ברכת כהנים THE PRIESTLY BLESSING
One of the most beautiful customs of our shul, not common for Conservative shuls, is Duchaning (in Yiddish, Duchanen), which we do in the Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you haven’t experienced this lovely ceremony performed by our Kohanim (Kohens), I encourage you to stay through Musaf to do so. There is a special melody in this ceremony in which the Kohanim repeat the words of the Blessing of Aaron, the High Priest, from the book of Numbers (Yevarecha). We uniquely adapt the tune to melodic lines on Rosh Hashanah evening, and the antiphonal response, led by the Cantor, is quite haunting and joyful.
Why do we Duchan? Numbers, Chapter 6, instructs Aaron and his sons to bless the Israelites with the verse “Bless you, guard you…May Hashem lift His face to you and be gracious to you…May Hashem give you peace…” Since every Kohen is a descendant of Aaron, they are to repeat the blessing for every congregation of ten. Kohanim count as a part of the 10 congregants in the minyan that they are blessing. If a minyan dissolves while they bless the congregation, they continue and conclude it. If the Chazzan is the only Kohen, he is allowed to move from his stand on the bima and face the congregation to bless them. During the repetition, he must wash and remove his shoes before beginning the standing devotion. If he is not the only Kohen, he remains in his place.
Why is this custom of blessing the people called duchening? Because the word for bima, or raised platform, in Aramaic is Duchan. The Kohanim ascend the platform as a mediating symbol between the congregation and the Holy Ark. At this moment, they are a conduit for blessing. The Kohen raises his hands and spreads his fingers in a “V” shape. His hands, therefore, form two Shins (Hebrew letter ש), which equals 600. His fingers are ten and his blessings are three, which equal 613–the number of mitzvoth in the Torah. Talmud Hagigah mentions that one should not look at the fingers of the Kohen as they bless, as doing so will “weaken the eyes.” Probably this was so the Kohen, in feeling one’s gaze, would not become distracted. It is not correct, however, to turn around, as many do, and show their backs to the Kohanim as they bless us. Many rabbinic authorities label this a “superstitious custom.” It is far better to face them and simply look downward or place one’s head under one’s own tallit as one receives the blessing.
How many times a year is it customary to do the Kohen blessing with Duchenen? In traditional congregations of the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel), it should be done on Yom Tovim only (the five major holidays.) In the Ashkenazic congregation of Safed, Israel, it is done on major holidays and each Shabbat, and so, too, in many Ashkenazic congregations outside of Jerusalem. Sfardic synagogues in all of Israel do it every day. Many liberal congregations have discontinued it, considering it a vestige of the past and attached to sacrificial rituals.
There are some interesting facts of Duchening. We take our shoes off, not because the High Priest came in bare feet for the Yom Kippur ceremony, but because the Shulchan Aruch determined that a shoe lace untied can cause a fall, or an effort to tie an untied shoe lace nullifies the hand washing. This would prevent the shoe lace handler from saying the blessing, causing people to think him impure. To avoid this, it was decided that all would take off their shoes before blessing the congregation. A Kohen who doesn’t wish to say the blessing, perhaps because he dislikes someone in the congregation, should get over it! If a Kohen is impure after being in a cemetery, he should intentionally remove himself before the Kohanim begin to ascend the bima.
This summer, help us and help yourselves by committing to our regular Minyan
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich and your mama's good lookin’
So hush little baby, please don't cry…
One of these mornin's, you gonna rise up singin'
Spread your wings and you'll take the sky
Until that mornin' there's a nothin' can harm you
With Mommy and Daddy standin' by
–Words of Porgy and Bess that conjure up the easy days of summer. Some are of the opinion, no doubt, that the summertime months are a time when we should have a break from it all. In fact, congregants have sometimes asked, "Don't you basically close up for the summer?" The answer is NO, there is not much programming until the High Holidays and the school year starts, but the shul never closes up. VeShiviti Hashem negdi tamid…we must hold up God and faith before us at all times–and especially at times when less of us are around!
