In this week’s parshah, we find the priestly blessing with which Aharon and his descendants are commanded to bless Bnei Yisroel throughout the generations:
יברכך ה' וישמרך. יאר ה' פניו אליך ויחנך. ישא ה' פניו אליך וישם לך שלום.
May Hashem bless you and guard you. May Hashem illuminate His countenance towards you and show you favor. May Hashem turn His face towards you and grant you peace.
Our Sages explain that these blessings include all the material and spiritual benefit for which any person might hope: protection, prosperity and the good graces of Hashem. However, these blessings cannot provide their desired benefit without a vessel to receive them, and the vessel capable of containing blessing, our Sages tell us, is none other than peace: “HaKadosh Baruch Hu found no vessel capable of containing his blessings for Bnei Yisroel, other than peace.”
This is comparable to the most exquisite vintage of wine which, without a cup to drink from, is absolutely worthless. So, too, the Kohanim’s prayers and the flow of Divine blessing they effect from Above. If we do not prepare the necessary vessels to receive, it will pass over us and leave nothing substantial in our hands.
For this reason, the Kohanim have a special mitzvah to bind themselves to the rest of Klal Yisroel with bonds of love, as the Zohar states:
תאנא כל כהן דלא רחמין ליה עמא לא יפרוס ידוי. ועובדא הוה בחד כהן דקם ופריס ידוי ועד דלא אשלים אתעביד תלא דגרמי, מאי טעמא? משום דלא בריך בחביבותא וקם אחר ופריס ידוי ובריך ואתתקן ההוא יומא, כל כהן דהוא לא רחים לעמא או עמא לא רחמין ליה לא יפרוס ידוי לברכא לעמא דכתיב "טוב עין הוא יבורך" אל תקרי יבורך אלא יברך.
It was taught: Any Kohen who does not love his nation should not raise his hands in blessing. It once occurred that a Kohen raised his hands in blessing, yet before he completed his words, he disintegrated into a pile of bones. Why did this happen? Because he did not bless the congregation with love. Another Kohen then took his place and raised his hands in blessing.
That day it was decreed that any Kohen who does not love his nation, or is not beloved to them, should not raise his hands to bless them, as it is written, “He of generous outlook shall be blessed,” do not read as “he shall be blessed” (יבורך) but, rather, “he shall bless” (יברך).
Not only must a Kohen show love towards the congregation, but the congregation must also reciprocate his love, for “as water reflects the image of man, so does man’s heart reflect the feelings of his fellow.” Only then can the Kohen’s blessing be effective.
After completing their blessing, the Kohanim must not turn away from the congregation until after the chazan begins the berachah of Sim shalom (“Grant peace”), and they may not descend from the platform until after he has completed this berachah. From here we see an integral connection between the Kohen’s blessing for the congregation and the prayer of Sim shalom. The Kohen’s blessing is effective only in a context of peace, only via the vessel of peace.
The parallel between the priestly blessing and Sim shalom is evident from the very wording of the berachah. “Sim shalom - Grant peace” corresponds to the third blessing of “May Hashem grant you peace.” “Barcheinu .. b’or panecha – blessing us with the light of Your countenance,” corresponds to the second blessing of “May Hashem illuminate His countenance towards you.” “V’tov yihiyeh b’einecha l’varcheinu - May it be acceptable in Your eyes to bless us,” corresponds to the first blessing of “May Hashem bless you.”
The laws of the priestly blessing, as detailed in the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch, contain many other important lessons of character improvement. For example, the Kohanim stretch out their hands towards Heaven, in the direction of the congregation. The Cherubim atop the Aron Kodesh stretched out their wings in the same position. The Kli Yakar explains the significance of this gesture:
וצריך להיות נקי מאלקים ואדם, כי לצאת ידי שמים היו הכרובים פורשי כנפים למעלה ולצאת ידי הבריות היו פניהם איש אל אחיו המורה גם אל השלום הניתן לאוהבי התורה והיו יחדיו תואמים בשלום וריעות.
One must endeavor to be faultless in the eyes of Hashem and in the eyes of one’s fellow man. Symbolizing the need to find favor before Hashem, the Cherubim stretched up their hands. Expressing the need to find favor among one’s peers, the Cherubim reached out towards one another in a gesture of peace and camaraderie, which must reign among lovers of Torah.
This can be further understood in light of the following Mishnah:
"והיה כאשר ירים משה ידו וגבר ישראל וגו'" וכי ידיו של משה עושות מלחמה או שוברות מלחמה אלא לומר לך כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתגברים ואם לאו היו נופלים. כיוצא בדבר אתה אומר "עשה לך שרף ושים אתו על נס והיה כל הנשוך וראה אתו וחי" וכי נחש ממית או נחש מחיה אלא בזמן שישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתרפאין ואם לאו היו נימוקים.
