LOSING AND REMEMBERING – Khukas – Num. 19:1—22:1, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

LOSING AND REMEMBERING – Khukas – Num. 19:1—22:1, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

All through this reading we will find the imminence and effect of losing treasured people. First it is Miriam who dies. We read simply that she dies and gets buried. We don’t know who buried her, or what kind of mourning the people did. But we know they felt her loss. In her honor, says our Midrash, a miraculous well followed the Israelite people all through their 40 years in the desert. As soon as she died, they had no water to drink. That’s what they complained about.

Soon thereafter, they lose Aaron. He and his son Elazar climb the mountain, he gives Elazar his priestly robe, and his life ends. He is buried on the mountain, and the people mourn him for 30 days.

Why 30 days? Significantly, we will read no law about 30 days of mourning. Yet we still observe it. Granted, it is now just the first of 11 months of Kaddish, but the first month is the deepest, starting with the week of shiva when the mourners traditionally stay at home, and refrain from work or other regular activities while they accept sympathy calls, praying and repeating the Kaddish with the friends who help them form a minyan; then proceeding through the rest of the 30 days when it is customary not to visit the grave or to partake in entertainment. Aaron was a great man in our history, but memorializing him took no different form from how we honor each of our departed ever since. As we will read in Deuteronomy, Moses himself was also mourned by the entire people for 30 days.

Dealing with death is difficult. No law we can write or even understand limits any one lifetime. Human beings live and die by a decree we cannot know.

Personally I find this week particularly difficult since I just lost a family member who shared much of these last 8 decades. His name was David Cohen. Besides being a successful engineer, mayor of his town, fellow vet of WW2, lifelong Yankee fan, devoted husband and father, and a man with a great sense of humor, was my first cousin. For most of our years we lived in different places, but we had our Bar Mitzvah services in the same shul – he in 1937 and I in 1939! Of all the 30-some cousins in our generation, we were the two still alive. Now he has left us. But I am not alone. The good memories we shared still bless my life. Because I can say of him as we do in reverence: Zikhrono liv’rakha – His memory is to be a blessing.

All we can do for those we love while they are with us, is to help them live. After that, we can honor good people’s memories as we have always done — from the heart.

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REBELLIONS OLD AND NEW – KORAKH – Num. 16-18 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

REBELLIONS OLD AND NEW – KORAKH – Num. 16-18 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week, we will read the story of a revolution. A revolution that failed. Not the first such revolt in our history, it was nevertheless a threat to the leaders and the entire structure of the Israelite nation in the desert. Its leader, a Levite named Korakh, came a good deal closer to success than the most recent wouldbe revolutionary in our experience, one Bernie Sanders. Unlike him, although Korakh came to a dismal end, he earned a place in Jewish history that lasted all these centuries.

Korakh and Moses shared a grandfather, namely Kehas, the oldest son of Levi, Jacob’s third son. Also Korakh was wealthy, ambitious, and deeply jealous of his cousins Moses and Aaron. Why should they be the Leader and the High Priest? Why not he? Setting out to displace them, he gathered support among other ambitious and impatient tribesmen – some 250 of them, in fact. Included were not only fellow Levites but also three prominent members of the tribe of Reuben, who felt that as descendants of the oldest son of Jacob they should have the authority. These 250 rebels are described in the Torah as anshey shem – well known people. They did not consider themselves the disinherited, or the proletariat, or the downtrodden. These men already had some power. And wanted more.

Who else joined them? Their families. Wives, children, other relatives, all followed the lead of Korakh and his fellow Levites. First, they stage a protest. Gathering together to face Moses and Aaron publicly, they voice their challenge: “Rav lokhem – Enough for you! Aren’t we all holy people, with G-d among us? Why do you lift yourselves up?” In other words, do you have the right to be boss? At this point, Moses falls on his face as if to express a desperate hope for Divine guidance.

