disgusted by one with whom one has no contact. Indeed, one can love billions of human beings easily—in the abstract, from afar. But spouses, parents and children, friends and neighbors, who live together in close quarters—or, at least, experience close, personal, intimate emotional contact—find it more challenging to ignore the sometimes offensive behaviors, or even natural physical phenomena, to which they are exposed. Familiarity breeds contempt.
If that is true of relations among human beings, all of whom share common physical behaviors and similar emotional and behavioral patterns, how much more so can this be expected in the relationship between human beings and the utterly transcendental God, who experiences only the purest of abstract spiritual existence! God’s disgust, loathing, and abhorrence are to be expected if human beings come close to God; indeed, the expectation of such responses is a measure of closeness. Thus, when the blessings in Leviticus reach their climax, with God’s sanctuary in our midst and God walking among us, then it is most appropriate to be told “My soul will not detest you.” It is as if God is telling us, “We will be so close to each other that My soul should be disgusted—because you are so human and ungodly—but it will not be so! I know that you are human, I made you that way, I will accept you for what you are—and if you will walk in My statutes, then I will not be disgusted by you, even as I and My sanctuary are in your midst!”
Birkat Kohanim is to be understood in the same way. In the first part of this third verse, the priests are blessing each individual with closeness to God. It is not possible for a human being to be truly close to God while yet remaining human, without in some way angering God. If Birkat Kohanim were to include a wish to the effect that God not be angry with human beings, then that could only mean that a deep chasm would separate those being blessed from God. So instead, acknowledging the risks that come with closeness, Birkat Kohanim wishes that although we, as humans, will inevitably anger God in some way—that is a measure of how close we will be to God—nevertheless, may God understand, accept, forgive, and suppress any anger we may arouse. And may we do our share in repairing our relationships with God through t’shuvah (repentance). Thus, Birkat Kohanim has moved one step closer to our deepest internal lives by blessing each of us in our relationship with God.
VERSE 26B: “AND [MAY THE ETERNAL] GIVE YOU PEACE.” Concluding with the blessing of personal peace of mind, Birkat Kohanim encompasses all of human life. Rashi makes no comment on this phrase, for the necessity of internal peace—in order for all of the other blessings to be meaningful—is clear. A life of material prosperity, success in all one’s endeavors, friendly relations all around, and even acceptance by God are not blessings for a person who suffers internal torment. On the other hand, the equanimity, calm, self-assurance, and confidence that come with a state of internal peace of mind will allow all the other blessings to be appreciated, to be truly blessings.
Thus we have seen that in its plain meaning Birkat Kohanim has a simple, clear structure, and constitutes a comprehensive formula for a blessed life in every possible way. We will now take a deeper look into the meaning of the blessing.
A Meaningful Human Life: Freedom and Its Limiting Factors9
Freedom: The Sine Qua Non for Meaningful Human Existence
Maimonides (1135–1204) was generally quite sparing with his words, trying to squeeze as much meaning as he could into as few words as possible. Yet in his discussion of the foundation of the Jewish notion of repentance, he repeated the following idea at least four times, in very similar terms (three of these appear below, typeset in capital letters):
EVERY PERSON IS ABLE, IF HE OR SHE SO DESIRES, TO INCLINE ONESELF TOWARD A GOOD PATH AND TO BE RIGHTEOUS; OR, IF HE OR SHE SO DESIRES, TO INCLINE ONESELF TOWARD AN EVIL PATH AND TO BE WICKED…the human species is unique in that A HUMAN BEING KNOWS INDEPENDENTLY, OF HIS OR HER OWN MIND AND THINKING, WHAT IS GOOD AND WHAT IS EVIL, AND DOES WHATEVER HE OR SHE DESIRES, AND THERE IS NONE WHO HOLDS HIM OR HER BACK FROM DOING GOOD OR EVIL…AND THERE IS NONE WHO COERCES, OR PREORDAINS, OR WHO DRAWS HIM OR HER ONTO ONE OF THE TWO PATHS; ONLY THE PERSON, OF HIS OR HER OWN SELF AND MIND, WILL DIRECT HIM OR HERSELF TO WHICHEVER PATH HE OR SHE WANTS….And this is a great fundamental principle, the pillar upon which the Torah and the commandments rest…If God were to decree that a person would be righteous or wicked, or if there were something that drew a person by virtue of his or her birth to a certain path, or to a given knowledge, or to a certain attitude, or to given deeds…then how could prophets command us to do certain things and to refrain from others, if we were not able to do so? What point would there be to the entire Torah? What justice would there be in punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous?…Just as God desired the other laws of nature to be as they are, so did God desire that HUMAN BEINGS HAVE THE ABILITY TO CHOOSE THEIR OWN PATHS, THAT WHAT THEY DO SHOULD BE UNDER THEIR CONTROL, AND THAT THERE IS NONE TO COERCE THEM OR TO DRAW THEM; HUMAN BEINGS OF THEIR OWN [FREE] WILL AND THEIR OWN GOD-GIVEN MIND DO WHATEVER HUMAN BEINGS ARE ABLE TO DO…10
