Among the halakhot relevant to birkat kohanim – the special blessing with which the kohanim bless the rest of the nation – is the requirement that the kohanim lift their hands and face the people while declaring this blessing (Shulchan Arukh O.C. 128).
Rav Asher Weiss notes that there is also another context when we find this position – raised arms and faces turned towards one another. The Torah in Sefer Shemot (25:20) commands that the keruvim (“cherubs”) atop the ark in the Mishkan were to be fashioned with their wings stretched upwards, as though they hovered over the ark, and to face one another. It is possible, then, that the kohanim’s position when administering the birkat kohanim is meant to resemble the position of the keruvim that stood atop the aron.
If so, then we must address the question as to the significance of this position. What is the symbolic meaning of outstretched, raised arms and faces turned directly towards one another?
Rav Weiss cites in this context the explanation offered by Keli Yakar, commenting on the position of the keruvim (Shemot 25:10). Keli Yakar comments that the wings, which point heavenward, symbolize devotion to God, whereas the keruvim’s faces positioned towards one another represent peace and fraternal love. The keruvim looked at each other to express the ideal of care, concern and affection for other people, of creating a meaningful bond and relationship with our fellow. The keruvim were engraved in this fashion, and stood atop the ark in the innermost sanctum of the Beit Ha-mikdash, to instruct that kedusha requires both elements: we must lift our “wings” heavenward, striving to build a meaningful relationship with God and committing ourselves unconditionally to observe all His commands, while at the same time facing our fellowman and living peacefully, harmoniously and compassionately with other people.
The kohanim assume this same position when blessing Am Yisrael in order to teach us that blessing requires our unwavering commitment to both fundamental areas of Torah life – our relationship to God, and our relationship to each other. Birkat kohanim, then, is not only a blessing, but also a challenge and calling, charging us to reinforce our commitment to the Almighty and our commitment to each other as a precondition for our becoming worthy of God’s beneficence.