Sunday, December 25, 2011

Birkat Cohanim

When I lived in America I would hear Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing only on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Now I am fortunate that in Israel it is recited every Shabbat and in some place even daily.
It is a beautiful prayer in which the Cohanim, those descended from the tribe of Aaron, stand in front of the congregation. With their hands spread open and their heads covered with their prayer shawls they recite, “Blessed are You, HaShem, our G-d, who made us holy with the holiness of Aaron and commanded us to bless the people of Israel with love.” Then, with the prompting of the one leading the services, the following three requests are made.
“May HaShem bless you and guard you.”     
“May HaShem light up his face for you and favor you.”
“May HaShem lift up his face to you and establish peace for you.”
To each of these pleas the congregation answers, “Amen”. Traditionally children run to their fathers at the time of the Cohanim blessing and hide under their prayer shawls. In the women’s section the girls often snuggle with their mothers. The Cohanim are representing HaShem’s holiness and it is too powerful for us to look at directly. Still, I love to take a peep. Not at the Cohanim, of course, but rather at the children, the future of the Jewish people, gathered under their father’s protection and listening to the Cohanim blessing them with love.
Love is the theme of the priestly blessing. Aaron the Cohan was known for his love for the Jewish people. Traditionally we know that whenever there was strife between two friends he would work as the peacemaker. For me, the priestly blessing represents the love of my favorite uncle who was a cohan. Its words were the last words he said to me.

Uncle Max was a man full of contradictions. A gruff man he was known for his acts of kindness and gifts of tzedakah. A successful cattleman his home was a dilapidated four room farmhouse. A traditional Jew he lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma, hardly a thriving Jewish center. It was all this and more that combined to make my Uncle Max a most special person for me, my family, and scores of others.
He never married so my cousins and I felt that he was more than just an uncle. Even after my parents died I continued to make overseas trips to visit him. The last few years he began failing physically and at age eighty-nine he finally retired.  Daily trips to the pasture to feed the cattle had become too much for him. Staying home was not easy, either. He had several minor strokes and one major one. He made the painful decision to move to the Jewish Retirement Home in Tulsa right before Rosh Hashanah last year. So we made plans to visit him after the holidays.
We arrived on Sunday. Monday is stockyards day in Tulsa and until he retired Uncle Max would always spend the day there bidding, buying, selling cattle, and seeing friends. We suggested that we visit there the following day. Uncle Max’s first reaction was negative. My husband told him, “Well, we’re going to the auction tomorrow. If you want to come, too, you’re welcome.”  He agreed, almost as if he was doing us a favor, but by the following morning he was eager to go.
Because of his wheelchair we could not climb the steps to the auction in the normal manner. Instead we took a path around the building and entered the auction arena in the front, right next to the holding pen. As we entered there was a buzz of whispers. “Here’s Max.” “Max Katz just came in.” “Is that Max?” and so forth. We helped him out of the wheelchair and he settled in the front row with an empty chair next to him. It did not stay empty for long.  First one cattleman and then another sat down next to him to visit for a spell. And then the auctioneer stopped the auction. 

 “I don’t know if you all noticed Max Katz walk in. He has not been here since he retired last year and we missed him. Last night my wife and I were at the theatre and the star there, she got a standing ovation. Well, Max Katz is better than she is.”
At that point everyone stood up and gave Uncle Max a standing ovation. He watched it all with a shy smile and a bashful twinkle in his eye.
Twelve weeks later we returned to Oklahoma for his funeral. The funeral home was packed with people standing in the back. The rabbi from Tulsa, my cousin, and I made eulogies expressing admiration and love for such a special man. As the service concluded, before we left for the cemetery, cattleman after cattleman filed past his coffin with their ten gallon hats in their hands and love and respect on their faces.
My Uncle Max left no children behind when he died. He did leave a number of loving relatives, friends, and a good name. As one of his heirs he left me a nice legacy. More important, he left me with the blessing of protection, favor, and peace given with love. 

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