After all, this is fourth in a series of rebellions of one kind or another. Moses is out of patience. He puts Korakh and company to a test. Since they focus their rebellion on Aaron and the priesthood – as the religious symbol of authority – Moses uses tomorrow morning’s incense offering as the test.

“What is Aaron, that you murmur against him?” asks Moses. It’s easy to see that pagan peoples also offered incense. They had many idols, many altars, and hundreds of priests. The Israelites had one G-d, one altar, and one high priest. And here come 250 men who all want to be high priests! So the Midrash explains, Moses offers Korakh an attractive test: take the incense, the most prestigious of offerings. But bear in mind that this incense contains a deadly poison. This is the offering that already caused the death of two of Aaron’s sons. And recognize that Ho-ish asher yivkhar haShem hu hakadosh – “the one G-d chooses, he is holy.” Take warning that one offering will be accepted, and all whose offerings are not accepted will die. According to the Midrash, Korakh had advance knowledge that he would have important descendants, including the prophet Samuel, so he assumed that he would certainly be chosen. He accepts Moses’ conditions.

Now Moses sends for two of the Reubenite rebels, Dathan and Aviram, to negotiate with them. They refuse to come. They are stubborn enough to follow Korakh’s lead.

Originally there was a third Reubenite involved, named On ben Peles. He is suddenly out of the story. The Midrash supplies the reason: On did not continue with the rebellion, did not participate in the trial by fire, and he survived. Why? Because his wife convinced him to break away from Korakh. With a true Yiddishe kop, she points out that he would just be exchanging one boss, Moses, for another boss, Korakh. What does he need that for?

Morning comes, and the firepans are brought to the Tabernacle. Aaron brings his offering and it is accepted. Korakh and his followers approach, and suddenly fall into a huge crack in the ground – as if the earth opened its mouth “vativla osom v’es boteyhem — and swallowed them and their houses!” All the people take flight, hearing their cries as they dropped living into the pit!

Impossible? Couldn’t happen? Or could it? Do we see it on TV today, when sinkholes suddenly open without warning? Or when earthquakes crack and split the ground? Perhaps the most picturesque comment on the story of Korakh is another story told by Rabbah bar bar Khonnoh, a rabbi in the Talmud, known for his tall tales. He says: “I was travelling in the desert, and an Arab took me to a spot where there was a crack in the ground. I bent down and put my ear to the crack. And I heard the voices of Korakh and his followers, calling out: “Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars!”

The rabbis of the Mishna contrast Korakh’s controversy with the later controversy of Hillel and Shammai. They agreed on almost nothing, yet their dispute had lasting value, because it was – not a revolution – a makhloket l’shem Shomayim, a “controversy for the sake of Heaven.” For a high purpose. Korakh’s controversy had no future, because it was built on jealousy and falsehood.

So that was the end of Korakh and his rebels.

But wait. What about the prophet Samuel, who supposedly descended from Korakh? And what about all the psalms that are assigned to the family of Korakh, and apparently they sang those psalms in Solomon’s Temple centuries later?

The answer to this dilemma comes in one sentence we won’t read until three weeks from now, in Sedrah Pinkhas: Uv’ney Korakh lo meysu – it simply says “the children of Korakh did not die.” So what happened to them? They were there with their father, weren’t they? In the Gemara Sanhedrin we read a teaching that they were reserved a special place in Gehinnom where they sat and sang. To which the Tosfos commentary adds: “The Holy One prepared a high spot for them, so they would not go deep into Gehinnom, and they did not die.” There they sat on a ledge, with the flames licking at their feet, singing psalms! As the Yiddish expression goes: Eykh mir a lebn – Some life!

But the important fact is: they survived. All the fanciful legends surrounding the descendants of Korakh add up to a marvelous message. Look at what his descendants lived to do:

Samuel the prophet crowned Saul the first king of Israel, as we will read in this week’s Haftorah, and actually completed the organization of the loosely connected tribes into a single nation. And the Levitic family of Korakh became the doorkeepers of the Holy Temple. They were responsible for eleven different psalms, singing of deeply felt religion – a thirst for G-d. They sang of human friendship, of Zion and the Temple itself, and they sang about individual life and death. They played instruments. They danced. The women took part. The Korakh family is repeatedly called Maskil – informed, competent, successful in their Levitic duties and their music.