It is human free will that gives meaning to human life. Indeed, from Maimonides’ statement about Torah, the commandments, and divine justice, it follows that at least nine of the thirteen principles of faith that he enumerated rest on the realization that humans have free will. The very idea of free will has been challenged, debated, and examined in different ways by many scholars and thinkers over the millennia, and we shall not discuss it here. But why did Maimonides repeat so extreme a position—that nothing coerces a person, and that nothing draws him or her to a given behavior, or deed, or attitude, or knowledge, or path in life? Perhaps it was for didactic reasons. Perhaps it was an attempt to counterbalance a human tendency—common to this very day—to deny responsibility for one’s choices by attributing one’s choices to some other factor. Perhaps Maimonides meant only to negate extreme claims, such as “So-and-so forced me to do it,” or “Such-and-such drew me with irresistible attraction into a certain path or deed.”11
The Limits of Freedom
Whatever may have motivated Maimonides, it is clear that there are things that do push a person onto a wrong path and there are things that prevent one from doing what is right.12 Indeed, freedom is not a binary matter, as if there are only two possibilities: one is either completely free, or one has no freedom at all. Rather, there is a range of levels of freedom, from completely free to reduced freedom to no freedom at all.
I suggest that the natural, necessary limitations to human freedom can be classified into four principal observable groups, with a fifth almost inaccessible element that I will describe later. The limitations will be presented here descriptively, not prescriptively—that is, I will speak of necessary limits of freedom, which apply universally to all human beings. I will not speak of limits that ought to be placed on individual freedom for ethical, moral, social, or religious considerations of one type or another.
One may thus speak of four “spheres” or “spaces” within which people live their entire free lives (plus a fifth sphere, to be described subsequently). Human freedom is exercised in the form of choices made well within the spheres, and choices made at the edges or surface boundaries of the spheres; however, leaving the spheres is not a possible choice. Any given situation may call for a person to make decisions related simultaneously to more than one of the spheres, and in this sense the spheres may overlap. However, all of the spheres are conceptually quite distinct. What follows is a description of these spheres.13
(A) THE LIMITS OF FREEDOM— THE PHYSICAL LAWS OF NATURE
One cannot choose to convert iron into gold by chemical means—even if it were for a higher spiritual purpose, such as to support a yeshiva or to bring an end to human poverty. One cannot choose to avoid death forever—even for the ethical aim of studying and teaching more Torah. One cannot choose to walk through a solid wall—even for the mitzvah of saving a life. One cannot choose to call out with one’s own unamplified voice halfway around the world—even for the purpose of honoring one’s parents. One cannot fly with one’s unassisted arms—even for the purpose of burning ḥameitz that is up in a tree in one’s backyard as Passover approaches. One cannot change one’s given genetic makeup—even for the purpose of marrying and having children, or of improving a character flaw that may have a genetic component. And many more such examples could be adduced.
Our choices must be made within the confines of the laws of nature, which we cannot change merely because they limit our free choices, even in matters of human happiness. Being free does not mean that we can violate physical laws, even for purposes of doing good or evil, or for choosing a good path…or an evil one.14 Thus we live our lives and make our ethical choices among various options, all of which are within the laws of nature, and all of which have natural consequences.