“And it was that when Moshe raised his hands, the battle turned in favor of Israel, but when he lowered his hands, it turned in favor of Amalek.” Did Moshe’s hands make or break the war? Rather, this teaches us that as long as Bnei Yisroel raised up their eyes and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were victorious; but when they did not, they fell in battle.
Similarly, the possuk states, “Make for yourself a snake, and put it on a flagpole. Anyone who is bitten and sees it shall live.” Did the image of the snake decide between life and death? Rather, when Bnei Yisroel raised up their eyes up and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; but when they did not, they deteriorated.
All of these – the hands of the Kohanim in their Priestly Blessing, the wings of the Cherubim and the hands of Moshe as he prayed for success in battle – enjoined the people to raise their hearts and eyes to Heaven and subjugate themselves to their Father in Heaven. At the same time, they reached their hands out towards one another in love and friendship, symbolizing the mitzvos of bein adam l’chaveiro (between man and his fellow), without which a person cannot hope to forge any real bond with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
The Ramban notes that the first of the Two Tablets contains the Commandments bein adam l’Makom (between man and the Omnipresent), while the second Tablet contains the Commandments bein adam l’chaveiro. Rashi notes that while the word לחת (Tablets) is read in the plural pronunciation of “luchos,” it is actually written in the singular form, without the letter vav. Rashi explains that this indicates that the Two Tablets were as one: equal and indivisible. On the one hand, we must devote ourselves to Hashem, shun idolatry, observe Shabbos, and so on. On the other, we must be careful to never harm others or unjustly take their money. By observing both kinds of mitzvos, man can reach perfection. Upholding one without the other, however, can never gain Hashem’s favor.
Rav Yisrael Salanter, zt”l, said that when Moshe saw the Golden Calf, he wanted to break just the first Tablet containing the commandments “I am Hashem your G‑d” and “You shall have no other gods,” which Bnei Yisroel transgressed; but he wanted to save the second Tablet bearing the commandments bein adam l’chaveiro. Although Bnei Yisroel had transgressed the commandments of the first Tablet, Moshe thought they could still obey the commandments of the second. Therefore, the possuk is written וישלך מידו, “And he threw them from his hand,” in the singular form – since he thought to throw down only one. However, the possuk is read וישלך מידיו, “And he threw them from his hands,” in the plural, suggesting that Hashem rejected his reasoning and warned him that the entire Torah is one complete entity which can in no way be divided. Without the first Tablet, the second is meaningless.
For this reason, the Kohanim lift their hands towards Heaven and face the congregation, striving for both realms of perfection. They thereby bring down a perfect blessing for Bnei Yisroel.
After reciting the blessings for Torah study in the morning, the first words of Torah we recite are the pesukim of the priestly blessing. What is the relevance of Birkas Kohanim to Birkas HaTorah?
The Targum Yonasan explains that the blessings of the Kohanim include prayers for success in Torah study:
יברכינך ה' בכל עסקך ויטרינך מן לילי ומזייעי ובני טיהררי ובני צפרירי ומזיקי וטלוי. ינהר ה' סבר אפוי לך במעסקך באורייתא ויגלי לך טמירן וייחוס עלך. יסבר יי סבר אפוי לך בצלותך וישוי עלך שלם בכל תחומך.
May Hashem bless you – in all your endeavors – and guard you – from all the forces of destruction, by day and by night. May Hashem illuminate His countenance towards you - as you toil in Torah, may He reveal to you its secrets and have mercy on you. May Hashem turn His face - towards your prayers - and grant peace - on your borders.
We see then that the first of the priestly blessings is a prayer for material success and protection; the second blessing is a prayer for spiritual growth; and the third is a prayer for peace and salvation from distress. Birkas Kohanim is therefore a uniquely appropriate bridge between Birkos HaTorah and the morning prayers, as it refers simultaneously to success in Torah and all material endeavors.
May we merit to have peace and brotherhood reign among us, such that the blessings of the Kohanim shed their full influence upon us; and we may merit to hear these blessings recited once again in the Beis HaMikdash, soon and in our days, Amen.
 Bamidbar 6:24-26
 Uktzin 3:12
 Mishlei 22
 Zohar, Nasso 183
 Mishlei 22:9
 Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 128:16
 Sotah 38
 Orach Chaim 128
 Kli Yakar, Bamidbar 25:17
 Shemos 17
 Bamidbar 21
 Rosh Hashana 29a
 Devarim 9:10