Monday, July 28, 2008

"Ambushed," or A Priestly Blessing on a Sunday Afternoon

“Anyone who lives in the Land of Israel should always be happy.” (Elazar Azkari, author of “Yedid Nefesh”)
I realized that it was time for mincha (the afternoon prayers) and I needed to get my rear end in gear and get to shul – something which I don’t always do. The occasion? It was Sunday, July 20, making it the 17th of Tamuz, commemorating the first breach of the walls of the second Beit Hamikdash and the first day of “the three weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av. It is a (half) fast day, and, therefore, I had roused my body out of bed at 3AM to have breakfast: orange juice with all my pills, softboiled eggs, zucchini bread, and tea; and then just as readily resumed my slumbers. I had spent the entire day indoors. It was much too hot here to frolic outside when you can’t have anything to drink. But now it was time to walk v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y up the hill, around the bend, up the path, up the ramp, and around the bend to Mussar Avicha. Once mincha started, we would be almost at the end of the (non-eating) day; one could even entertain thoughts of dinner: in my case, left-over chicken from Shabbat preceded by some of delicious, cold gazpacho.
I didn’t even consider changing my clothes; it was just too hot. So I went to shul wearing exactly what I had been wearing all day: my knee-length beige shorts, an official t-shirt from the Derivatives Russia Conference [March 27 and 28, 2008, Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, Moscow] (there was a time when my t-shirts would come from my kids’ schools; now they come from Tina’s job) and my new crocs (on sale in The Land for 180 shekels; available on the Crocs website for about forty bucks, including shipping – in the US, only). My timing was good; I arrived just as they were taking out the Torah scroll. (Unlike a typical weekday mincha, on a public fast day, there are additions to the prayers as well as a Torah reading and a haftorah.) Having done this many times in The States, I thought I knew what was flying. But, after we said the Amidah, when the shaliach tzibbur (the guy leading the davening) began the repetition and we recited the communal kedusha, it occurred to me that the other cohanim were leaving the room. Then it dawned on me: We have to duchen??!!!! At mincha??!!!!!
If I wanted to describe all the differences, subtle and not so subtle, about living in The Land, I could spend the rest of my life giving examples. Birkat Cohanim (The Cohanic blessing, sometimes called duchening, after the Yiddish word for platform) would be a biggie for me, because it puts me to work. Among the ashkenazim in the lands of the exile, this is performed about twenty times a year – not counting the informal blessing that fathers give their chidren Friday nights: at mussaf (the additional prayers during the morning) on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the festivals. Why only then? Because our Sages decided by that only at these special times would a galut community be in the properly festive frame of mind to receive G-d’s blessing as transmitted by the cohanim. Here in the Land (as many of you are probably tired of hearing) at most batei Knesset (there are some which only do it on Shabbat) the birkat cohanim is done every day at shacharit (morning prayers) and at shacharit and mussaf on Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, (the new moon) and The Holidays. The fact that we would also be doing it at mincha on this fast day somehow eluded me. Nothing else to be done: I ran after my cohanic brethren, washed my hands, and grabbed a tallit from the rack in the lobby, putting it on hurriedly so I would be ready. It happens that I have two talletot of my own – safe and sound at home: one old one of medium size and weight which I wear during the week, and a nice one, also medium sized but of light-weight “tropical” wool, which I wear on Shabbat. The off-the-rack model from the shul lobby was enormous on me. It was rather heavy – almost blanket weight – probably designed to keep one warm in an unheated shteibel in Vitebsk in the middle of January.