On the other hand, we can choose to push at the boundaries. Since we do not know all the laws of nature, and since we don’t like the limitations that the ones we do know place on us, we seem to be constantly striving to learn more about them, so as to extend what we thought were the limits. In other words, we seek to expand the boundaries of the space of physical laws within which we live freely. This drive for greater freedom lies behind all progress in medicine: we want to avoid disease, to enable and to hasten healing, and to delay death, by understanding how those laws really work. We don’t like the limitations that other physical laws place on us, either; since we want to move about freely and we want to communicate with other human beings, we keep pushing the limits as we explore and innovate impressive technological advances in transportation and in communications.
When we come up against a boundary that resists being extended, we can choose freely how to respond. For example, if one were to be diagnosed with a fatal disease, one could choose to accept reality with some degree or other of equanimity, or one could choose to challenge it and struggle against it, trying—more successfully or less so—to find ways around it. Alternatively, one might choose to rebel against the fact of mortality—doing the equivalent of banging one’s head against a stone wall, getting nowhere but increasing frustration, and perhaps even harming oneself. How we respond to our encounters with the boundaries of this sphere is our choice.
Finally, it should be noted that the laws of nature establish that choices have consequences; the more “rigid” the law, the more certain that the consequences will follow. If one chooses to throw a heavy object out of a high floor in a building, then it will fall, and it may hit someone on the way down—even if one sees the tragic accident coming and would like the heavy object to stop in mid-air or move to the side.
(B) THE LIMITS OF FREEDOM—THE FREE WILLS OF OTHERS: INDIVIDUALS AND SOCIETIES
Each individual is free to choose his or her own goals, and to work to achieve them. But so is every other human being. By definition, this means that one cannot choose another’s goals, attitudes, paths, moral values, or deeds, and cannot implement another’s goals in his or her stead. One person’s free will ends where (or before) the next one’s begins. Generally, we live with other people cooperatively, within the boundaries that their choices create for us.
The same is true of groups of people. One cannot decide, for example, that it is all right to drive through a red light—for example, because one is in a hurry and there is no other car and no police officer in sight—after a society has determined that driving through a red light is against the law. Here, too, in general people make their life choices within the space whose boundaries are set by law.
This is not to say that one is unable to violate the free choice of another human being or of a society. As in the case of the limitations placed by the laws of nature, one can choose how to face the limitation of being unable to make choices for another person. One could choose to accept and submit to this limitation. Alternatively, one could attempt to influence the choice of the other—using the “laws” that govern how humans influence one another (ranging from persuasion to assertion, perhaps even of the aggressive variety). There is also the unhappy option of force, of violating another’s choice, giving preference to one’s own choice over that of another. But none of those options is the same as making the other person’s choice.
On the one hand, the result of such violations is often untold pain. One might choose, for example, to hire ruffians to take hold of a person and physically force him or her to sign a deed of sale, conveying the rights to a given piece of property—but one cannot make the choice in the heart and mind of the victim in his or her place. Another example: untold harm may result when parents make choices for their young adult children, preventing them from learning to take responsibility for their own choices; but on the other hand, parents can often spare their young adult children untold harm by making decisions for them and implementing them. This does not mean that the parent has made the child’s choice, though, or vice versa. Again, it only means that one has chosen to override the other’s preference: one person thus carries out his or her own choice against the will of the other. People often miscalculate the consequences of choosing to behave in this way.
In other words: although the free will of one person limits that of another, nevertheless, one can choose to “test” this limitation on one’s own free will and see whether it can be pushed, and one can choose how one will respond to that boundary—whether by acceptance or by rebellious refusal to accept that boundary, even if such rejection of the fact of the other’s choice is to no avail. Choices have consequences, in both the realms of human relationships and the laws of nature, and there are interpersonal, social, and political processes that, once set in motion, may not be stoppable. On an individual level, for example, parents who choose to deprive their children of Jewish education may set them on a trajectory that leads them to assimilation. On an international level, think of the consequences for tens of millions of people of choices made by Hitler, Stalin, and others like them.
