BETWEEN US HUMANS – “Kee teytzey” Deut. 21-25 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BETWEEN US HUMANS – “Kee teytzey” Deut. 21-25 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s reading will cover many principles of conduct between people, setting standards for how we can be expected to treat each other. From the respect toward a female war prisoner, to the care of the body of an executed criminal; from the fair treatment required to the child of an unloved wife, to the rule to pay a day laborer before the sun goes down; from the responsibility to return lost animals or articles to their owner, to the penalties for rape, and to the warning about keeping honest weights and measures to prevent cheating in business – and many more.

For this week, let’s select just two of these standards. Verse 5 of chapter 22 states: “A man’s clothes shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment, because those who do so are an abomination to G-d.” Is this just a Politically Incorrect mitzvah? Now wait a minute. Consider local custom. I remember my Rebbe telling me about two villages facing each other in Israel. On one side of the road was a Hasidic community where the men wore 19th century type European shirts and trousers and the women wore long dresses. On the other side was an Eastern Sephardic village where the women wore pants and the men wore long desert robes. Was one or the other community violating this mitzvah? Of course not.

This prohibition really concerns sex roles. Clothing only dramatizes the issue. Judaism, from Torah times till today, values the family above much else. Confusing conduct within that structure can destroy the family, as we see happening too often now. What Moses reminded his people in this week’s reading is to maintain normal healthy relationships between men and women.

Even more applicable to our lives is the charge just before this, in verse 4: “Do not watch your brother’s donkey or ox falling down in the road and hide from them. Help him lift them up.” An overloaded animal, or a stalled car, the principle is the same. If it was yours, you would welcome help. You must do no less for your neighbor. And part of the principle is in the words “help him” – not just do it for him. Your neighbor should be right in there working with you, not leaving it to you. Whether it involves picking up a spilled load and putting it back on the vehicle, or sharing your hot-shot cable to restart his truck, don’t hide. Help. It’s a Mitzvah.

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JUSTICE, JUSTICE – Shoftim – Deut. 16:18 – 21:9 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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JUSTICE, JUSTICE – Shoftim – Deut. 16:18 – 21:9 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read about the community structure Moses outlines for his people to establish in the Promised Land. He starts with law courts and judges and magistrates, then proceeds to religious practice, to crime and punishment, to the monarchy, and to the laws of warfare. Throughout, he delivers the message that Israel is to be ruled by law, not by the whims of human officers. And he enunciates some great principles. Sample a few:

“Tzedek tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue.” The very third sentence of this section sets a standard.

Uviarta ha-ra mikirbekha – Excise the evil from your midst.” No. not exercise. Excise – get rid of it! This line gets repeated, as it applies to more than one situation.

Lo yumas al pee aid ekhad – The condemned shall not die on the testimony of one witness.” Any capital crime required two eye witnesses for a conviction. No circumstantial evidence allowed. Even the accused got the benefit of the doubt.

Kee ha-adam aitz hasadeh? – Is the tree in the field a man?” When besieging an enemy city, don’t cut down fruit trees to build scaffolds over the city’s walls. The tree is not your enemy.

And of course, the most famous one: “A-yin takhas a-yin – An eye for an eye.” Particularly applied to a false witness, Moses specifies: “As he plotted to have done to his brother, so shall you do to him.”

The first of these quotes is unquestionably the dominant one. “Justice, justice…” Significantly, our commentators question the repetition. Certainly repetition is a familiar feature of human speech. Speakers – including rabbis and candidates – employ repetition for dramatic effect. Teachers use it to stress importance. When did Columbus discover America? 1492, 1492, say it again 1492 – and you never forgot it. It helped you remember when the Jews were expelled from Spain, too.

Cantors frequently used it for musical effect. I remember being quite surprised when the rabbi of one synagogue invited me to chant Musaf and added: “We don’t repeat words here.” Of course, Chabad congregations don’t let that interfere with the melody – when words run out, just sing Dy-de-dy-dy-dy!

