FINISHING TO START OVER – a Simhat Torah message, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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FINISHING TO START OVER – a Simhat Torah message, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Winding up the holiday month with a bang, we relish the trappings of Simhat Torah. Singing and dancing with all the Torah scrolls, the endless processions around the synagogue, the equally endless honors to bless the Torah, and in many congregations the customary L’chaim – that little shot of Bourbon that follows each Aliya — all add up to a grand finale for this festive month.

Then of course comes the Torah reading itself. Every Jew in attendance gets an Aliya, an honor to bless the Torah. Larger congregations frequently conduct parallel Torah readings in different rooms to accommodate all the eligible honorees. At the end of all the Aliyot the “Chatan torah” and the “Chatan B’reysheet” (literally the bridegrooms of the Torah and of the Book of Genesis) get the two honors unique to this occasion. One blesses the section that finishes the annual Torah reading, the last chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy ending with the words “in the sight of all Israel,” and hears the congregational chant “Hazak hazak v’nitkhazek” – “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other!” Then the other “bridegroom” blesses the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning,” which is read from another scroll (no way do we keep a congregation waiting while we roll one scroll all the way back to the beginning!) We finish and within the hour we start over. A unique practice, isn’t it? Do we ever do this in any other area?

Not in agriculture. Harvest in the fall, plant in the spring.

Not in manufacturing. No waiting till the first car rolls off the assembly line to start building the second one. The process is continuous.

Not in education either. Immediately starting a class over? Only if you failed to learn it the first time.

So why do we finish reading the entire Torah, a year-long schedule, and begin it again without a pause? Will we find something new in it this year that we missed last year? Something a thousand generations of ancestors, scholars, commentators never found? After all, not a word in this scroll changed during all those centuries. Every Sofer – scribe – who copies one of these Sifrey Torah must make sure that the paragraphing, the spacing, the spelling, in fact every detail remains identical. Therefore we will be reading the exact same words this year as we read last year. The words don’t change.

But we do. We will read those same words with new eyes. Eyes that saw different things, different people, read some different writings. How will we interpret the Torah’s words this year? Maybe we can still find something new there, just as our great commentators could differ with each other in their interpretations, and often learn a new truth from those old words?

We can. Because there is one parallel that fits Simhat Torah perfectly. One other activity we finish and start over right away, all the time. That activity is breathing. Exhale, then inhale immediately. Not once a year, but every few seconds, that activity keeps us alive. Our bodies live on air, so we always need to restart that breathing process.

Just as our bodies live on air, our Jewish spirits live on Torah. We need to restart that too. Take a new look at the Creation story, now that you know the Big Bang theory. Savor the Exodus from Egypt, as Martin Luther King’s followers did when they called him their Moses. Share the excitement of a unified people gathered at Mount Sinai – those present to receive the Torah, and those not present, namely us. We have great experiences to look forward to as we start reading our Torah again. And if you missed any of those experiences last year, here’s your chance to catch up.

Enjoy starting over this Simhat Torah. Rekindle your Jewish life!


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I’M OUTTA HERE! – a Yom Kippur message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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I’M OUTTA HERE! – a Yom Kippur message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Only a prophet can expect a direct communication from G-d. Right? And when he gets one, he needs to follow instructions. But what if he doesn’t?

A special privilege in our synagogues on Yom Kippur afternoon is the honor of reading Maftir Yonah, the famous story of Jonah. Not just Jonah and the Big Fish, maybe not a whale but certainly the best known contact Jonah had. We get to read the whole book. This is the story of a prophet who flees from his task. His own faith is tested four times in this short book, and he fails every time – until he finally succeeds. We hope.

Told to announce the imminent destruction of Nineveh, he takes fright and runs. Face it, Nineveh is the capital of an empire. What might happen to him if he brings them such bad news? So he finds a ship heading the other way and buys passage. No sooner underway, the ship is buffeted by a gale. The crew of that ship includes various types of pagans, all of whom are equally terrified of the storm. All the sailors pray for relief, each addressing his own deity, and the captain finds Jonah – fast asleep. Knowing that Jonah is fleeing from the Hebrew G-d, the crew proceeds to pray to the Hebrew G-d. And throw Jonah overboard. Immediately, the sea calms. So the ship’s crew accepts G-d. And the fish swallows Jonah. Still Jonah lives. He even prays to be saved and promises to fulfill his mission.

After the fish coughs up Jonah on the beach near Nineveh, Jonah continues to accept his mission and sets out on foot into the city. He makes his fearful announcement. The people believe him as delivering G-d’s message. The king proclaims a fast and puts on sackcloth. He decrees a Day of Atonement, and his people observe it, vowing to stop their violence and their evil. Their prayers are heard. Their city is saved.

