Priestly Blessing, Startrek, Mr. Spock And Seats On The Bus For A White Passengers [Parshat Ki Tissa By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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Last Friday (February 27, 2015) a famous Jewish actor passed away… Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame. Recognisable to fans by his pointy ears and trademark Vulcan salute (as pictured above), Nimoy was always proudly and staunchly Jewish, confident in his roots and fluent in his Yiddish. To his fans he will always remain Mr Spock, of mixed Human-Vulcan heritage; few of them know that they need to include Jewish in that mix.

How many ears does Mr Spock have?

Three. The left ear, the right ear, and the Final Frontier.

Whilst script writing for upcoming episodes, Nimoy suggested a special greeting for the Vulcan people, some kind of recognisable gesture, and then came up with one himself. He remembered sitting in shul as a young child with his family, when the Kohanim began the duchening prayer (Birchat Kohanim). For this they ascend the steps in front of the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark), cover their heads and outstretched arms with a tallit, and begin to bless the crowd using an ancient melody, and the words of the biblical Priestly Blessing “May the L-rd Bless you and Keep you…”

As they sing the blessing they stretch out their arms and make spaces between the second and third fingers, and the thumbs, a tradition dating back thousands of years. The worshippers are not supposed to look directly at the Kohanim. As a young child, Nimoy was fascinated:

Five or six guys get up on the bimah, the stage, facing the congregation. They get their tallits over their heads, and they start this chanting… And my father said to me, ‘don’t look’. So everyone’s got their eyes covered with their hands or their tallit down over their faces… And I hear this strange sound coming from them… it was chilling. I thought, “Something major is happening here.” So I peeked. And I saw them with their hands stuck out from beneath the tallit like this… Wow. Something really got hold of me. I had no idea what was going on, but the sound of it and the look of it was magical.

So it was the Jewish Priestly blessing which inspired the now famous Vulcan salute, a gesture fans would automatically make every time they saw him. It became part of his persona, both on and off screen.

The history of how the Kohanim got the priesthood takes place in this week’s parsha, in the section describing the great sin of the Golden Calf, the Eigel Hazahav. Originally, it was not the Kohanim but the firstborns who were meant to play the priestly role, until they joined in the sin of the Golden Calf. Once they transgressed at the foot of Mount Sinai though, they lost their special status. Their role was transferred to the Tribe of Levi who had not participated in the sin, and specifically those chosen to be Kohanim.

This change in job description is the source of the Pidyon Haben ceremony, where firstborn boys (who were initially supposed to be dedicated to Divine service) are redeemed from this in an agreement between their father and a Kohen. This ceremony takes place when the baby is a month old.

It is interesting that both of the groups involved, the Firstborns and the Kohanim (from the Tribe of Levi) did nothing to receive the honour, just slightly different nothings… :

The Firstborns simply were not killed when the Egyptian firstborns were, in the last of the Ten Plagues. They did nothing special, nothing unique, they simply stayed alive.

The Tribe of Levi also did nothing, but in very different circumstances. They did nothing when it was uncomfortable to do nothing; when everyone around them was doing something, getting busy preparing and worshipping a Golden Calf.

From the Firstborns we can learn something important. They did nothing to achieve greatness, yet because G-d was sanctified through their simply being alive when the Egyptian firstborns were not, they received a great reward. How much greater must our reward be when we actively do what G-d requests of us.

From the Tribe of Levi we can learn something important too, how crucial it is to do the right thing even when that right thing is different from what everyone else we know is doing. Without doubt, being independent and not following the herd is difficult, but the rewards are immense.

If we look through history, we find those types of individuals are not so common, those who are prepared to be different, to go against popular opinion, – but when they do they can change the world! People like Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger in 1955; The young man who stood in front of a column of tanks on June 5th, 1989 in Tiananmen square; Nelson Mandela in South Arica and Natan Sharansky in the Soviet Union; Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld in London, who used every risky trick in the book to rescue Jewish children from Nazi Europe, forging documents, forging his own identity, or knocking on anonymous doors asking them to house Jewish refugees; Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, 2012 promoting education for woman and girls; the list of others is long and inspiring.

In most of our lives, the things that make us great or successful are often talents or skills we were gifted at birth. Only a few achieve greatness by taking a moral stand, by standing up to make a difference, by moving against the flow. On this Shabbat we can be inspired by the tribe of Levi, to stand-up where it counts, to act on our conscience rather than on our herd mentality, and to dedicate ourselves to a life in which G-d plays more than just a passing role.

Live long and prosper.

 Rabbi Zalman Lent

(Illustration by Robert Pass)


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