(C) THE LIMITS OF FREEDOM—GOD’S FREEDOM
Two fundamental principles of Jewish faith are the freedom of human beings and the freedom of God.15 As with other free human beings, this does not mean that one is unable to choose to implement one’s own choice rather than that of the other; that is a matter of how one chooses to deal with the limitations at the boundary of this sphere of human freedom. The fact that there is a boundary means that one cannot make God’s choices in God’s place. God has chosen to make humans free, and so one is free to say, “No, God, I don’t want to do what You want me to do”; but one is not free to say, “No, God, You don’t want me to do what You said that You want me to do, but, rather, something else—what I say You want me to do.”16 That would be overstepping the bounds of God’s freedom. God states what God wants, and we can state what we want. But we cannot dictate to the other—to God—what it is that the Divine wants.
Yet, here too people often test the boundaries, perhaps wondering, “Is that what God really wants, or does God want something else?” And we humans, in our freedom, can choose how to respond to the experience of coming up against the limitations placed on us by God’s free expression of what God wants: we can accept the limitations, or we can grumble about them, or we can deny their existence, or we can rebel against them—or we can choose another possibility, somewhere in between these.
As with the laws of nature, the freedom of others, and the laws of societies, we spend our lives as free agents making choices within the boundaries expressed by God’s choices, and in our encounters with those boundaries.
(D) THE LIMITS OF FREEDOM—THE INHERENT LIMITATIONS OF FREEDOM ITSELF
Free will is often thought to mean that one can do whatever one chooses, with the emphasis on “whatever.” However, having a variety of options is only a necessary—but not a sufficient—requirement for there to be free choice. For free choice to be real, not only potential and theoretical, one must actually choose from among the various options available. That means that the essence of free choice is an act of self-limitation, choosing one option from among more than one possibility, or choosing one combination of possibilities over more than one possible combination.
Exercising one’s freedom can be difficult, since people often feel freer when they are unfettered by limitations—even self-imposed limitations. Making decisions can be difficult, too, when choosing one option from among others occurs against a background of uncertainty—that is, a lack of knowledge of all of the consequences of making the choice.17 Indeed, very often, after making one choice one will need to make other choices, in order for the first choice to work out for the best. For example, a young person may say, “I am free to marry anyone I want!” But until the actual choice of spouse is made, that “freedom” is only theoretical; it has not been exercised. And one might say, “How do I know whether the person I am about to choose is the best possible one for me? Perhaps a better one is waiting around the corner!” To this one must respond, “You are right! You won’t have to choose in the dark, in complete ignorance. But even though your choice may be made with as much knowledge as is reasonable, fair, ethical, and moral for you to gather, you will still be without full knowledge of all the consequences of your choice. To the contrary: after you make your choice of mate, you will have many choices to make about your relationship with your spouse that will go into making the choice you made of a spouse successful—or not.”
Thus we live our free lives within a space whose boundaries are set by freedom itself, making numerous decisions daily with no special difficulty, far from the boundaries, but occasionally bumping up against the limitations that require us to choose, although we might prefer not to limit our options. And we may choose to respond to the challenges of having to choose in numerous ways. One may accept the fact, and choose. One may procrastinate constantly, and avoid commitments. One may just refuse to choose—which is itself a choice. In other words, paradoxically, to be truly free one must choose, must limit one’s self, must leave fewer options open. This is no small challenge.
Birkat Kohanim and Freedom
Birkat Kohanim addresses all of the challenges that a free person must face, both in living life within the four frameworks enumerated above and also in dealing with those situations in which one confronts the borders of those spaces.
The first verse, “May the Eternal bless you and protect you,” addresses the challenges that people face in dealing with the physical laws that govern material things. One cannot increase one’s possessions magically, but must work within the laws of nature (including the laws of economics) in order to succeed. Birkat Kohanim blesses us, that we make the wisest possible decisions. It also recognizes a basic truth: we are never able to fully guarantee that all our efforts will bear fruit. God’s blessing is necessary for our material success.
The first part of the second verse, “May the Eternal make His face shine light toward you,” continues the theme of our acting as free agents within the limitations of the laws of nature. As we saw above, it speaks of the success of our personal efforts, those in which we use our bodies to effect changes in the world around us. Here too God’s blessing is needed, so that we make wise, meaningful, and effective choices.
The end of the second verse, “[May the Eternal] be gracious to you,” addresses the meaning of human lives as free agents living in a sphere whose limits are the boundaries between the free wills of separate individuals and between individuals and societies. May you find favor in others’ eyes, and may they find favor in your eyes. May your choices in this sphere create a world of pleasant relationships between you and others. May your lives blend smoothly with those of other human beings, so that you live together meaningfully, with mutual respect for each other’s freedom, in cooperation and pleasantness.