And so, along with a handful of “frat brothers,” I ascended the bima – in my shorts and t-shirt (at least it was white!) completely obscured under my borrowed prayer shawl, my bare feet sticking out from under. “YEVERECHECHA……” (May G-d bless you and keep you safe; may He make His presence seem bright and may He be gracious to you; may He turn his favor your way and create peace for you.) At some point, a thought crept into my head. It was very late in the afternoon on this brutally hot day; we were all very hungry and thirsty and perhaps somewhat fatigued – all because we are commemorating the beginning of the destruction of our Temple, which we have been waiting two thousand years to rebuild; and yet now there was – by definition – collectively more simcha here a little bit east of Yerushalayim than there would be on a Shabbat morning back in New Jersey – wearing our best clothes, anticipating our best food (and perhaps a wee dram of some single malt). How did I know that there was more simcha in this relatively modest beit knesset here in Maale Adumim? Because we were allowed to recite the cohanic blessing!
When the davening was over, Nachum (one of the shul leaders, a wonderful guy who gives wonderfully original and insightful shiurim in English) came over to me and said that he realized that he had not warned me about the duchening. “You looked ambushed,” he said. I admitted that, had I realized I would be “performing,” I would have at least changed my pants. I shared with him my thoughts about levels of simcha, here and elsewhere. His response was, “You don’t have to convince me!” We were waiting for the time to start maariv (evening prayers), after which we would be free, summoning our remaining energy, to race home and eat something. I went up to Baruch P., and repeated my thoughts about the relative levels of simcha here and in The Exile. He also was not taken aback by my idea. He added that there was more simcha in The Land on a typical Shabbat than there would be elsewhere during Neilah (the concluding prayers on Yom Kippur).
I thought about this concept as I walked back home, as I guzzled my gazpacho, and I am still thinking about it. The way I figure it, there are two possibilities: One. Talking about a higher, perpetual level of simcha in The Land is either a vague concept, or simply a vacuous, self-serving idea spread among “the faithful,” i.e.; those of us who have chosen to live here, a way of laying a guilt trip on friends and family who have decided differently where to live, something which the Exilic community needn’t act upon or take seriously. Two. Our Sages understood something of enormous profundity about the value – personal and collective – of living here, which The Galut is ignoring at its peril.
The more I thought about “simcha in The Land,” the more I realized that in discussing this level of abstraction I was out of my league. It’s been unusually difficult for me to explain what this is all about; but I could at least organize my thoughts. Question number one: what are we talking about when we use the word “simcha” in this context? We can’t be using the word as in “I’m going to a simcha tomorrow night, so I‘ll be home late.” We can’t be implying that a wedding or a bar/bat mitzvah in New Jersey is less joyful or meaningful to the participants than one in our neck of the woods (although an event here will be far less expensive and much less formal. There will be no “Black Tie” or “Black Tie Optional.” There will probably be “No Tie.” At one of the weddings we were invited to last fall, the officiating rabbi wore a sweater over his white shirt.) It can’t be that right now Jews in The Land are individually happier than Jews not-in-The Land. So I’m assuming that the simcha we’re after is something collective, affecting the entirety of The People Israel.
Perhaps the simcha we’re describing is related to the kedusha (holiness) that has always been present in The Land since G-d gave it to us, and perhaps it is related to our collective experience as a people. In this tiny corner of the world where we are always in need of more water, we have collectively experienced our greatest tragedies and our greatest times of joy. Now you could argue that the exilic agony of all the pogroms, the expulsions, the book-burnings, the forced conversions, and The Holocaust, is in total greater than the pain of the destruction of both Temples and our expulsion from our Home. And one could respond that without the expulsion of the Jewish people from The Land of Israel almost nineteen hundred years ago, none of the evils of the exile would have occurred.
But what about the simcha? There was also real joy here once upon a time. It would be almost impossible to imagine the mass enthusiasm when tens of thousands of people would arrive in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at The Beit Hamikdash on one of the pilgrimage festivals. But in The Exile? Can anyone point to one moment of true joy for the Jewish people anywhere else in the world? Any time in the last 2000 years? (Yeah, once. In 1948. But that proves my point.) Creativity, yes. Learning, yes. Clinging to G-d, yes. Satisfaction, pleasure, or even prosperity in those periods between the pogroms, expulsions, book-burnings, conversions, or the threat thereof, yes. But joy? Explain to me how it would be possible for a humiliated People, scattered and adrift for close to two millennia to experience joy?
It would be a gross overstatement to suggest that there is now unceasing Joy in The Land. But it is fair to say that as the Jewish people continue to return there is now the possibility, or even a remez,(a hint) of joy from time to time – even with everything that is going wrong here, which I needn’t catalogue. The best analogy I can think of is this: you’re trying to download or install a huge piece of very important software on a very slow computer. It seems to be taking forever, and you’re worried the program might crash. But you’re certain that sooner or later, perhaps with a little bit of help from a friend, the program will be successfully installed.
Something very important is being “installed” here, even though it taking much, much longer to “download” than we’d all like, we seem to be getting constant, annoying “error messages,” and there are times when we are having difficulty contacting “tech support” which is supposed to be available 24/7. What is amazing is that there were men of great foresight like the aforementioned Rabbi Azkari, (part of the circle of kabbalists who lived in Safed) who somehow understood that this process would be beginning – in the midst of almost total desolation, which is what our Homeland seemed to be 500 years ago, and when it would have seemed impossible for anybody to be happy here.
So let’s leave it at that: the simcha that propels a heavenly blessing on a Sunday afternoon is based on a pain created two thousand years before, which we as a People have never forgotten. And it has been nurtured assiduously by our remembrance of a promise made even further back to our very distant ancestors that one day all would be good, and then it would really be good. And now, we can begin to imagine that this promise of Redemption might be starting to come true before our own eyes. So I am transmitting a blessing with the full expectation that there will be a time when that blessing will be repeated on the 17th of Tammuz – on a full stomach.

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