Happy ending? Not for Jonah. His dire prediction did not happen. He is still fleeing. So in effect he tells Nineveh “I’m outta here” and goes out of town to die. The sun is hot enough to kill him, maybe, but G-d provides a gourd to give him shade. He enjoys the shade and seems to be changing his mind about death. Maybe even “choosing life” as we are all urged to do in our Torah. And then a worm eats the root of the gourd, the sun beats down, and Jonah gets angry and prays to die. The Divine answer he gets can be our message too: “Are you doing well to be angry about the gourd? You did not work for it; you did not raise it. It grew overnight, and it perished overnight. Should I not spare Nineveh, that great city of more than 120,000 people?”

Four tests: The ship’s crew turned to G-d, the fish transported Jonah safely, the people of Nineveh turned to G-d, and the gourd saved Jonah. Four failures for Jonah. And at the end of the book we still don’t know if Jonah learned his lesson.

But we can learn ours. Jonah is presented as a prophet who runs away from a mission. Jonah is each Jew who runs away from a Mitzvah.

This Yom Kippur, let’s learn from Nineveh.

G’mar tov!

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TEST ME – Questioning the Akedah – a Rosh Hashana message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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TEST ME – Questioning the Akedah – a Rosh Hashana message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Another New Year calls on us to repeat the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac. Traditionally read on the Second Day, or in Reform congregations on the First and only day of Rosh Hashana, this section tells of the narrow escape of young Isaac from becoming a human sacrifice. No matter how many times we retell this story, it still shocks us. And indeed it should.

The Akedah – literally the Binding of Isaac – even shocked the rabbis of the Midrash. One text tells of G-d asking Abraham: “Did I tell you to slaughter him? I told you to bring him up!” (Using the word “ha-a-leyhu”in the sense of elevating him, not in its other meaning of offering him.) “You brought him up and bound him on the altar. Now take him down again!”

So Abraham misunderstood the Divine commandment. That error nearly cost him his and Sarah’s only son. And presumably all that son’s descendants, namely us. Not that many of those descendants did not actually become human sacrifices – victims of violent hatred, not sacred offerings. But their death was no Divine commandment. And, says the Midrash, neither was the near death of Isaac.

The Torah describes the Akedah as a test. G-d was testing Abraham’s loyalty. What would he withhold from G-d? That theme gets played out beautifully in the last-minute message from the angel: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, nor do anything to him! For now I know that you fear G-d and would not withhold your only son.” And lo and behold, here is a ram caught by his horns in a thicket, just in time to replace Isaac on the altar. So we sound the ram’s horn to celebrate Isaac’s rescue – and our new year. And if we go along with the Midrash, none of this would happen if Abraham understood the commandment.

Human error has its value.

Another question to the Akedah story concerns the behavior of Isaac. According to Biblical chronology, Isaac was not a child at this time. He was over 30. Does a 30-year-old man walk placidly to his own death at the hands of his father? Does he submissively carry the firewood for the altar, and only innocently ask“where is the lamb?” Granted, Isaac’s personality as described in the Torah was less forceful than that of his father Abraham or his son Jacob; he served as a positive link between great generations. But did he effectively cooperate in becoming a human sacrifice? The command did not come to him, only to his father. Nowhere does anyone tell Isaac what to expect. In fact, throughout his life Isaac almost never hears from G-d directly. Yet he cooperates in the act of risking – and nearly losing – his life for G-d.

The real answers to these questions lie within each of us. We need to make a major effort to understand the requirements of our religion. Back at the dawn of our history father Abraham just might have barely missed making a fatal error for his son. And no matter how good our intentions may be, let us not follow blind custom or misguided leaders. We could lose it all. Thank G-d Isaac survived. We should hope to do as well.

Shana Tova!

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ARE YOU LISTENING? – “Haazinu”Deut.32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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ARE YOU LISTENING? – “Haazinu”Deut.32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Two songs are credited to Moses. First is the Song of the Sea, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt. The other one is this week’s reading, Moses’ farewell song and charge to his people before he takes his final climb up Mt. Nebo. A total contrast. The first song is addressed to G-d and dramatizes the people’s faith and joy in the miraculous deliverance they just experienced. “Israel saw Egypt dead on the sea shore, and the people believed in G-d and in Moses His servant!” The second song, here in Deuteronomy, is addressed to the universe, and recounts G-d’s faithfulness and Israel’s folly.

In a line that still forms part of every traditional Jewish funeral, Moses stresses his message: “Ha-tzur tamim po-o-lo,” he says: “The Rock, His work is perfect.” Then he asks: “Is corruption His? No, his children have the blemish that raised a crooked and perverse generation!” Yet, he reminds us of G-d’s care for Israel: “Ask you father and he will tell you; your elders will say it to you… Jacob is G-d’s inheritance. He found him in a desert land, an empty howling waste… He kept them as the apple of His eye.” And then Moses goes into what we might call a prediction of Jewish history: “Jeshurun (another name for Israel) got fat and kicked.. He deserted G-d who created him.” Turning to his people, the dying leader shouts out his message: “You forgot the G-d who begot you!” Now Moses speaks in G-d’s name: “I will hide My face from them.. They provoked Me with a non-god; I will provoke them with a non-nation!” A non-nation – not only evil empires like Babylonia or Rome or Germany, but NGOs. The Cossacks, the KKK, Hamas.

