Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What Mr. Rogers Taught Me About Birkat Kohanim

Well, Pesach came to an end last week, and once again I was reminded of something that I mentioned quite a few times in the early days of this blog: In one week, I said Birkat Kohanim more times than in an entire year in chu"l. In fact, I'd like to think that as you go through those early entries, you see something of a progression leading to my eventual aliyah. And the ability to perform this mitzvah so often was actually a factor in that decision.

Well, once back in those chu"l days, someone asked me, after duchaning, what my kavanot were while saying the brachot. ("Kavanos," of course.) I sort of knew what he had in mind, but I answered, "May Hashem bless you and watch you..." After all, the kohen is really "just" the pipeline. Why make it complicated?

Still, it sometimes pays to get insight of one kind or another. And for an introduction to that, let's go back a couple of years, in a car on the way to a rehearsal. (Ruddigore, I think.) I'm sitting up front with the driver, a fellow cast member who grew up in Pittsburgh, and another two cast members, both of South African origin, are in the back. We're chatting about this and that, and the driver mentions that she grew up next door to Mr. Rogers. To my stunned reaction, she casually said, "Oh, sure- he was a minister, you know, and we saw him walking to church every Sunday, and he'd to walk us to shul every Shabbat. 'You're my *real* neighbors,' he'd say."

I was completely bowled over. "But why?" the South Africans asked. "Who was he?"

"Mr. Rogers?" we answered. "He was...well, he was sort of a saint."

The funny thing is, I've repeated that story to lots of people, and all the Americans anticipate that answer. The stories about him are legion- Cracked has some good articles as well (follow the links for more, and watch the videos). I don't have to repeat them here. Even though I grew up without a TV, we did have his LPs, and played the grooves off them.

What does this have to do with Birkat Kohanim? Well, even if your kavana is the plain meaning, that middle pasuk is a bit hard to grasp. The first is clearly physical- health, wealth, safety, blessing and guardianship. The last, peace, is even more straightforward. But the middle one...what is "grace"? Clearly something spiritual, but can you put your finger on it?

Well, maybe not. But this article is sometimes described as the best thing Esquire has ever printed. I even cut it out and saved it back then. In it, you learn that Mr. Rogers didn't sign autographs; he wrote the Greek word χάρις, grace.
What is grace? He doesn't even know. He can't define it. This is a man who loves the simplifying force of definitions, and yet all he knows of grace is how he gets it; all he knows is that he gets it from God, through man. And so in Penn Station, where he was surrounded by men and women and children, he had this power, like a comic-book superhero who absorbs the energy of others until he bursts out of his shirt.
 And, at the end, the author prays with Mr. Rogers.
What is grace? I'm not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever.
It doesn't nearly explain everything, as is clear from the article itself, and I'm not even really sure how much of it, if any, is applicable here (sorry if that's anticlimactic). But it's certainly added a bit to my kavanot, and perhaps even can, indeed, add to our actual understanding of the bracha. I don't know that I can define it, but it's something we need just as much as the rest of the brachot, and something Hashem grants us in His goodness. Thank you, God, and thank you, Mr. Rogers.

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