TAKE A LOOK – “R’ey”, Deut. 11:26-16:17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

TAKE A LOOK – “R’ey”, Deut. 11:26-16:17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

At a roadhouse in Wyoming, one feature on the menu is “Steak juice.” What is steak juice? Chilled beef blood. Some cowboys must like it. The Torah does not. “Just be strong, not to eat the blood, for the blood is the soul. Do not eat the soul with the flesh.” (from this week’s reading, Deut. 12:23) As Moses continues his review of Torah teachings, we will also read about other dietary laws and their significance; about how to worship G-d and how to prevent worship of idols; tithes; debts and loans; helping the unfortunate; how to treat an indentured servant; and the calendar of the religious year. All of these teachings have either historical or practical value, or both, for us.

Particularly timely this year is the Haftorah, the prophetic reading that corresponds to “Sedrah R’ey.” Third of the seven messages of comfort that follow the grief of Tish’a b’Av, this is Isaiah’s promise of hope to his defeated and impoverished people. “All who are thirsty, come to the water” he calls. “Whoever has no money, go and buy and eat… buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And in line with the spirit of the Sedrah: “All your children will be students of G-d, and great shall be the peace of your children.” Free wine and milk might be a welcome gift from some welfare state, but personal peace requires inspiration.

For our time, Isaiah’s message sounds a goal and an alert. “No weapon formed against you will succeed, and every tongue that rises against you must you condemn!” Did Isaiah see it coming? Hamas rockets and CNN slander? Our enemies might look different but their goals never change.

Even our friends can exhibit behavior Isaiah predicted. “You will call to a nation you did not know, and a nation that did not know you will run to you, because of the L-rd your G-d, the Holy One of Israel who glorifies you.” No nations seem to be running to help us today, but some significant individuals are. Recently reported is the first-person story of an Arab spy who not only supplies vital military intelligence to the IDF, but actually studied and brought his wife with him to become Jewish. By his own account, he read the Koran and determined that the jihadis were totally misinterpreting it, while the Israelis were following the spirit of the Bible. Then he attended a Yom Kippur service, and felt at home.

Other outsiders, from England and Japan and the United States, are rising against the hate-mongers. Pastors from many Christian denominations take thousands of their people on pilgrimage tours to Israel every year, and we can be sure those people will not be marching in any anti-Jewish rallies. These days when we need all the friends we can get, we can only hope for the complete fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “an eternal covenant… for the sure mercies of David.” In Jewish lore, the Messiah will be a descendant of King David, and he will usher in worldwide peace. Maybe the Moshiach will be a brilliant technologist who will attract the sincere friendship and admiration of the entire world, as Israeli knowhow already attracts many industries that are free of political bias. Maybe not. Either way, we could really use him!


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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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ALL IN ONE – Va-et-khanan – Deut. 3:23-7:11 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ALL IN ONE – Va-et-khanan – Deut. 3:23-7:11 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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Of all the weekly readings, this one ranks with the most memorable. Here Moses reminds his people of the Ten Commandments and enunciates the Sh’ma, the outstanding basic message of the Torah.

Hear, Israel, the L-rd is our G-d; the L-rd is One. No others. No patron saints. No intermediaries. Each human being can relate directly.

Both here and introducing the Big Ten, we should note that Moses gives the order to HEAR, and he addresses the people by the name ISRAEL. Not “Y’hudim – Jews,” for that would imply one tribe, Judah. Not the patronymic “b’ney Yaakov – children of Jacob,” for that would recall the personality of one rather conflicted patriarch. But “Israel,” the name Jacob earned by wrestling with the angel. Besides, Kabalah sages point out, G-d called him Israel even before the angel grappled with him. Because the letters in this name are all-inclusive:

Yud – Y – stands for Yitzhak and Yaakov, Isaac and Jacob.

Seen – S – for Sarah.

Resh – R – for Rebekah and Rachel.

Alelph – A – for Abraham.

Lamed – L – for Leah.

All seven patriarchs and matriarchs, all their combined strength and labor, all their inspiration – all joins in the identity that is the people Israel. All in one.

On this Shabat Nakh’mu, when we read the great Haftorah of consolation – “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” – after the sad memorial of Tisha b’Av – let us pray for more than comfort. Let us pray for a renewal of the strength and the will to come together in unity to fulfill the name – ISRAEL!

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FAREWELL MESSAGES – “D’varim” Deut.1-3 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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FAREWELL MESSAGES – “D’varim” Deut.1-3 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

In his 120th year Moses faces his people and gives them a series of messages to take with them into the Promised Land, to guide their lives there. One miracle never mentioned in this context is how a couple of million Israelites all heard one man’s words. Granted, he also wrote them down, but still – no p.a. system. No TV. No internet. Just Moses. Those 120-year-old lungs – gevalt!

