The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 43:8) cites one view among the Tanna’im, that of Rabbi Nechemya, that the mitzva of birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing) has its roots in the story of akeidat Yitzchak, which we read in Parashat Vayera. The Torah tells that when Avraham saw from a distance the site where he was to offer his son as a sacrifice, he told his attendants to wait for him at their current location, “and the lad and I will go there” (22:5). Rabbi Nechemya draws a connection between the word “ko” (“there”) in this verse and this word’s use in the command of birkat kohanim: “Ko tevarekhu et Benei Yisrael” – “So shall you bless the Israelites” (Bamidbar 6:23). On the basis of this textual parallel, Rabbi Nechemya asserts that Benei Yisrael earned the priestly blessing in Yitzchak’s merit.
How might we explain the connection between the story of akeidat Yitzchak and the obligation upon the kohanim to bless the rest of the nation?
In the introductory berakha recited by the kohanim before they perform this mitzva, they give thanks to the Almighty “who commanded us to bless His nation, Israel, with love.” The obligation requires not merely blessing the rest of the nation, but doing so with sincere feeling and genuine affection. The kohanim are bidden to feel love and concern for all Am Yisrael, including people with whom they have no contact, and including those Jews who are not especially pious and might be presumed unworthy of God’s blessing. Birkat kohanim is thus an exercise in selflessness and humility, whereby the kohanim put aside their ego and feel a genuine bond of love with even the lowliest members of the nation. They were designated for the lofty purpose of ministering before God in His Mikdash, but this stature must lead them not to feel distant from and above the rest of the nation, but to the contrary, to feel especially close to all members of the nation. As God’s special tribe, the kohanim must genuinely love and care about each and every member of Am Yisrael, just as God Himself genuinely loves and cares about each and every member of Am Yisrael.
Rabbi Nechemya perhaps sought to draw an association between this requirement and the kind of mesirut nefesh – selfless devotion – displayed by Avraham and Yitzchak at the time of the akeida. What allows the kohanim to feel genuine affection and concern for even the lowly members of the nation is the same selflessness and devotion that leads one to sacrifice to God. We are able to make such sacrifices by viewing ourselves as no more and no less than His loyal servants, who are duty-bound to fulfill His will even at the expense of our own wishes. This sense of humble subservience which motivates us to selflessly serve God also motivates us to selflessly serve His nation. The kohanim are to draw inspiration from Avraham and Yitzchak’s unlimited devotion and readiness to sacrifice, an example which will enable them to fulfill their duties to Am Yisrael, whom they are to serve and care for with genuine affection and love.