The first part of the last verse of Birkat Kohanim, “May the Eternal lift His face toward you,” addresses the life one lives within the space whose boundaries are defined by God’s free choices. If your humanity creates clashes between you and God, whether by choices you make that are within the boundaries or whether by choices you make at the edges, then may you find the way to make amends with God, and may God— after the fact and after being angry—accept you, with your flaws, mistakes, and weaknesses, suppress anger, and “lift His face toward you” again.
Finally, Birkat Kohanim concludes with the words “and give you peace,” expressing the wish that God bless us in that area where we have to face the challenges of limiting ourselves. May we be at peace with ourselves in having to limit ourselves. May we not be filled with regrets over decisions we have made in the past and their consequences. (We made past choices based on all the knowledge available to us at the time, and so there is no point regretting what we could not have realistically chosen differently; and if we can correct mistaken choices—through t’shuvah, repentance, for example—then let us do so.) May the incomplete and imperfect knowledge that we have when we make our decisions not prevent us from making the best decisions possible, one after another.
Thus, Birkat Kohanim addresses us in the full range of our meaningful lives as humans, praying that our freedom be exercised well and with God’s blessing in every “space” within which we operate, allowing us to freely decide how to live within the limitations that are imposed on us by the material world, by people, by society, by God, and by the very nature of freedom itself.
The Fifth Element
It might appear, at first blush, that this analysis of the universal, inherent limitations of freedom is exhaustive. Yet our ancient sages pointed out, in their inimitable fashion, that there is one more space in which we human beings spend our lives, free to act and make changes within the space, even though it is sharply limited by its boundaries. The Talmud, after noting that it is often good people who have bad dreams that they cannot recall or understand, relates the following story:19
Amemar, Mar Zutra, and Rav Ashi were sitting together. They said, “Let each one of us say something that his friends [i.e., the rest of us] have not heard.”20 One began, “[If] a person had a dream and doesn’t know what he or she saw,21 let that person stand before the kohanim as they spread their hands [to recite Birkat Kohanim], and say as follows: “Master of the universe! I am Yours, and my dreams are Yours! I dreamt a dream, and I don’t know what it is!22 Whether I dreamed about myself or whether my comrades dreamed about me, or whether I dreamed about others—if the dreams were good, reinforce them and make them be strong and come true, like the dreams of Joseph; and if they need healing, then heal them as [You healed] the bitter waters of Marah, through Moses our teacher, and as [You healed] Miriam from her tzara·at, and as [You healed King] Hezekiah from his illness, and as [You healed] the waters of Jericho through Elisha, and as You reversed Balaam’s curse to a blessing—so may You turn all my dreams into good [ones]!” And he or she should conclude [this prayer] together with the kohanim, so that the congregation will respond, ‘Amen!’ [to the dream prayer at the same time as they say ‘Amen!’ to Birkat Kohanim].”23
Why did our sages link the unremembered—or not understood—bad dreams of a good person to Birkat Kohanim?24 I believe they were aware of the interpretation I suggested above: that through Birkat Kohanim God is being called upon to bless us in all the activities in which we act with free will, within and at the limiting boundaries of four spheres: the physical, deterministic laws of nature; the freedom of all human beings;25 God’s freedom; and the inherent nature of freedom itself.
I believe our sages may have been calling our attention to one more space in which we are free, but restricted: our selves. On the one hand, “we”—as free agents—are what we are. As free agents, it is we who choose freely whatever may be within reach of our ability to choose. That chooser—each individual “I”—is a given, the sum total of all our givens (by birth, nature, rearing, culture, personal inclinations, and faith) and all of our choices and their consequences, up to the given moment of our next choice.
“Who we are,” or “what we are,” or “how we are”—in that sense—can be a highly restrictive reality. Is there a way that one can choose, freely, to act not only in the world, not only in relation to others and to God, and not only in relation to one’s self as a free chooser—but also in relation to one’s very self, the very chooser? Can one choose to mold, to make changes, in the one who chooses—directly, rather than only indirectly by acting in the four other spheres?