All of this value from the family of the arch-rebel: Korakh, the rich ambitious envious rival of Moses and Aaron. Korakh the man who lost his cause and his life because he challenged authority for the wrong reasons. Selfish reasons. Indeed his children did not die. They lived, with difficulty at first, but they lived to prove their value for centuries to come. They transcended Korakh’s mistakes. They survived his failed rebellion. They made a better choice.

The pattern of Korakh and his descendants happened more than once in our history. In fact it is still happening. Look around, and you find families – we all know one or more families like this – where one generation rebelled against their Jewish heritage, chose assimilation, or Communism, or secular Humanism – and became lost, swallowed up by the world. And then their children, or perhaps their grandchildren, grow up and rediscover their Jewish roots. They find they enjoy brightening their table with Shabos candles… they find an intellectual excitement in learning Torah… they find great charm in Jewish music… they find a loving fulfillment in sharing Jewish ceremonies. They find exactly what the rebel ancestors threw away – still there, speaking to them loud and clear, as if those rebel ancestors were calling out to them: “Moses and his Torah are true, and we were wrong!”

Sometimes it doesn’t take two generations. Or even one. Sometimes it happens in one lifetime. Our Judaism can manage to survive all kinds of challenges. Rebellion can sometimes be valuable too, because it strengthens us. We can only hope that any controversy it produces will be l’shem shomayim – an argument in the name of Heaven. Then we have a chance to resolve it productively, for a Jewish future that can still sing our songs as the family of Korakh did.

Ken y’hee rotzon.

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CHECK IT OUT – Sh’lakh l’kha – Num. 13-15 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

CHECK IT OUT – Sh’lakh l’kha – Num. 13-15 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

You get a call from your partner, your employer, or a member of your family, advising you of an opportunity. A house is for sale in a neighborhood you like. You are interested. So you suggest: Check it out.

Depending on how that person goes about checking out the prospective purchase, you may or may not want to make an offer on it. Forexample, here’s one kind of report:

“The house looks solid enough. Roomy, too. It has a big yard with fruit trees. In fact, we picked a couple of bananas and an avocado – not bad, eh? Can’t get in to see the inside because the agent demands an accepted offer first. But it’s been paintedrecently, so the price is very firm. Right down the street we saw some graffiti. Teens strolled by wearing their hats backwards – could be gang infested.”

And here’s another view:

“Got talking with the lady next door. Found out the owner is very anxious to sell. Open to any offer. Just modernized the kitchen and redecorated, and then got transferred to the east coast. So he has no cash on hand to put down on a home there. Anyone with a large down payment can write their own ticket. Neighborhood Watch is very effective; no major problems.”

Are these two people talking about the same house? Sure they are. Just as the two groups of spies we will read about in this week’s Torah portion were talking about the same country. An important difference is how they “checked it out.”

The 12 spies Moses sends out in the Sedrah are princes. Executives. Commissioned officers. They follow accepted procedures – sample the fruit, assess the strength of the fortifications, take note of the appearance of  the local population. If they only had video, they could bring back picture and sound to back up their report of 50-foot-high walls and men of giant size. By a vote of 10 to 2, they convince the people that Canaan can’t be conquered.

In our Haftorah, Joshua sends just 2 spies. They are different. One is 80-year-old Caleb – the only surviving member of the original checker-outers and one of the dissenting minority (Joshua himself being the other dissenter). The second spy is a youth of 18. One is chosen for courage, the other for wisdom. They don’t take notes and they don’t bring samples. They spend the night with Rahab. Her occupation is Innkeeper, providing accommodations to travelers. From the Hebrew word zonah we gather thatshe provides other comforts too. Either way, she has ample opportunity to gauge the spirit of the population. She trades her inside information for a guarantee of safety, and the two spies return with an exciting message about Canaan: Piece of cake.