Reminding his people of their progress through 40 years in the desert, he also reminds them of the wrong behavior that prolonged that journey. Starting in verse 1, we read references to several geographical spots. “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, beyond the Jordan.” Of course that’s where they were. Then we read “in the desert, in the Aravah (the Dead Sea valley), across from Suph (“yam suph,” the Red Sea) and 5 more places. No, these words were not delivered in all those places. Moses and his people were camped on the east bank of the Jordan. But he spoke about those other places. Each place reminds him of a problem. Loss of faith, active rebellion, idolatry, even the “let’s go back to Egypt” movement. Despite all their mistakes, here they are, ready to cross the Jordan and take possession of the Land. Moses encourages them to follow Joshua on this mission, describing vistas extending as far as the Euphrates River. He praises the chiefs and judges who will help guide the people, and he stresses what policy they must follow: Justice, to each other, to men and to women, to “your brother and to the stranger.”

Reviewing their recent experience, particularly their defeat of Og, the giant king of Bashan, Moses celebrates the victory. Symbol of all fearsome enemies, Og is identified as the last of a race of giants called Rephaim. His bedstead (or cradle, or coffin, depending how you translate it) was still on display in the Ammonite city of Rabbah. Made of iron, since wood would not hold his weight, it measured 9 cubits long and 4 cubits wide – approximately 13.5 by 6 feet.

Moses reinforces his message, his words of guidance to the people who will have to fight for their land without him. With justice as your goal, with your faith in G-d to strengthen you, it won’t matter if your enemies hide their weapons behind children like today’s Hamas. It won’t matter if their leader stands 13 feet tall like Og. Moses concludes this week’s section with a ringing charge: Do not fear them, for the L-rd your G-d is fighting for you!

So may it be.

We talk a lot about peace today. Any peace worth having is peace through justice. That means justice both for the Israelite and for the stranger. The alien, the “stranger” in Biblical Israel was expected to follow just the seven Mitzvot of Noah, basic laws of decency – like not eating the flesh of a living animal. He was not required to embrace Judaism, although he could be admitted if he chose to. A Christian stuck in any territory ISIL conquers today faces a dire warning: convert to Islam, flee, or die. That ultimatum, no doubt, applies to a Christian Arab. An American can expect a much narrower choice. And a Jew had better not plan to survive any conquest by ISIL or Hamas.

Wartime tests human concepts of justice, in every part of the world. Moses still has plenty to tell us.

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ONE LAND, ONE PEOPLE – “Mas’ey” – Num. 33-36 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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ONE LAND, ONE PEOPLE – “Mas’ey” – Num. 33-36 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The last section in the Book of Numbers recounts the journeys of the Israelite people to reach the east bank of the Jordan. Then it sets up rules to be followed in the forthcoming invasion and occupation of the Land of Israel. And it details the borders of the new country. Compared with a map of that area today, we notice that sections like Judea and Samaria on the west bank of the Jordan are part of the Promised Land.

We will also read a warning here in connection with preparations for Joshua’s war of conquest. “If you do not expel the residents of the land, those who remain will become spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides.” Today, read “rockets in your schoolyards and suicide bombers in your market places.” Indeed, some of the resident tribesmen did remain. Over succeeding centuries, however, the likes of Perizites and Philistines and Girgashites vanished from history. And even though our ancestors tried to abolish those tribes’ idolatry, it also reappeared and ensnared some vulnerable Israelites in orgiastic practices like those they encountered in the desert. But Hebron and Bethlehem were Israelite cities, and the Temple Mount was Judaism’s headquarters for some two millennia until the first Destruction and exile to Babylon.

What can we and modern Israel learn from the commandment to “drive them out?” Is it too late? Does it really apply to today at all? Or is it ultimately the only route to national security? Indian Reservations worked in American history. Would such an arrangement merit consideration in Israel?

Given the attitude of Israel’s pioneers and its leaders today, and the pressure they get from other governments, the answer has to be No. The warning in our Torah reading is just that, a warning. It came true with inevitable results many times in many places. Defeated residents resist, attack and betray their conquerors. But one fact stands out in the history of the world. When two countries fight a war and territory changes hands, people who live in that territory have a choice: (1) accept the new government, or (2) move out. That seems to be the rule everywhere – except in Israel.

So we live with conditions in which an alien government rules Judaism’s holiest hill, victorious Israeli forces voluntarily withdraw from large areas that become bases for violent attack, and “diplomats” keep talking about a “peace process.”

Thorns in your sides, my friends. Thorns in your sides. It will take some inspired leadership and perhaps Divine intervention to find a way out of this morass. And our prayers wouldn’t hurt either.

Moses and Joshua faced this reality, in the last words of the Book of Numbers, “al Yarden Yeriho” – by the Jordan at Jericho. To which we in our congregations will respond: “Hazak, hazak v’nit-hazek” – Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen each other!

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