I believe that our sages may have been hinting that the answer to these questions is “Yes!” But how does one do that? Am I, the free chooser, not a permanently fixed, given identity? And so the sages instruct us: “Bring your dreams to Birkat Kohanim! Your dreams are a window into your very self, your unconscious, your personality, your soul. You can reach inside that narrow sphere, and mold your own image. You can choose to act within the sphere of your self, just as you can in the other spheres.”
When God approached the task of creating men and women “in the image of God”—that is, as free agents, free to choose independently of the deterministic laws of nature, within the limitations set by each of the other four spheres of human existence, especially free to choose to limit themselves—God said, “Let us make humankind in our image!” (Genesis 1:26). Commentators have interpreted the plural in that declaration in different ways. Some suggest that it should be understood as “the royal we,” while others suggest that it be taken as a call to the angels in God’s heavenly court. One can also suggest that God was turning to the human creation, to men and to women, and calling upon them to join the Divine in the act of creating human beings. This notion can be found in midrashic understandings of more than one of our traditional sources.26
In recent generations, humanity has been blessed with numerous attempts to develop theories concerning the human “self”: how it begins, develops, and changes. Many of these theories are associated with methods intended to help relieve psychological distress. The hope is that by restoring people to a state of wholeness and emotional health, they will be able to act with full freedom, responsible both to themselves and to their material, social, and spiritual worlds. Many of these techniques make use of a person’s dreams as a means of seeing into the internal life of the person, so as to help him or her regain emotional health.27 These processes are, on the whole, compatible in principle with the thinking reflected in the directive of our sages that one bring one’s dreams to the liturgical recitation of Birkat Kohanim. One may freely choose to change one’s own choosing self!
We have shown that Birkat Kohanim is a structured set of blessings that encompasses all aspects of human life. One understanding sees the blessings converging from a person’s outermost extension to one’s most inner self: blessing one with possessions, success in one’s endeavors, pleasant human relations, closeness and acceptance by God, and peace of mind. A second way is to see the blessings applying to every meaningfully human aspect of life, as defined by free choice and its inherent limitations: the bounds of the laws of nature, the limits each person’s freedom places on every other’s, social limits, the bounds set by God’s free expression of the divine will; and the self-limitation required for a person to be genuinely free. Concerning the second way, we showed that our ancient sages suggested that one is also free to make changes in one’s self, thus sharing in God’s creation of each and every human being. May God bless the people of Israel in every way—and may there be peace on Israel—so that Israel may be a source of blessing to all the peoples of the world.
1 In memory of my father, Rabbi Dr. Moses Mescheloff, of blessed memory, and my mother, Rebbetzin Magda Mescheloff, of blessed memory, whose blessings sustain me daily.
2 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaki (France, 1040–1105).
3 Many parents, too, recite Birkat Kohanim to bless each of their children on Friday evenings, calling down God’s blessing on each child.
4 It has been suggested that many three-letter Hebrew roots may have been constructed from two-letter pairs, where the second letter of the first pair is the same as the first letter of the second pair. Thus bet-resh-khaf, the root that denotes increase, may derive formed from the two letter pairs bet-resh, “external, flowing outward,” and resh-kaf, “soft.”
5 See 2 Kings 20 20; and B. Mo·eid Katan 4b and Gittin 68a.
6 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smiley and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_Ball for possible modern precursors to Ball’s “smiley.” Although Ball (1921–2001) was not Jewish, he reported being deeply influenced by the Worcester, Massachusetts sign painter to whom he was apprenticed while in high school. See www.worcesterhistory.org/sidebar-exhibitions/smiley-face, where it is reported that “In his junior year he apprenticed himself to a local sign painter who taught him how to create visual images with strong impact. He won a scholarship to attend the Worcester Art Museum School in 1940, where he received training in fine arts. In his view, working at the sign shop may have been better preparation for his commercial art career than the formal training he received at the Worcester Art Museum School.” I cannot help but wonder whether that sign painter was Jewish, or whether Ball was influenced by members of the Jewish immigrant community that flourished in Worcester during his youth.
7 Rashi to Numbers 6:25, s.v. vi-ḥunneka, paraphrasing Sifrei Bemidbar §41. The Sifrei is an early rabbinic halakhic midrash based on the biblical books of Numbers and Deuteronomy.