As Moses finishes his message, he urges us to take our strength from our own heritage, and rely on our own faith. He is also telling us to believe in ourselves. The last verse addresses the world at large: “Nations, acclaim G-d’s people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants, and take vengeance on His foes; and He will cleanse His people’s land.”

Today, as our people work to cleanse the land of Israel, we can hope to join them in taking courage from Moses’stirring song.

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HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE? By Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE? By Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This Shabat, Saturday morning September 20th, the morning before those midnight S’lichot penitential services in synagogues throughout the world, Jews will re-read the words from a farewell speech by Moses. The people are camped on the east bank of the Jordan. Moses knows he will not cross that river with them, and he wants them to know what to do when they enter the Promised Land. The name of this reading is “Nitzavim” – literally “Standing” – this year teamed with the next section called “Vayeylech” – “He went.” First, standing to affirm a commitment. Then going on our way. The opening lines of Nitzavim set the scene:

“You are standing today, all of you, before your G-d. Your leaders, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel. Your children, your women, the strangers in your midst, your woodcutters and your water-carriers. [You are here to] form a covenant with G-d… all who are here with us today, and those who are not here with us today.”

Who was not there? All the unborn generations. Including us. The covenant involves us all.

And what was the covenant? Of course we know the Hebrew word for a covenant is “bris.” That was the covenant of Abraham, still observed, even though lately some officials in some places consider it politically incorrect. But the covenant of Moses goes far beyond a physical operation. It extends to the responsibility for “mitzvot,” the commandments, the daily conduct that makes us what we are. Carrying out those standards of conduct – like honest dealings, respect for the sacred, educating our children – can make us more than what we are; they can make us what we should be.

Moses goes into quite a bit of detail about those standards. Then he anticipates the inevitable question, which does not appear in the Torah but resounds in each of our minds, the question we just have to ask: Isn’t this job too hard?

Later in this same reading, Moses gives his answer which we can paraphrase this way: This commandment is not beyond you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, so you don’t need to say “who will go up to heaven and get it for us and bring it down and tell it to us so we may do it?” And it is not overseas, so don’t look for someone to cross the ocean and bring it back to you. No, this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.

Very close, eh? How close is close?

If you attend a service this Shabat and hear the message of Nitzavim, you already will come closer to fulfilling the commandment. And if you don’t? What commandment did you fulfill this week somewhere else? Did you help someone who needed help because their car stalled? Did you remind your kids to get advance homework because they will be absent from school on Rosh Hashana? Did you write a letter to the editor of a newspaper that printed a slanderous anti-Israel column? By the way, we can all hold our own honest opinions pro or con about Israeli government policies, but the 6 or 7 million Jews in Israel are our people, and what affects them is bound to affect us. We are, and we remain, “am segulah,” a chosen people. Once in a while, like Tevye we might wish that the Almighty would choose someone else, but don’t hold your breath.

So now we come face to face with our spiritual day of reckoning, Yom Kippur. We said our midnight prayers at Slichot, we gloried in the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. And ten days later, here we stand, all of us. More Jews in one place at one time than on any other day in the year. Our leaders and our followers, wives and husbands and children, woodcutters and water department technicians. We stand together – Nitzavim – and we try to honor the covenant.

Reform congregations read Nitzavim on Yom Kippur morning. An apt choice, for when during the year should we be more ready to accept the closeness of the covenant? This is the time, this is the season, these are the days when we can remind ourselves that our commitment to our Torah, to our faith, to our people, is not beyond our reach. It is not in heaven, but here on earth. It is not overseas, because our forebears brought it to America. It is indeed close to us.

How close? As close as the mezuzah on your doorpost. As close as the candle on your table. As close as the book on your shelf. As close as your pride in your heritage.

The covenant is as close to us today as the medal a decorated veteran wears. By wearing it, we evidence our pride. It is as close as the cup we will lift to celebrate the Sabbath, and by drinking that wine we bring the sweet taste of heritage into our lives. It is as close as the tree limbs we will lift on top of our Succah, to recall our ancestors’ joy in the harvest. It is as close as the hour we will spend helping a child do some homework. It is as close as the jumper cables we will use to help our neighbor start that stalled car.

All of these actions are part of our covenant. They are as close to us as we will get to them. The closer we bring our covenant to our lives, the better prepared we will be to face a new year.

Have a great one!

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