Thursday, February 21, 2013

In Tribute to a Kohen

I must admit, sometimes the priveleges given to the kohen annoy me. As you are aware those who trace their lineage to Aharon the priest are given special status in the community of Israel. In ancient times they served as conduits between the people and G-d in the Bait Hamikdash, the Holy Temple. They lived a life committed to public service. Their role entitled them to distinction and respect. But that was near 2000 years ago. Since that time the Kohen's life is indistiguishable from every other Jew. He works a regular job and invests himself in the secular. Yet according to our tradition he still commands a unique station in the life of the community. He has priority when it comes to receiving an aliya to the Torah. He is first to lead the grace after meal. He claims the five shekel for the redemption of the first born. And he ascends to the front of the synagogue daily in Israel and on holidays in the galut to bestow the priestly blessings on the congregation.

I have often wondered why? Why should the kohen in our day be given special status.
Today the Kohen gets a privelege undeserved. He makes no sacrifice yet he is honored.
He may not be a mensch yet he has priority over a community of scholars. Of himself he may be a nobody yet by dint of 'Ă½ichus' he becomes a star. We are a religion which emphasizes accomplishment not pedigree. How then does the Kohen in this context become so important?

I titled this blog, "In Tribute to a Kohen". And there is a specific Kohen I have in mind, Moshe Cohen, of blessed memory. Most of us probably know a Moshe Cohen. But the Moshe Cohen I have in mind few knew. He lived in Jerusalem for many years. He was a professor at the Technion. He was also one of the most humble men I have ever met. So humble that I hardly really knew him myself. He came to the 6:00am minyan every day where I have davened the past two years. He was the only Kohen. He blessed us each morning. And yes he received the opening aliya at the Torah reading as was his due on Monday and Thursdays. Yesterday, after a long battle with cancer, he passed away.
He died like he lived, quietly and with modesty. As is the traditon in Jerusalem he was buried the day of his death. Few even knew he had died. Few were at his nighttime burial.

Moshe was not a talkative man. He never shared about himself. Few knew he was a professor of note. He came to shule in the quiet and left the same. I do not know his life story. I know almost nothing about Moshe except what I witnessed. I saw each day in him a quiet dignity. Moshe made effort to reach out to an old compromised and friendless man in shule each morning, someone none of us could relate to. Moshe never mixed into shule politics or got caught up in controversy, and their was plenty of opportunity.

Most of all Moshe taught me something about the Kohen. He helped me understand why the kohen even in our days may well have a right to special status. For you see Moshe, our Kohen, battled cancer for several years. Though he never talked about it, it was clear that he suffered. Nonetheless even as his life was full of torment he ascended the platform in front of the synagogue each morning and in a strong and resonant voice blessed us. He did not let his own curse cause resentment. No, on the contrary, his own curse seemed only to make him more determined to bless others.

As the months wore on Moshe would be absent from minyan from time to time to take treatments. Gradually his once resonant voice became weaker. By the end he could barely be heard. He had lost his hair. He walked haltingly. Yet he would not surrender the opportunity to bless us. By the end it was almost sureal to see this terminally ill man, living on death's door, rise above his own hellish existence to bless us with the gifts included in the priestly blessings. Moshe may have been small of stature and weak of body, but he was a giant, a lion of a man.

From Moshe Cohen I came to respect all the kohanim of our post Temple days. It's true the kohen no longer devotes his life to the holy as was once the case and hopefully will soon be again. But the kohen, if he is to do his job well, even in our days makes a heroic effort. He must get past all the unfairness he is feeling in his own life and daily bestow blessings on us. The kohen must find a way to rise above the resentments and disappointments he lives with and be the vehicle through which G-d can show favor to us. The Kohen must love us even when he is hurting. I am not sure that there is any life work more difficult.

Moshe Cohen is gone. His voice is stilled. It is appropriate that he died on the week we read the parsha of Tzav, a parsha that speaks to us of the unique role of the kohen in the community of Israel. While he did not get to bring the sacrifices nor to wear the priestly garments, Moshe Cohen reflected the best of what being a kohen is all about.
He loved us even when it was hard to love another. He was a true child of Aharon.
We who davened with him will miss him. Thank G-d there remain kohanim like Moshe in our world who will bless us with a full heart even when they experience life as cursed.
Indeed they deserve our honor and respect.