Agitators and other politicians like to get demonstrators to echo their repeated slogans. Nothing new there either. One of them likely prompted Jeremiah to denounce those who shout “Shalom, shalom” and then he added, v’ain shalom – “Peace, peace” and there is no peace!

Repetitions enforce the meaning of the word. Sometimes they add new meaning.

In our Sedrah, why does Moses say “Justice, justice?” Isn’t one justice enough? The commentators conclude that justice is not open to any magistrate’s interpretation. Justice for the rich must be justice for the poor. Do not favor the poor out of sympathy, or pervert justice to honor the rich. (Or to reward campaign contributors.) Bachya ben Asher goes so far as to comment that this prohibits us from using unjust means to secure justice.

What we think of as “poetic justice” is strictly limited here. We are cautioned to apply the law strongly enough to “excise the evil.” Even though later generations took “an eye for eye” to mean the value of an eye, the principle remained. After all, putting out the guilty man’s eye is only an act of revenge; it really would not benefit his victim the way a sizeable payment would.

We might also take issue with those who talk about justice when their aims are questionable. Pursue justice, not advantage. Don’t manipulate the laws for your own benefit. Pursue justice, not convenience. Sure, the police would be more comfortable if they were the only ones armed. But owning a weapon is still legal. Pursue justice, not discrimination. An immigrant committed murder? Punish the killer, not all immigrants. We have a Divine command to pursue justice. In all its forms.

Justice, justice, and where is justice? Just like Peace, peace and there is no peace. They go together. That is what we must have, what we must insist on. Even fight for.

Justice in war is justice in peace.

And without justice, can we really have peace? In the Jewish vision of the Messianic future, they are inseparable. And now, as far as we may find ourselves from that future, we can still work to bring true justice into our lives, our communities, and hopefully our world. To the extent that we succeed in our pursuit of justice, we can build our prospects for lasting peace.

Ken y’hee ratzon. May this be G-d’s will. And ours.


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LOYALTY OR ELSE? by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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LOYALTY OR ELSE? by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read a section called R’ey – “See” – in the Book of Deuteronomy chapters 11-16, comprising the second of Moses’ farewell speeches. He starts by telling his people: “See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing if you follow G-d’s commandments that I give you, and the curse if you do not follow them but leave the path that I charged you to take.”

Moses implies a choice. We can opt for blessing, or we can go the other way. Does the Almighty just leave it to us? Indeed centuries later the great Rabbi Akiba stated simply: “All is foreseen, and free will is given.” G-d surely knows what we will do, but we are free to do it. Free will thus permits evil decisions, which this week’s commandments consider.

Among those commandments we find some warnings that we might call extreme. For example, how to treat a false prophet. How to react to a member of your own family who leaves the faith and invites you to come along. What to do about an entire city that decides to practice idolatry. In all such cases, the penalty is death.

Hardly sounds like a religion of love and justice, does it? It even reminds us of some current reports about fatal fatwas pronounced against prominent ex-Muslims. And who knows how many humble victims of similar fatwas we don’t hear about.

Torah commentators deal carefully with these commands to violence, as when Moses says “Your hand shall be first against him (the apostate) and finally the hand of all the people.” Rashi and others insist that the violator first had to stand trial, and only if found guilty would he be killed. Rabbi J. Hertz (former Chief Rabbi of England) points out that “Jewish history does not record a single instance of punishment for religious seduction by a false prophet or a member of one’s family.”

A similar case of Biblical justice applied – or not applied – concerns the pursuer. If you see one armed man chasing another man who is unarmed, and you assume the pursuer has murder in mind, it is your duty to stop him. But if the unarmed man runs inside a building and the pursuer follows him, and then the pursuer comes out the other side without his weapon, and you go in and find the fugitive dead and the weapon by his side? You have no case. It takes two eye witnesses to convict a murderer. You don’t know if the dead man wrestled the sword away from his attacker and then fell on it. You don’t know, so you cannot testify. And if there is no eye witness, there is no execution.