In our timely Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, the spies of each tribe expand their souls. They do so, says the Midrash, by each being infused with the soul of one of Jacob’s sons, according to which tribe to which they belong– the head of the tribe of Naphtali receives Naphtali’s soul and the head of the tribe of Reuven receives Reuven's soul. But apparently that is not enough. Those spies, fearful of what they see, come back and tell the people there is no hope. Yet two of the spies receive additional reinforcement that gives them optimism and courage. Caleb goes to Chevron and stretches himself out upon the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and “absorbs” their faith, while Hoshea is given an exta yud in his name and becomes Yehoshua– getting a dose of God's name. Only they, Joshua and Caleb have courage and hope in the end, and they are the only ones of their generation that enter the land of Israel.
This, connecting ourselves to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is what we do when we pray together as a minyan. The very first lines of our Shemoneh Esrai, when we say “their God is our God,” gives us that additional dose of their faith and makes it our own. Its not enough to only connect to our ancestors’ faith, however. We say Elokeinu ve Lokai Avotainu, "Our God and the God of our Ancestors," making God our own in our generation. Declaring this regularly in a community of faith is essential to experience God as our own. The intent of our regular prayer is to receive the double reinforcement of both Caleb and Joshua. That is the potential that regular prayer, “davenning,” can offer. Does this happen for us all the time when we daven? No, I cannot make that claim. But it cannot happen at that special moment if we don't make prayer regular.
I remind you that the shul doesn't close down for the summer. The shul's pulse never stops. But we need davenners or it will. Please take a moment to consider how important regular communal prayer is, not just for those saying Kaddish, but also for each and every one of us. Don't let the pulse stop, particularly when the summer months approach while many are a way. Select two or three extra days each month when you or someone in your household can commit to coming. Put it on your calendar. If our membership of well over 200 families did this, there would never be a shortage of minyanaires, and there will always be a strong pulse at ENJC–summer, winter, spring and fall.
So here are additional words to Porgy and Bess, a la Rabbi Ian:
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Every evening, you're gonna rise up praying
Spread your wings and take to the sky
And when you daven, there's nothing can harm you
With your fellow minyanaires standing by!
Some thoughts on “Receiving Torah”
May 30 was our Tikun Leil Shavuot, and on June 1, we received the Torah, standing at our seats, as we read and trumpeted the moments when our ancestors accepted Torah with a triumphant “we will do and we will hear!” Tradition tells us that so powerful were the words of the Ten Commandments that each commandment blew the Israelites back 19 parsangs (historical unit of distance). Their souls were drawn from their bodies and God would not allow their souls to receive any new commandments. This sequential resuscitation was apparently very grueling, so they asked Moses to go up the mountain, into the fog, to receive the Torah for them. Rav Nachman of Bratzlav points out that God really wished all the people to climb the mountain with Moses and converge at the apex of Sinai, and if that had happened, we would have found a return to full redemption and purity (“when the Shofar sounds louder and louder…they should climb the mountain”). But the opportunity was lost and we must settle for understanding the Torah, not directly from the source, but through interpretation and insight.
Rabbi Levi Ischak asks the question, “Why, in beginning the counting of the Omer, don’t we recite the Shechehiyanu prayer?” The answer he gives is that the counting begins the journey and one must say a Shechehiyanu only at the end of a journey in the reception of Torah. But the reception of the Torah is, really, a never-ending proposition. Every Jew is called upon to have an open heart, to learn something new–something more nuanced and refined. Our Torah education is endless in each life and for all time. That is why there is no holiday called Hag Kabbalat Hatorah (holiday to welcome the Torah into our lives). Only Hag Natan Torah (holiday of being given the Torah). God gives the Torah endlessly. Our reception of it must be each and every day, with a newly opened mind and heart.
