Those who live in Eretz Yisrael (and Sefardim even outside of Eretz Yisrael) have the good fortune of being blessed by the kohanim every day. But for Ashkenazim outside of Eretz Yisrael, it is a merit we only have on the mornings of the Yamim Tovim.
The custom is that we don’t look at the hands of the kohanim while they are reciting Birkas Kohanim. The Rambam explains that it is because we don’t want to be distracted from the brachah being recited. Therefore, the custom is for married men to pull their talis over the heads and the front of their bodies. Younger children in shul are often brought under their father’s talis, as well.
Until my bar mitzvah, I would join my father beneath his talis during Birkas Kohanim. Until his bar mitzvah, my older brother would be underneath there, as well. I remember as a child, during Birkas Kohanim, feeling very impatient and finding the ordeal tedious. Aside for the fact that it got hot and stuffy underneath the talis, I had to smell the breath of my father who towered above me. I should add that father is very mindful of his hygiene, and always uses mouthwash before davening on Shabbos and Yom Tov. But after two hours plus of the Yom Tov davening, that mouthwash was a forgotten memory.
In my early youth, my father was the chazan for Musaf on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur in the Polisher Shtiebel on the Lower East Side. So for Birkas Kohanim, my older brother and I would go under my grandfather’s talis. I would give anything to have that experience again, and to spend any time with my beloved Sabba z”l. But, at the time, I definitely didn’t feel that way when the three of us were trapped under the stuffy talis. Still, I never complained or said anything about it. It was just my personal thought and feeling.
I will never forget the first time I brought my son under my talis for Birkas Kohanim. I don’t remember which Yom Tov it was, but our oldest son Shalom must have then been around six or seven years old. The proud father finally had a son old enough! When Birkas Kohanim was about to begin, I pulled my talis over my head and covered Shalom’s head, as well. He looked at me strangely, and then tried to escape. I motioned to him firmly that he had to stay underneath. After about 30 seconds, Shalom had had enough. He began waving his hand in front of his face, while grimacing and motioning that it stank under there.
Needless to say, it wasn’t the father-son bonding experience I envisioned. We both barely made it through. I hope it was a good brachah.
I was thinking about that experience recently, since we have currently been mandated to wear masks in public places due to the coronavirus. It’s the first time that I have had to smell my own breath for an extended period of time. It has not been fun.
A good friend related that his daughter was on a shidduch date recently. Despite being some distance apart, his daughter and her date had to wear masks during their date in someone else’s backyard. At one point, the young man jumped out of his seat and ripped off the mask. My friend’s daughter wasn’t sure what happened until the young man explained that an insect had crawled underneath the mask.
(I told my friend that they should get married just because it’s a great story for sheva brachos.)
I try to glean life lessons from everything in my life and the world around me. It’s quite a poignant sight to see people walking around with masks. When I go shopping and see people I know, I tell them that I’m wearing a mask to make sure I remember not to speak lashon ha’ra. I then sardonically add that it’s not helping.
We all know about the power of words. From our youth, we are taught about the incredible power of our t’filos, Torah, and the chesed we can do with our words. Conversely, we are taught about the deleterious effect of lashon ha’ra and negative speech.
Every morning, we state, “u’vanu vacharta mi’kol am v’lashon” – Hashem chose us from every nation and tongue. Similarly, on Yom Tov we state, “v’romamtanu mi’kol ha’l’shonos” – He raised us above all of the other tongues.
Hashem chose us because our “tongues” are more elevated than the rest of the world. We try to be careful with our words and to speak properly. The world says that “talk is cheap.” The truth is that talk is easy, but it’s anything but cheap.
More than any other nation, we recognize the power of words, and that is part of the reason why Hashem chose us to be His people.
At the beginning of davening each morning we state, “The superiority of mankind over animals is nothing, because it’s all hevel.”
The Hebrew word hevel is often translated to mean futile. But it also means “fleeting.” Vapor is also called hevel because as soon as it leaves one’s mouth it dissipates into the atmosphere. Something that is fleeting need not be futile. It all depends on how it is used. If one offers to another some encouraging words, those words are fleeting, but they are anything but futile. In fact, they can very likely help improve the other person’s quality of life, if at least temporarily.
While there may always be times when our breath smells physically, it’s up to us to determine whether our breath is futile or productive. And while we may not always receive a brachah from the kohanim, we can ensure that our words are always a source of blessing and chizuk for others.
We hope that soon Hashem will allow us to remove the masks and once again breathe freely, even in public. When that happens, we will do our utmost to ensure that we are not polluting the air with dangerous vapors that spread emotional germs and spiritual bacteria. Instead, we will spread spirituality, positivity, and camaraderie.