This type of case occurred a few years ago with the death of Israeli General Motta Gur, who was assumed to be a suicide. He died of a gunshot in his own back yard and was found with a pistol in his hand. Yet he received a funeral with all military honors. Some people asked how that could happen, when suicide is after all a terrible sin in Judaism. One answer detailed the law of two eye witnesses. Maybe someone jumped over the fence, killed Gur and placed the gun in his hand before escaping? Another answer, less legalistic, concerned his national value as an important leader in the Six Day War. No witnesses, so give him the benefit of the doubt.

Regarding a disloyal city, the Torah text itself warns the people who destroy that city to take no spoils. This is not to be a venture for profit. This is not the Inquisition which confiscated the property of its victims. And the Tosefta states: “The destruction of a whole community because of idolatry never occurred nor will it ever occur. The sole purpose of the warning is that it should be studied and one might receive a reward for such study.”

Study, indeed. If we studied our heritage more and understood it better, we might find ourselves more loyal to its message, and have fewer false prophets, fewer intimate seducers, and fewer rebel communities.

Perhaps we need to ask who are the real sufferers in cases of disloyalty to the faith and desertion from the community? Over and again we hear that while we lost 6 million in the Holocaust, we lost at least that many since then, to assimilation and conversion. Figures aside, we can see a decline in Jewish commitment and a weakening of interest in Jewish education. Given the advances in genetic science, we might predict a time when only your DNA will prove whether you have any connection to the Jewish people. Maybe the “idolaters” – or secularists or apostates or intermarrieds – among us are the real sufferers. And they don’t even know what they are missing – all the wonderful color and flavor of Jewish life.

They deprived themselves of the “blessing…if you follow the mitzvos that I command you today.”

No, no one will judge them and kill them. In fact, many of us stand ready to welcome them back. As the prophet Isaiah sang in this week’s Haftorah: “All your children shall be taught of the L-rd, and great shall be the peace of your children.”


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Actively engaged in composing and performing music, particularly Jewish music, for nearly ¾ of a century, I finally picked out my top tunes and put them in a book. Tara Publications issued it a few years ago. It’s called Songs for My People, and it includes music for the theater, the synagogue and the concert hall. Here you’ll find solos, duets and choral arrangements, complete with piano scores and/or guitar chords. Songs to celebrate the holidays of the Jewish year. And songs to dramatize some occasions in our lives and our history. More laughs than tears. 40 numbers for musicians both professional and amateur to browse through, to sing along with and enjoy. Music to raise the curtain – or to raise the soul. Some of the compositions in this book are already recorded. Others are available with permission. You can hear some samples on my personal website, .

In today’s market, any one of these compositions as sheet music would cost a few bucks. You can get all 40 for $18 and it’s all tax free! That’s because the books belong to the Cohon Memorial Foundation, and donations are fully deductible. Check out the Foundation on our website, and you’ll see how you can do a good deed – and get a good sound!

Then to order Songs for My People, all you have to do is contact me at

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HEEL AND TOE – “EYKEV” – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HEEL AND TOE – “EYKEV” – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The name of this week’s reading is EYKEV – meaning a result. “Eykev tishm’oon” it says – As a result of listening to the commandments and following them, you can expect to accomplish good things in your life. And if we don’t listen, and we don’t carry out the Divine will, we will suffer the consequences. Cause and effect. Interestingly enough, EYKEV also means Heel. The imagery is unique: just as surely as the heel follows the toe, so follow the results of our actions.

This is the message Moses gives the people during his farewell speeches at the end of his life. Every year we read it. And every year we wonder if it makes any impression.

Of course Moses was not the only leader who gave the people such messages. Just a few weeks ago we read in the Haftorah of Balak a message from the prophet Micah: “HIGID L’KHA ADAM MAH TOV – “He told you, man, what is good and what is required of you: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your G-d.”

