Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Many years ago when I studied with the Rav (Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik) in Boston during the summer, one year there was a chasidishe guy who joined us for these wonderful classes.  I'm a little embarrassed to admit that we had some fun at his expense, but he was a great sport.  He truly loved and appreciated the learning, but he had to leave for a sister's wedding before the end of the summer.  So, at the end of the last class he was to attend, he did something which was a little alien to us.  He asked the Rav for a blessing.  The Rav was a bit nonplussed.  In our circles we don't freely dispense blessings as Rebbes do in the Chasidic community.  At first it seemed that the Rav was joining in the hazing of this young man, because the Rav asked him what kind of blessing.  The Rav then explained that he said blessings on apples, and this young man didn't look like an apple.  The chasid was crestfallen.  I believe the Rav then took compassion on the guy, because he then mumbled a blessing about being successful in Torah study and in life.  It was a doubly touching scene.  The Rav couldn't bear to see the young man suffer; the chasid was clearly captivated by the sincere good wishes.  I think there's a lesson (and definitely an article) in the two attitudes displayed in that tableau.

            In this week's Torah reading we read the famous blessings delivered daily in the holy Temple by the Cohanim:   Tell Aaron and his sons, 'This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:  The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.  So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them (Numbers 6:23-27).  I want to add an interpretive translation of the third part of the blessing from the Message Bible:  May God look you full in the face, and make you prosper.  I like that.

            Nowadays, in synagogues throughout the world, we attempt to recreate the solemnity of that daily procedure on our holidays.  But what's the message behind these gentlemen standing prominently before the community to deliver these benedictions?  We don't for a minute believe that the Cohanim are actually bestowing anything upon us.  That's the source of the custom to not actually look directly at the Cohanim during this process.  We believe that these men are directing God's blessings in our direction.  The purpose of these middlemen can be understood in two ways.  According to the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550-1619) the Cohanim represent those who have been abundantly blessed by God and have become vessels full of God's grace and they then turn this plenty towards us.  I'm not sure that we feel that way about the Cohanim in this period without the Temple.  So, maybe in our day and age we only perform this rite as a reminder of the Temple services.

            On the other hand, Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1503-1598) suggests that this ceremony and its serious tone are meant to teach us another idea.  No one ever seriously assumed that the blessings come from the Cohanim.  These guardians of the Temple and its holiness were intent on setting the proper tone, but more than that they meant to focus the Jewish consciousness on an even greater spiritual reality.  We should all be seeking out God's benevolence.  The recitation of these blessings is a powerful reminder that we continue to exist solely because of God's munificence.  We should regularly, if not constantly be searching for God's benedictions.

            Now, I think that we can use these two opinions to help us understand a famous argument. Most Ashkenazim or European Jews only perform the ceremony of the Priestly Blessing on Jewish holidays, except in Israel, where the custom of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, 1720-1797), who was a maverick on this issue, is followed.  This is based on an opinion of the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1520-1572) in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chayim, 244:44) that a Cohen should only perform the blessing ceremony if he is immersed in a joyous spirit.  He goes on to explain that only on chagim is one truly happy, because on other days, even on Shabbat, one is concerned for livelihood.  Sephardim (Jews from Arab countries), however, generally allow the performance of this rite throughout the year. 

            What are the two great communities of Judaism arguing about?  I think that the opinion which prohibits the recitation of the blessings except on the holidays when joy is mandated by the law, is based on the premise that the continued reenactment of this ceremony is to keep the memory of the Temple alive.  This is in keeping with the statement of the Kli Yakar, who said that the Cohanim were paragons of God's bounty in this world, and today we only do it as a fond memory of bygone days.  However, the position that we should recite it whenever possible follows the position of the Alshich that the true message of these blessings can still be communicated today, namely that we must always be seeking God's blessings in all of life's endeavors.  The Cohanim are teaching us to be ever vigil in this hunt.

            Let's go back to the story about the Rav and the chasid.  The chasid sees the example of the Cohen in any human vessel filled with Torah and good deeds.  So, requesting that blessing, to him, is like standing in the Temple again before models of sanctity.  The Rav, on the other hand, understands that this level can only be achieved with real Cohanim in the awesome Temple setting.

            Where does all this leave us?  Just trying our best to access the blessings and holiness of this world.  But whenever you stand there in the midst of the Priestly Benediction, close your eyes and try to transport yourself to a hallowed place and open your soul to receive the Divine benefice.  It sometimes works.  



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