Sometimes you gotta deviate from what’s considered kosher to get to where it matters.
There are blessings that come in disguise.
This week I was asked to make an on the spot decision about a blessing that was a serious deviation from the norm. Can a Cohen – carrier of the priestly blood line recite the priestly blessing in a cemetery?
Here’s what happened:
I have the good fortune to have recently befriended Theodore Bikel,
legendary singer, actor and pillar of worldwide Jewish cultural arts. At 89, Theo is sharp as a circumcision knife and much much more funny.
A year ago, Theo’s beloved wife, Tamara Brooks, passed away, suddenly. This past Sunday her tombstone was unveiled in a Queens cemetery, and he asked me to help officiate the ritual. Unveilings are not a codified affair – some prayers are customary but flexible permission is granted since Jewish law does not impose specific must do’s.
But even improvised ceremonies have their red lines. and I (almost) met mine at Mt. Carmel cemetery, standing next to Tamara’s grave.
Theo sang two haunting songs that meant a lot to both of them. People shared memories. We chanted the Kaddish.
And then he asked to chant a closing prayer.
The Priestly Blessing. He wanted to bless, thank, and honor the family members and friends present, on this rainy Sunday, who came to be there for him, for Tamara, for sacred memories.
My first thought: Hm. Since priests aren’t usually allowed in cemeteries – based on the old biblical prohibitions that have to do with priestly purity and death – does one ever chant this prayer at gravesides?
Second thought: It’s usually the Cohens who recite this blessing… so…
Ah, yes, said Theo, I am a Cohen, and I know all about those laws… It doesn’t matter to me.
My inner legalist debated this for about 20 seconds before nodding to Theo and then tearing up with the rest of us as he sang to us, to all the ghosts around us, to his beloveds past and present – with his deep voice, the haunting Hebrew blessing: peace, peace, peace…
All who were present said that the unveiling was moving and meaningful and special, and even the more observant ones didn’t seem to mind.
We drove away and ate salmon and drank scotch and did all the proper things Jews do on Sundays and at moments that honor life cycles.
And over scotch someone asked me about the priestly blessing and how it deviated from the norm – and how did I feel about it – as a rabbinic student at JTS.
“What did you think about it” I asked, using classic diversion techniques.
He shrugged. “Is this something you’ll be comfortable teaching others to do? Can there be deviations from the law that don’t end up taking us away from the ways of our ancestors – a step or two too far?”
In this week’s Torah text, Re’eh, a similar warning is given to the people. Choose between blessing or curses, Moses tells them. Blessings will come to those who obey, curses will follow the ones who don’t. Life is either/or: ” there will be a curse, if you do not obey God’s commandments, but deviate from the way which I command you this day..”
But you know, I told this gentleman, in real life it isn’t always either/or. It’s often blurrier than that – it’s and/both. And flexibility is what will make us stronger, not just living by the law. And who’s to say that keeping the law will keep curses, troubles and heartbreak away anyway? It’s much more messy than that old biblical dogma would have us believe.
What meant so much to Theo may have been a deviation from a law that matters not to him – but here was his own way of bringing God, the sacred, blessings and the ability to move away from mourning into memories of future bliss. Who was I to say no to that?
Deviation from what was to get to where we want to be is sometimes the only way we’ll get there. Exits off the highways, new truths and paths that wait to be forged.
Will I be teaching this as new suggested liturgy at funerals or memorial services? Likely not.
But for me, and many of us present, the priestly blessing, far from defiled on that Sunday morning, will forever be more sacred than before.
May memories become blessings, and all our pathways lead us home.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org