Chances are neither report is 100% accurate. But the contrast is dramatic. The negative report in the Book of Numbers brings on 38 more years in the desert. The positive report in the Book of Joshua empowers the people to take over Jericho in a week.

How do we go about checking out our opportunities? Do we suffocate them by analyzing the difficulties? And does that make them insurmountable?

Am I too old to learn to use a computer? After all, I’m not even a passable typist, and computer science is as foreign to me as Swahili. I have no money to spend on computer software that can become obsolete in half an hour – let alone the furniture that goes under all that equipment. I’d better stay in the lead pencil desert for another 38 years.

Do I have the discipline to change my health habits? After all, those exercise machines are really no better than a good walk around the block, are they? And didn’t you hear about the fellow that lost big pounds and built up his muscles – and died anyway?

I don’t trust those diets either. Every couple of weeks a new one comes out, and they contradict each other. I’d better stay in the Aspirin and Alka Seltzer desert for another 38 years.

Can I really patch things up with my sister? So much time went by. She’ll consider me stupid for trying. Whatever happened between us isn’t even the issue any more. We just have different lives now. We built 50-foot walls between us. Our antagonism is gigantic. Better stay in the Breygez (Angry) desert for another 38 years.

Take another look, friends. Check it out again. Maybe we can turn part of our future around. Accept a message from your friendly “Innkeeper:”

A computer is just a tool, and a few simple functions of it can make your life easier and more interesting. The first cream puff you forego, and the first stationery bike ride you take, can be the first step to feeling better. And as for your sister, maybe you and she can at last agree that “time wounds all heels.”

Our Haftorah has a sequel. After the two spies return with their positive report, Joshua mounts the campaign to conquer Jericho. The sequel, later in the same book, recounts Joshua’s signal to attack. He sounded the shofar, and the walls came tumbling down.

Blow that shofar loud enough, and we can wake ourselves to action. Our success in decisions that affect our own lives can bring us blessing.

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MIRIAM STARTED IT – B’haalot’kha – Num. 12—by Rabbi Baruch Cohon


MIRIAM STARTED IT – B’haalot’kha – Num. 12—by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

First it was Miriam, then Aaron who spoke against their brother Moses, as the Torah tells us, “because of the Cushite wife he took.” And so opens a singular story of family friction, dismal punishment and recovery.

The word “Cushite” challenges the commentators. “Cush” is the Hebrew name of Ethiopia. Was this a new wife? A new black wife? Was Miriam racially prejudiced? No, says Ibn Ezra. In all his 120 years Moses only took one wife, namely Zipporah, daughter of Jethro the priest of Midian. And Ethiopia is many miles from Midian. The Midianites are not Africans. But they are tent-dwellers in a hot country, and ”have no whiteness at all” but are tanned very dark. So what does Cushite mean? Both Rashi and the Midrash insist that Cushite refers to Zipporah’s beauty. One proof cited is from gimatria – which does not mean Geometry, you know, it means Numerology. Every Hebrew letter is also a number, and the sum total of the letter-numbers in cusheet = 736, identical to the sum total of the letters in the words y’fat mareh – “beautiful appearance.”

Another proof states that everyone acknowledged Zipporah’s beauty just as they acknowledge that an Ethiopian is black. It was obvious. Not only did she have good looks; she also behaved beautifully. So what is Miriam’s beef?

Rashi says Miriam objected, not to Moses’ marrying Zipporah but to his sending her away. Just a few sentences earlier we read about two men named Eldad and Meydad “prophesying in the camp.” When this report came out, Miriam was with her sister-in-law, and heard Zipporah say: “Alas for the wives of these men. If they are moved to prophecy, they will separate from their wives the way my husband separated from me.”