Down through the ages, lawgiver, prophet and sage keep trying to teach us basic values. Personally, this Shabos is very special for me, since I observe my father’s 55th Yortzite this week. My father z”l was a rabbi and a teacher of rabbis. The last sermon I ever heard him deliver was based on both of these texts. In fact, he contrasted them. Here, in effect, was his message:

Micah stresses three ideals: justice, mercy, humility. These make the character of a religious human being.

Moses also stresses three ideals. In Chapter 10 verse 12, he asks: “Now, Israel, what does G-d expect from you? To fear the L-rd your G-d, to love Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and soul.”

The parallels are not hard to draw. The Biblical concept of “fear of G-d” implies reverence. Not fright, but supreme respect. If we truly revere G-d we want to pattern our lives after the qualities we associate with Him. And justice is one primary attribute of Divinity, the MIDAS haDIN, the “quality of justice” that we recall with such drama on Yom Kippur. So, reverence for G-d – Moses’ first ideal – leads to doing justice – Micah’s first ideal.

“Love of G-d” is actualized by love of our fellow creatures. We believe that we all carry the Divine image in us. That image includes the MIDAS haRAKHAMIM, the quality of mercy. Even Shakespeare said it is “not strained.” Judaism teaches us to treat each other with kindness, to carry over some of the respect we feel for G-d into a mutual respect in dealing with people. Micah’s second ideal – loving mercy – is the clear result.

And serving G-d with total respect implies a type of attitude and a type of conduct: AVODAH is one of those Hebrew words that has two meanings – Work, and Worship. To worship G-d with sincerity requires an attitude of humility. You can’t pray honestly unless you feel a good deal less important than the Divinity you pray to. And you can’t strive to do better and better work unless you realize that you yourself are less than perfect. Unless you have some humility. When Micah said “walk humbly with G-d” he meant exactly that.

So Moses and Micah struck three parallel alerts.

Then my father went on to point out the difference between these two prophetic messages.

The difference comes in the very next sentence. Here Moses says “LISHMOR ES MITZVOS HASHEM – Keep G-d’s commandments!” That is the tool he gave us at Mount Sinai – the tool to carry out and accomplish these ideals.

Micah said nothing about Mitzvos. For a very good reason too. Micah was addressing the whole human race: ADAM – Mankind. Moses was addressing YISROEL – The Jewish people. For us, Mitzva is the key that unlocks the door of a better life.

All this, of course, is on the individual level. EYKEV covers the national level too. Moses reminds them of the chosenness of Israel: “RAK BAAVOTEKHA — Only your ancestors did G-d desire to be His beloved people” – and then he follows this section with a discussion of the land they are about to enter, and tells them that HaShem watches the land of Israel all year round.

Today we see our people in Israel dealing with attacks both violent and verbal. We pray for their survival, their success, their safety. We hear controversy about whether Mitzva-observant Jews should leave yeshiva training to serve in the army, and we also hear about military arrangements developed to facilitate that service. And we recall Moses’ promise to the IDF of his day, that they will triumph “IM SHOMOR TISHM’ROON – If indeed you will guard the Mitzvos” by learning and doing them, and guard again by reviewing them to prevent forgetting.

Does this mean that only observant Jews should fight for their country? Hardly. Certainly they are not the only ones who live there. So, try this basic interpretation. The policies of a nation produce some logical results. If Israel is a Jewish nation, we should expect it to follow Torah values, and indeed it does even in warfare, always striving to avoid civilian casualties, fighting clean. Essentially Israel follows the vision of EYKEV for ERETZ YISRAEL. We need to implement it for KLAL YISRAEL – for global Jewry. We have the tools to achieve it: LISHMOR ET HAMITZVOT – Keep the Mitzvos, as Rashi points out “LO L’KHINNOM ELLA L’TOV LOKH – Not for nothing, but for your own good.”

Micah gave a message to humanity. Moses gave a message to the Jews. We ignore both at our peril. We can accept both for our own good. It follows as the heel follows the toe.


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