8 Not uncharacteristically, many words are required to render into English what is conveyed in a single Hebrew word. This is common in translating from Hebrew to English, for Hebrew is a tightly compact language, rich in associations, and making liberal use of prefixes and suffixes to represent whole English words.
9 I hope to write about this in more detail in a later volume in this series.
10 Maimonides, M.T. Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:1–3.
11 To this theme, too, I hope to return in a later volume in this series.
12 Indeed, Maimonides hinted at this in this very chapter of the Mishneh Torah. One hint is at the very end of the sections quoted above, “human beings of their own [free] will and their own God-given mind do whatever human beings are able to do.” Thus, Maimonides acknowledged that things do exist that human beings are not able to do—that is, that are not within the range of human free will.
13 I will write briefly of this here, since my primary purpose here is to illuminate Birkat Kohanim. In a subsequent essay, I hope to return to this topic in greater detail.
14 This truth is often distorted, in more than one direction, in ways that I will not elaborate on here. Some misuse it in order to excuse immoral choices. Others deny this truth, claiming that exceptionally admired moral leaders—even Torah leaders—perform wonders.
15 See Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888, Germany), Commentary to the Torah (New York: Judaica Press [second revised edition], 1989), vol. 1, commenting on Genesis 6:6. In a subsequent essay, I hope to discuss the observations of Rabbi Hirsch and of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, and others, about this. I also hope to examine how the giving of the Torah established limitations on our freedom of will by establishing the ways in which God wants us to live a life of service before God.
16 Thus, for example, God has commanded us not to eat the flesh of swine; one cannot say, “No, God, it is all right with You if we do that”; or, given that God has commanded us in the Torah not to slander, one cannot say, “No, God, it is all right with You if we do that.” One may choose to eat the flesh of swine, or to slander—but one is not free to say that God wants that which God has expressly forbidden.
17 This is not to say that no choosing takes place where one knows with certainty what the consequences may be. One might choose to harm one’s self, even though one knows what pain will follow. One might choose not to marry, even though one knows what loneliness will follow. One might choose willfully to harm others, as well.
18 Free will places other inherent limitations on free agents, to which topic I hope to return in a later essay in this series.
19 B. Berakhot 55b. The story continues beyond the section we bring here, but I quote only the part relevant to Birkat Kohanim, the subject of this essay.
20 A different possible translation: “that the others don’t consider reasonable.”
21 A possible different translation: “doesn’t understand what he or she saw.”
22 Or: “I don’t understand it.”
23 This prayer appears in many siddurim, especially in maḥzorim for the festivals and for the High Holy Days, to be said during Birkat Kohanim during the cantor’s public repetition of the Musaf Amidah. For more on the connection between Birkat Kohanim and dreams, see the essay elsewhere in this volume by Howard Avruhm Addison.
24 Indeed, this passage raises many interesting questions, including: What is the significance that the statement needs to be new to the friends (or disputed by them)? What is the significance of each of the analogies in the prayer to biblical dreams or to biblical stories of repair? Why is it important that the entire congregation reply “Amen” to the dreamer’s prayer? Our answer to the one question that we do address here should hint at possible directions for some answers to some of these and other questions about this passage.
25 This is distinct from the probabilistic laws of subatomic nature, which some have suggested might be a link—at least conceptually—between the other laws of nature and human free will. Recognizing probability as a measure of our lack of knowledge, which has been shown to be inherent in the realm of the atom and below—where energies and masses appear interchangeable, and where the energy waves that serve as a means of measuring and knowing affect unpredictably the velocity and location of the particles we are trying to observe—seems an appropriate analogy, at least, to the sometimes unpredictable nature of human free will.
26 Esau, Jacob’s older twin, was born “red, all over like a hairy robe” (Genesis 25:25). His name, Esau, indicated both that he was asu·i (“made” or “done”)—that is, at least in terms of his hair, fully developed and complete. It has been suggested that Esau’s name indicated metaphorically that he was born “a finished product,” to be accepted as is, rather than as a human being whose free choices would and could mold his personality. It has been suggested that precisely this attitude is why Esau became identified in the course of Jewish history as the archetype of a wicked person.
27 How dreams do this is also a fascinating question, with which I hope to deal more fully elsewhere.