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

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