Judging from this insight, Moses and his marriage experienced the familiar pattern of a man’s calling, his work, damaging or even destroying his family life. And Miriam’s action qualifies her as an ancient feminist. Indeed we have no record of Miriam herself ever marrying or raising a family. Among righteous women in the Torah, she is unique. Her devotion to her birth-family is total. She guards the basket where her baby brother floats in the Nile. She convinces the Egyptian princess to let her take him to a Hebrew wetnurse – their mother. Later she is described as a prophetess at the Red Sea, leading the women in sacred song and dance. In her merit a well is said to accompany the Israelites on their desert trek. And now, when Miriam badmouths her brother Moses, she is struck with leprosy! A leper in Hebrew is m’tzora – which the rabbis parse as an abbreviation for motzi shem ra – “bringing out a bad name”, in other words slander. In Miriam’s case the punishment is physical and requires her to stay outside the camp for a week. It is brother Aaron who appeals to the leader Moses, who in his deep humility offers the most compact prayer – just five short words – for her recovery: El na r’fa na lah — “Please, G-d, please heal her!” And in respect for Miriam, the camp does not move until she is healed and returns.

No wonder that the strength and talent and devotion that characterized Miriam made hers a favorite name that Jews give their daughters all through history. She’s not one of our matriarchs. But she is a rare and valuable human being. Even when she is critical of her brother Moses, all Israel can consider ourselves blessed to have Miriam with us.

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BLESSINGS AND MUSIC – Naso – Num.4:21–7 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

BLESSINGS AND MUSIC – Naso – Num.4:21–7 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Of all the topics discussed in this week’s reading, one that comes near the end is easily the most familiar, and perhaps most important for our generation. It is identified as the Priestly Benediction, pronounced by Aaron’s sons in the ancient Temple, and by their descendants in traditional synagogues ever since. In many liberal congregations, the rabbi replaces the cohanim for the blessing.

It consists of 3 brief Hebrew sentences. The first one, just 3 words long, vouchsafes physical safety. “May G-d bless you and guard you.” The second one, in 5 words, asks for spiritual awareness: “May G-d’s presence shine on you and be favorable.” And the third one’s 7 words promise peace: “May G-d’s presence enter your life and bring you peace.” That wonderful line asks for much more than the absence of armed conflict. It is addressed to each individual. It asks for peace of mind, and peace of spirit.

The Priestly Benediction, whether pronounced by descendants of Aaron or by clergymen, calls for an accepting answer from those being blessed. And in synagogue practice it also includes music.

Rockdale Avenue Temple in Cincinnati was a model of Classical Reform as I remember it in the ‘30’s. Among the minimal uses of Hebrew in its festival services came the Priestly Benediction, recited by the rabbi in stentorian tones (remember this was before the days of most microphones.) After he said the first line, we heard the four church singers in the choir loft in perfect harmony: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee.” Each line got a corresponding answer. Three lines. Three angelic-sounding musical responses delivered in a classical major cadence. A spell was cast.

At the other pole of observance, at the Chabad synagogue where, along with other cohanim, I took part in the blessing this Shavuot morning, the prayer leader gave us a melody to introduce each word, excepting only the Divine Name. Two trademark Chabad melodies alternate, and the cohanim all have to know what phrases to repeat. At the end of each line, some 150 voices chant “Amen” – in some 150 keys—with spirit. When we conclude the blessing, congregants shake our hands to show their appreciation.

Between these two poles we find musical expressions ranging from medium to minimal to missing. Many synagogues have the cohanim sing a melody just before the last word of each line. Others have the cohanim do a plain repetition of the cantor’s chant on each word, and the congregation responds with the words Ken y’hee ratzon – “May it be G-d’s will.” All traditional synagogues, and any liberal ones who follow the custom, have the cohanim repeat each word that the cantor chants, symbolizing the idea that they are not the source of the blessing. They are the conduit. Musically, physically and conceptually, we ask Divine blessing on each other. And by our positive answer we express the confidence that we will succeed.

The process of cohanim blessing the congregation is called dukhenen. Experience it, next High Holidays and Succoth, whether you are a cohen and can relay the blessing or a congregant who can receive it. And join in singing the response. Hear the music. Feel the echo.

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