The Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (27b) tells that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was asked to identify his special merits on account of which he lived a long life. He responded by enumerating several admirable habits that he had, including, “lo nasati kapai be-lo berakha” – he ensured never to recite birkat kohanim without first reciting the introductory blessing which is to precede the berakha given to the congregation.
The implication of Rabbi Elazar’s response is that this introductory blessing (“Baruch…asher kideshanu…le-varekh et amo Yisrael be-ahava”) is not strictly required. If it constituted an outright halakhic obligation, then, seemingly, Rabbi Elazar’s consistent observance of this practice would not be remarkable and would not have rendered him worthy of an especially long life. Indeed, the Vilna Gaon, in his notes to the Shulchan Arukh (Bei’ur Ha-Gra, O.C. 128:13), writes on the basis of this Talmudic passage that the introductory blessing which the kohanim customarily recite before birkat kohanim is not strictly required.
Evidently, as noted by Rav Elyakim Pashkes (in Ka-matar Likchi, Parashat Naso), the Gaon maintained that Chazal did not institute a formal birkat ha-mitzva before birkat kohanim as they did for other mitzvot. Leaving aside the question of why Chazal established introductory berakhot for some mitzvot but not others, it appears, at least according to the Vilna Gaon, that no such berakha was established for birkat kohanim. Although kohanim customarily recite a berakha before birkat kohanim whose text follows the familiar format of birkot ha-mitzva (“asher kideshanu…ve-tzivanu”), this is not a standard birkat ha-mitzva, but is rather a different kind of blessing.
Rav Pashkes noted that this also appears to be the view of the Rambam, who rules (Hilkhot Tefila 14:12) that the kohanim recite the introductory berakha before they turn around to face the congregation in preparation for conferring the birkat kohanim. When a birkat ha-mitzva is recited before the performance of a mitzva, it must be recited immediately before the mitzva is performed, and no earlier. Presumably, this is why other opinions – as codified by the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 128:11) – require the kohanim to recite the introductory blessing as they turn around to face the congregation, but not beforehand. Since this blessing, in their view, is recited over the mitzva of birkat kohanim, it must be recited immediately before the kohanim begin declaring the blessing. The Rambam, however, perhaps understood that this berakha does not fall under the category of birkot ha-mitzva, and for this reason did not require reciting it immediately before conferring the birkat kohanim.
The question then becomes, if this introductory blessing does not constitute a standard birkat ha-mitzva, then what kind of blessing is it?
Apparently, Rav Pashkes writes, this berakha is an expression of praise given by the kohanim over the privilege they are given to bless Am Yisrael. They recite this berakha not in reference to the halakhic obligation of birkat kohanim – like the berakhot we recite before fulfilling certain halakhic obligations, such as sefirat ha-omer – but rather over the privilege and honor of blessing the Jewish Nation. It thus resembles other berakhot we recite to express praise to the Almighty over different experiences and phenomena, and, according to the Vilna Gaon, it does not constitute a strict halakhic requirement.
If, indeed, we view this blessing as an expression of praise over this privilege, then we may perhaps derive a meaningful lesson from this practice. Namely, we should see the opportunity to bless our fellow Jews and to wish them well as a great privilege and source of joy. If the kohanim give special praise to God before blessing Am Yisrael over this privilege, then we must perceive blessing fellow Jews as a great honor. The opportunity to wish another Jew well and convey words of blessing and encouragement is something we should cherish and which brings us joy and excitement.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we relish specifically the opposite opportunity – those instances when we discover something negative about a person’s character and conduct. These situations give us the chance to enjoy feelings of superiority and vindication, to view ourselves as better than others. The introductory blessing to birkat kohanim should perhaps teach us to feel privileged to admire and feel fondness for people, not to look down on them. The opportunities we should cherish are the times when we genuinely like people and wish them well, and not the times when we can arrogantly look down on them with ridicule and scorn.