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Kohen, Tzadik
a message about Reb Zalman
as he transitioned from this world
by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

With thanks to David Schwartz, who brought me Reb Zalman's recent publication,  Psalms: A Translation for Praying,  as a gift -- exactly when Reb Zalman was making his transition. How good and pleasant it was to sit as brother and sister, talking about Reb Zalman's teachings. Even as he died, he was bound up in the bonds of life and learning.

This morning, 5 Tammuz, I attended a shiva minyan. As we placed the Torah back into the ark, I heard familiar words in a new way – as a eulogy. Not a eulogy for the young boy who had tragically died, but a eulogy for an elder and teacher who was, as far as I knew, recovering from illness. I batted the words away. They came unwanted, but, it turns out, at the right time. 

Rabbi Zalman Schacther-Shalomi, Harav Meshulam Zalman Hiyya ben Chaya Gittle Ushlomo Hacohen, died this morning. 

 The words that came alive in a new way were from psalm 132 and the prayer that returns the Torah to the ark: 

Kohanecha yilbeshu tzedek, vechasidecha yeraneynu.

One translation could be: “Let Your priests be clothed with victory, let your faithful sing for joy.” 

Tzedek can be properly translated as victory, justice, or righteousness. Tzedakah, commonly rendered as “charity,” is an act of fairness (justice, righteousness) more than generosity – and it represents a victory at least as much for the donor as for the recipient. To be garbed, in Biblical language, is not merely to “put on” on a costume or an appearance. It is to manifest on the outside what is true on the inside. For example, God is “clothed in majesty” (Psalm 93). “To sing” isn’t just a matter of musicality or of formal celebration. The word leranen means to be shout, to be joyful, to sing with passion. 

In his recent book, Psalms: A Translation for Praying (Aleph, 2014), Reb Zalman translated this line as follows: “Your priests garbed in justice, your devotees chanting.”  

Reb Zalman was himself a kohen -  a member of the priestly tribe. The Hebrew word for “faithful one” or “devotee” is “hasid.” Devotees of a particular rebbe are, of course, called hasidim. 

Thus, the two halves of the verse can be connected, midrashically, to Reb Zalman’s life and teaching:  Your Priest, Adonai, - namely, Reb Zalman - was clothed in righteousness, and your hasidim, Reb Zalman - the  thousands of people you taught and led - will sing. 

Reb Zalman wore righteousness as a second skin and a majestic robe. Learning at his hem, what could his hasidim do but sing out to God, in joy and gratitude? 

At this time, of course, no one who knew Reb Zalman feels like singing. Yet, I think we can find comfort in the language of psalm 132.  The phrasing and ideas of verse 9 repeat and intensify in verse 16 – in a way that, again, can be read about our Tzadik and Priest. 

Vechohaneha albish yesha, vachasidecha ranen yeraneynu. 

Reb Zalman translated this verse as follows: “[Zion’s] priests I will garb in helpfulness; her devotees will keep chanting.” Reb Zalman’s translation of the word “yesha” as “helpfulness” was designed, I think, to be helpful. The more usual translation of “salvation” is such a loaded word in English that it may not be accessible for many Jews using the psalms for prayer. Yet, our priest, Reb Zalman, has been garbed in nothing less than Salvation. And we, his devotees, will surely chant (the emphatic is represented by repetition in the Hebrew). We must continue to sing. With such a teacher, how could we do otherwise? 

This came to me as we returned the Torah to the aronAron means ark – and it means coffin. Torah returns to Zion. Dust returns to dust. Reb Zalman is returning home, to his Father in Heaven.

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