Shabbat Shalom
Purim Samayach

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Give and Take

There is an in interesting tradition with reference to the slicing of the Challah at the festive Shabbat and holidays meal. Typically one person makes the blessing over the two loaves and dispenses pieces to the guests and family at the table. We are taught that the one who recites the blessing should not distribute the slices by placing them into the hands of the guests and family members. Rather he should place the challah slices on a platter and pass the platter along so that each person can take a piece for him/herself.
And why? The reason for not handing out the challah is because to hand someone food is to minimize them, that is, to enact a scene of dependency. Even at our own table with guests who know they are respected it is inappropriate to do something in a manner that is demeaning. Giving to another, while surely benifiting them, puts the recepient in the one-down position relative to the giver.
The process itself make the giver feel empowered and the recipient often feels belittled.

The Torah this week teaches us a similar truth. At the begining of the parsha of Teruma the Torah tells us that G-d told Moshe to take donations, in Hebrew a 'teruma', from the Children of Israel. In the words of the 'pasuk', "...from every man whose heart motivates him to give you shall take my 'teruma'." The language of the verse presents an obvious challenge. First Moshe is told to take the donations from every person who wants to voluntarily give. Then the verse goes on to say that from those people Moshe should "take" it.
What's going on? If the gift is voluntary it would make sense to say "from them you should receive it" not "take". If Moshe is taking the gift the implication is that it's coerced and not voluntary!

I believe the interpretation of the verse has everything to do with the lesson of the Challah we discussed above. The 'teruma' was the first call to national giving in the experience of the People of Israel. It was tzedaka, in this case designated for the then being constructed Temple. Moshe was told not only that he should collect. He was being told how he should collect. G-d was teaching Moshe and through him to all of us the proper way to give. It is wonderful to help another in need. A generous and emapathic heart is a good thing. Moshe was told to indeed honor those who want to make a difference and contribute to the worthy cause at hand. But, and this is a big but, Moshe was told that the donor needs to contribute in such a way that s/he does not lord over the recipient. The benifactor should extend his/her hand with his/her gift, make it available. Then, it is for the one benifiting to take it from him/her, thereby assuming initiative in the process and moving from a dependent to an agent in his/her behalf.

We spend much of our lives giving. And I am not talking here about bestowing monetary gifts and acts of tzedaka. I mean giving in our role as parents and as spouses and in the workplace. We give all the time. Those of us who have matured understand that the need to give is a powerful piece of the quality of our lives. In truth, at times our need to give is even greater than the need of others to receive.
In giving we feel ourselves purposeful and yes powerful. We are somebody when we help another in ways both small and big.

This past week, one morning I was standing outside a Bais Medrash waiting for it to open. As it turned out the man with the key never showed up. I noticed a woman walking up and down the block seemingly searching for something. I had no idea what. Finally, a moment or two before I was off to another Bais Medrash I knew would be open, the woman said to me "Excuse me, can you help me a moment?"
To be honest, I was a bit concerned with what I might be committing myself to and to whom, but I said "sure". She then led me to her apartment half way down the block. We enterred and sitting in a chair was a man I took to be her husband. He was clearly paralyzed.
The woman asked if I would be so kind as to help lift him into his wheelchair so she might take him outside. I did. Then I helped her move the wheeolchair out the door and down the steps into the street. She expressed thanks and my kindness was done. But not before I told her she did me the favor in allowing me to help. And indeed she did.

We all look for these kind of pure and simple opportunities to give. They make us feel good about ourselves. We need them. But it's important that we be careful as possible to not minimize the other even in providing them the help they need. True the poor person will be all too glad to take our tzedaka no matter how we perform the act of giving. In the end, for them, its about the money and meeting their desparate needs. Yet we need to be careful to not rob them of their dignity in the process. We need to give a smile as much as a dollar. We would do well to stand up and show respect when we give. Sometimes I think it important we read the letter they bring with them in their efforts to collect, if only to show interest in their story. And perhaps, taking the lesson from the portion, we would do well to try not to put our money in their hand directly so as not to highlight their sense of dependency. Their are many imaginative ways to give, which allow us to feel good about ourselves, without evidencing an attendent superiority.

This concept is true in all the 'giving' situations in our life. When we help another our real task is to lay out before them the opportunity we are providing. We offer the other a path and a direction. We may be willing to walk by their side. But we must resist the impulse to do it for the other. In the end the initiative must come from the other. In giving we do with someone else, not for someone else, if it's at all possible for them to do it themselves.

