A prominent member of a congregation came to his rabbi and said, "I would like to become a Kohen." The rabbi, careful to avoid offending the congregant, respectfully declined.
"Rabbi," said the man, "if you make me a Kohen, I'll contribute $25,000 to the synagogue." Still, the Rabbi refused.
"Alright -- I'll make it $50,000!" Uncomfortably, the rabbi still had to decline.
"Final offer: $100,000. Take the money and make me a Kohen -- or else I'll quit the synagogue!
Stalling for time, the rabbi asked the man why he wanted to become a Kohen. "It's simple," the man said, "my father was a Kohen, my grandfather was a Kohen ... I want to be a Kohen, too."
In the times of the Holy Temple, the heredital status was something that was proudly preserved by the Kohanim, the priestly families. The Kohanim had the responsibility of conducting the service in God's temple, and acting as spiritual leaders of the people.
Since the Temple's destruction, however, the opportunities available for Kohanim to serve the nation have diminished considerably. In fact, nowadays, the only time a Kohen really fulfills this role is in performing a Pidyon HaBen, and reciting the priestly blessing, which is found in this week's Torah portion, Naso:
"May God bless you and keep you.
May God shine his countenance upon you and be gracious to you.
May God raise his countenance upon you and give you peace."
The Ohr HaChaim explains the first verse to mean that the quantity of success bestowed upon you should be so great that it needs special guarding. The second verse is a blessing that we should be very close to God, and be infused with the drive to do good. The final verse affirms the hope that all impediments we have caused in our relationship with God should be put aside, and that we should attain true peace through our wholeness with God.
Today, it has become the custom for parents to use these beautiful words to bless their children every Friday night at the Shabbat table.
It is perhaps not coincidental that the oldest archaeological discovery of a biblical verse were the words of the priestly blessing found on an amulet, dating back 2,500 years.
In practice today, this blessing is recited by the Kohanim at the daily morning service in Israel, and on holidays in the Diaspora. (Sefardi Jews say the blessing every day even in the Diaspora.)
The actual procedure of the priestly blessing, however, involves more than the simple utterance of words. Indeed, in Jewish mystical tradition, the positioning of the Kohen's hands during the blessing is as important as the words themselves. The fingers of the Kohen are actually aligned in such away as to represent God's ineffable name. Moreover, the right hand (which represents kindness) is to be slightly elevated above the left hand (representing judgment). All this is designed to draw God's presence down upon the congregation.
The blessing's effect is not limited to the congregation, however. The priestly blessing contains sixty letters, which represents the 60 myriads (600,000 people) who stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. These correspond to the 600,000 prototype souls that were said to exist in creation. When the Kohanim recite the blessing -- with 60 letters -- then blessing is brought upon every Jew.