It was during the holiday of Pesach (Passover), and I was in the synagogue with my father awaiting the repetition of the additional holiday Sh’moneh Esreih — a central prayer, by a visiting Chazan, or cantor, when my father told me he would finish the last prayers on his own and leave, but that I was welcome to stay till the end of the service. I was surprised. “You are not going to ”Duchen?” I asked.
“Duchen” or “Duchening” is the term used for the very important Birkat Kohanim, or Priestly Blessing, performed by the Kohanim, the Priests, up by the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, for the congregation. (In Israel, it is done every day, but outside Israel, it is done only on holidays.) The word “Duchen” means platform and so, the ritual is called “duchening.”
The Priestly Blessing is comprised of the three verses well known by Jew and gentile alike: “May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord make His countenance shine on you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” (Bamidbar, Numbers 6:24-27)
After a blessing chanted by the Kohanim, the Chazan calls out the verses, word by word, each repeated loudly by the Kohanim facing the congregation, the last word of each verse proclaimed after a bit of priestly singing giving the congregants a small amount of time to say prayers.
I had become Bar Mitzvah not quite two years earlier and I liked Duchening. In my synagogue there were a number of Kohanim, but only my father and I, and sometimes another, would ascend to the Aron in front of the Chazan, and Duchen. The others either didn’t know the procedure well enough or just didn’t want to do it. I enjoyed singing my Bar Mitzvah teacher’s Duchening tune and I was ready to go.
And now my father, who had taught me how to perform the sacred act, whose father had taught him, was going to skip it? Huh? It was now the time when the Kohanim left the sanctuary to untie their shoes for removal and have the Levites wash their hands. My father and I walked out of the sanctuary as we usually did, the non-Duchening Kohanim in the back and off to the side and the Levites waiting at the water fountain with the cup and paper towels. This time again, it was only the two of us for Duchening.
But not that day.
As my father prepared to leave, I insisted he tell me what was going on. He relented and told me that years before when my mother was pregnant with my oldest sister after the war, they worked at a hotel owned by a Jewish man who, not caring in the least that they were recent Holocaust survivors, treated them quite poorly. My parents washed and cleaned and scrubbed day and night. My mother’s condition did not matter to the hotel owner. The work was never good enough or finished, the pay was paltry, and the owner verbally abused and humiliated my parents.
The visiting Chazan, the one leading the services, was that hotel owner.
Jewish law requires that the sacred Priestly Blessing ritual be performed with love and kindness. If the congregation felt animosity toward a Kohen, and likewise, if a Kohen felt enmity toward anyone he would be blessing, that Kohen was forbidden to Duchen because the effectiveness of the special blessing would be polluted.
My father said he was unable in all good conscience to Duchen in front of the man who had caused him and my mother such anguish and so, it was best for him to leave. I could do what I wished. The agony on my father’s face was palpable.
I was taken aback. And I was mad. Not at my father of course, but at the man who gave my parents such pain. I said, if he hurt you and Ma that bad, he has hurt me as well. I could not, I would not, Duchen.
By that time, the Kohanim would have been ascending toward the Aron and with no Kohanim appearing, the Chazan stopped. The Rabbi came out to see what was up. He hurriedly approached my father and inquired about the delay. My father briefly told the Rabbi he would not Duchen and why, and the Rabbi begrudgingly said, fine. “But what about you?” he asked me. I said I felt my father’s distress and could not even remotely have the right Kavanah, spiritual mindset, and so, was forbidden to Duchen as well.
The Rabbi was not happy, but I did not change my mind. There would be no Birkat Kohanim that day in my shul. My father and I walked home in silence.
My mother was not feeling well and so had not gone to shul. Upon our arrival home it wasn’t hard for her to ascertain something had happened. My father explained what had occurred, and my mother, remembering what happened years before, cried. It was still that painful. But I didn’t get it. Why would anyone, especially a “frum” (observant) Jew do that to fellow Jews? To anyone? It made no sense.
My mother explained that Eastern European Holocaust survivors, like her and my father, were disdainfully known as “Greeners” to other Jews who had already been living in the United States before the war.
Some of the “more-refined” Jews, observant and non-observant alike, felt they were superior to their refugee cousins who were an embarrassment to them because of their accents, their not yet attaining economic success, and their “uncultured” ways. And so, these already-Americanized Jews looked down on the Greeners, sometimes treating them cruelly, no matter the hell they went through, no matter the sacrifice, no matter what the Torah said about treating others with dignity and respect.
Our Rabbis tell us in the Talmud (the books of Jewish legal discussions and commentary dating back over 1500 years) in Yoma 9b that the First Jewish Temple was destroyed because of three predominant sins: idolatry, immorality and murder. The Rabbis then asked, “But why was the Second Temple destroyed when people were busy with the study of the Torah, performing the Mitzvot (the commandments), and doing acts of lovingkindness? Because of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred.”
Both Temples were destroyed on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the fast day this coming weekend, commemorating those and other calamities that occurred on that tragic and profoundly sad day in Jewish history.
In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers 1:2, Simon the Righteous said, “The world stands on three things, Torah, service to God, and acts of lovingkindness.”
That has been enough to keep the world standing apparently, but not the Second Temple. It deserved more. It deserved a people who practiced the interpersonal commandments – those between man and his fellow man – as zealously as they practiced those commandments between man and God.
The business owner, that visiting Chazan, took his hateful condescension to a particularly disgraceful level, and sadly, I would see or hear about that same type of contemptuousness every so often as I grew up.
Sinat Chinam, this baseless, groundless, gratuitous animus can take many forms, and who among us has not been guilty of thinking they were better than others in some way? The more aggressive violators feel justified as they take liberties either by harsh word or action or both, oblivious to, or worse, indifferent to, the red-faced sting and the damage they cause, as well as the disappointment, the humiliation, the pain, the resentment, and the regret.
There were 70 years between the end of the First Temple and the beginning of the Second, and Tisha B’Av reminds us that when it comes to the Third, there is a reason we are at 1,946 years and still counting.