In a true act of giving both the giver and the recepient feel good. The giver feels s/he has made a difference in another's life. The recepient feels good because s/he has used an opportunity presented him/her to help him/herself. The giver makes it possible for the recipient to move past feeling like a victim. Through the donor's gift s/he can be an agent in his/her own behalf.
If only one or the other feels good the act of giving is inherently flawed!

Shabbat Shalom


Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Spirit and the Flesh

"And to the princes of the Children of Israel He laid not his hand.And they beheld G-d and they ate and drank."

The close of this week's parsha of Mishpatim speaks to the events at Sinai. According to some commentaries it adds to already talked about events prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments. According to others it refers to what happened directly after. In either case the verse quoted above is intriguing. Who are these "princes" and why did G-d have reason to "lay his hand"?

Rashi in his commentary says the verse is referring to Nadav and Avihu, the two chidlren of Aharon, who later died in the Temple.
Their sin here was one of arrogance. They experienced the prophetic at Sinai while still immersed in the mundane of their lives.
G-d spared the consequence of their 'chutzpa' here, not to compromise the festivities of the Giving of the Law.
Other commentaries see no sin here at all. And do not agree that the subject of the verse is Nadav and Avihu.

The Or Ha'Chayim presents a compelling interpretation. He explains, the literal meaning of the words is "And G-d did not send out His hand." The Or Ha'Chayim explains that means G-d did not hold back the fullness of his revelation, as He did when Moshe asked to see His face and G-d, in response, revealed Himself but covered His face with His palm. Here at Sinai the princes saw G-d without filters. G-d did not "send out His hand" to cover Himself. According to the Or Ha'Chayim the verse is speaking of the blessing of Sinai. G-d here revealed Himself without obfuscation. What does it mean then that "they ate and drank"? The Or Ha'Chayim explained that it means the spiritual satisfied them as if they ate and drank.

I found the interpretation of the Or Ha'Chayim convincing, at least in so far as understanding that the verse is referring to the quality of G-d's revelation. However I see something different with reference to verse's close. For me, when the 'pasuk' concludes "and they saw G-d and they ate and drank", it is telling us something not about them and then but rather about us and now!

Most of us live our lives influenced by the idea that the spirit and the flesh are antithetical to each other. We assume that if we are to be spiritual people we must surrender physical pleasure and indulgence in the world. And we assume, that the contrary is equally true, to embrace the pleasures of the world means to forswear the spiritual. The message at Sinai is very much the opposite. The princes saw G-d in the most compelling revelation. Yet they did not have to become angels, withdraw from the world. On the contrary they could have the best of this world and its pleasure too, they could "eat and drink".

Immediately after the events at Sinai, the most holy of encounters the Torah gives us the 'mishpatim' the civil laws of damages and property.
In tradition these laws were taught to the Israelites the day after the revelation. If one reviews the details here one is struck by how earthy these statutes are. They are about the material and physical aspirations. Yet they are not only not in antithetical to the spirit of Sinai, they are in concert with it. They belong here in the shadow of the mountain and the revelation.

Indeed Judaism encourages us to experience the gifts of G-d's world. Our sages tell us we will be held accountable in the after-life for any pleasure permitted us and available in the world that we did not partake of. G-d loves us. He created this world for us to enjoy, albeit with conditions. It is a sin to abstain. True, our primary yearning should be for G-d and the attachment to Him. Yet we do that not only through spiritual acts like prayer and Torah study, but through experiencing G-d through the magnificence of His creation. Oneg Shabbat, having material pleasure on the Sabbath, is a mitzvah. We cannot fulfill the mitzvah without having pleasure! The blessings to G-d we make on eating and on experiencing sensual pleasure we cannot make unless we feel the pleasure! And the more the pleasure we experience in the physical act the more true will be our appreciation and the more real the blessing!

Those who separate themselves from the world thinking this is the Divine intent miss the mark. G-d wants us to enter His world, and with gusto. He provides the mitzvot to show us how we can enter and enjoy safely. Withdrawal is not the ideal. Moreover those who make abstanence the goal surrender the opportunity to perfect G-d's world, preferring instead to perfect themselves. How can one truly love Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, foundations of our work in this world, if one is bent on withdrawal from the material.

No, we are not meant to vilify the flesh so as to embrace the spirit. This is not a situation of either or. We are challenged to live full
lives engaged in both the spirit and the flesh meaningfully. It is not spirit or flesh, but rather spirit and flesh. We need to be able to enjoy both and deeply! Both are gateways to the Divine!

Shabbat Shalom