Years ago, here and in Israel, scientists and mathematicians were hard at work in cracking the secret code of the Bible. A book was released that got everyone excited, a New York Times bestseller, Bible Code, by Michael Drosnin, who is a Wall Street Journal reporter. Inspired by the work of Prof. Eliyahu Ripps, he suggested a formula to understand the present and predict the future. With the help of systematic computer analysis, all the letters of the Torah were scanned backwards and forwards, in a consistent pattern, to yield messages. Hits showed famous names like “Rabin” and “Kennedy,” and important natural disasters. Even the Persian Gulf War was foretold! This gave a new meaning to the words of our sages, “turn it and turn it, 'cause all is in it.” But that misses the point. I am reminded of the use of the High Priest’s Urim and Thummim (divine oracle on the High Priest’s breastplate), with letters lighting up. For my money, I think the words of Isaiah, the trenchant insight of Jeremiah, and the mystical imagination of Ezekiel, were far more penetrating.
A sage commented on the words from our Torah, “Moses would speak to God, and God would answer him in thunder (Hashem Yaanenu beKol),” saying, “Moses would speak and God would answer him in his own voice!” All of us must study the words of Torah carefully and repeatedly, but true wisdom is not acquired by how much Torah you can master and retain, how much Torah or Talmud a person can get through. Rather, wisdom comes from how much the Torah and the Talmud goes through you! Our experience and our thought processes help make Torah new each day! The insights you bring to the text are the Torah coming “through your voice.”
Between Purim and Passover
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein makes an interesting observation that the very beginning of the Megillah presents an anti-Passover message of providence. It appears that Haman rolls the dice in his lottery for the destruction of the Jews on the 12th month, Adar, and the 13th day. But on what day was the fate sealed? –On none other than the day before Pesach, Adar 14, when the Jews, instead, prevailed. And what does Mordecai tell Esther? He tells her, “Help might come from another quarter, but if you don't do something, you and your father's house will be destroyed.” Notice that he doesn’t say God will help us; he says something shall come to the rescue eventually (yavo memakom acher), but we are left wondering what form that help will take. After all, God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther at all. And Esther insists that the Jews fast for three days, but this comes at the time of feasting at the Seders of Passover! Note how despairing they must have been at this moment when they should have been fulfilling the commandment of eating matzah to celebrate God's rescue of the Hebrew Slaves at the time of the Exodus! In the end, religious significance is attached to this miracle rescue of the Jews from Haman, and it is declared a holiday, but the rite of that holiday is reading about human beings risking their lives to turn the tide.
Pesach enters, however, through the back door, in our rabbinic tradition, when it comes to the events of the story of Esther. Do you remember that Achashverosh couldn't sleep and insisted in reading from his chronicles? That occurred too, our sages tell us, on the exact night marking the time of our release in Egypt! (cf. Haggadah: cf. vayehi be chazi Halaila) This teaches that while you might think that all happens is due to luck, happenstance and human endeavor, we realize that Providence is behind this concatenation of events–ultimately God is working behind the scenes.
Passover presents a different theological view. God is a maker of miracles and will impose His will on human history if the experience of his people is dire and if their prayers and tears crack heaven. The explanation of our rescue and release comes from God and no other–a Divine rescue.
And yet, Passover depends, too, on the actions of people. It depends on a leader who evolves from a self doubting 'send someone else' sort, to a leader who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It depends on a people who evolve from insular, to advocates, to a people who begin to believe and inspire Moses. And it depends ultimately on their faith to follow God's directive to slaughter a ram at a time of Egyptian Ram worship, when Aries, the Ram, is considered sacred.
ENJC Welcomes a New Cantor!
The ENJC is extremely pleased to welcome Zachary M. Mondrow has our new Chazzan. Cantor Mondrow is a native of West Boomfield, Michigan, and a graduate of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He received his BA in Music from Kalamzoo College in Michigan. His performances have taken him to Palm Springs, Philadelphia, Miami and Detroit, and he has appeared as a featured soloist with the Detroit Chorale, at the Berlin National Concert Hall, and with the National Theatre of Warsaw.
His most recent past experience includes duties as the full-time Cantor at Temple Torah Emet in Boynton Beach, Florida; Cantor/Jewish Chaplain for Holland America Cruise Line; and High Holiday Cantor for congregations in East Brunswich, NJ and Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, IL.
In addition to his cantorial duties, Cantor Mondrow will be participating in holiday and life-cycle events, B'nai Mitzvah preparation, and engaging with the Religious School and Youth Groups.