WHAT MAKES VICTORY – “B’shalakh” – Ex.13:17-17:16 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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WHAT MAKES VICTORY – “B’shalakh” – Ex.13:17-17:16 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read a section full of climactic events. First, Moses faces the danger of leading his people on a roundabout route through desert country, following a pillar of cloud to the west shore of the Red Sea. Then, arriving at the brink, the people revolt: “Were there no graves in Egypt, that you brought us here to die in the desert?” Moses cries to G-d for help, and gets the Divine retort: Mah titz’ak ey-lai? (We can almost hear Jewish parents asking the same question in Yiddish: Vos shry’stu af mir?) “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on!” Moses lifts his staff, but the people hesitate on the shore, until one man, Nahshon by name, steps forward into the water, and walks in until the water reaches his throat, as the Or haHayyim commentary describes it. Then the east wind blows, and parts the sea. G-d helps those who help themselves.

So the Israelites walk to freedom, with the water forming a wall to their right and to their left.

Then, of course, come the pursuing chariots of Pharaoh’s army, and we will read of their fate. Maybe the wind dried the surface of the sea-floor enough to walk on, but the weight of the chariots reaches the deep mud below. “G-d removed the wheels from their chariots and made them drive heavily.” As the water came down and submerged them, the Egyptians abandoned their chariots…and drowned. Fiction, you say? Did you miss the news story last year about the oceanographers who discovered the gold rims of Pharaoh’s chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea? Chariots and wooden wheels long since decomposed, but the metal rims remained. Let’s not doubt our miracles.

Moses and his people sang about those miracles, as will we, in the classic Shirah, the Song of the Sea that colors this week’s reading with its special melody and its poetic spacing on the Torah’s parchment, and gives this Sabbath its calendar name “Sabbath of Song,” an occasion to add special musical celebration to our ritual.

Of course the story goes on, as the 40-year trek through the desert is just starting. In fact, at the end of this section we see the cowardly tribe of Amalek – the jihadists of their day – attack Israel, striking from the rear, and a fierce battle ensues. We will read how Moses climbs a hill and holds his sacred staff up high, with Aaron and Hur flanking him, while on the plain below Joshua leads the fight against Amalek. As the day goes on, Moses’ arms tire and Aaron and Hur have to hold them up so the fighters can see the symbol. As long as they can look up, they prevail. Only when they look down do they risk losing. A symbolic tale of courage and confidence as keys to victory, if there ever was one.

Among the symbolic stories in this section, one word that gets very little mention – and even gets an inexact translation – appears in Chapter 14 verse 30. The standard English translation reads: “The Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” But that’s not what the Hebrew text says. The word for Egyptians would be mitzrim, but the Hebrew says mitzra-yim, which would translate: “Israel saw EGYPT dead.” Not some soldiers floating in the water, but the death of the Egyptian empire. After defying destiny and denying freedom, Pharoah succeeded only in leading his nation to defeat. Indeed the ancient power of Egypt never recovered. King Tut’s fame and the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam are all the work of foreigners. Even the population changed when civilized Egyptians were overrun by Mohamed’s primitive tribesmen. Truly Israel saw Egypt dead.

We can well express joy and gratitude that our ancestors were liberated so many centuries ago.

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BECOMING DISTINCT – “Bo” – Ex.10-13:16 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BECOMING DISTINCT – “Bo” – Ex.10-13:16 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

One Torah reading – this one — brings us our transition into nationhood, our distinctive calendar, and the very trademark of our homes. Warning the people that a destroying angel will descend on Egypt and kill the firstborn human and animal in every household, Moses delivers the Divine commandment to take a lamb for every Israelite household, and slaughter the lamb for a sacrifice to celebrate what will become the first Jewish festival – Passover. And why is it called Passover? Because before eating that lamb the Israelite must put some of its blood on the doorpost to signal that this is an Israelite home, so the destroyer will pass over it. That doorpost signal would later become the Mezuzah that decorates and identifies our homes today.

Passover is not just the first Jewish festival – the festival of freedom – but also marks the beginning of the Jewish calendar. This week’s reading tells us: “This month for you is the head of the months, first of all the months of the year.”

Now wait a minute. Are we talking about Passover or Rosh Hashanah?

In a way, both. The Talmud reminds us that our calendar contains no less than four New Years days including one in Nisan for kings and festivals and one in Tishri for numbering the years. The other two are for ancient tithes. Any Hebrew school student who can repeat the names of the months will start this way: Nisan Iyyar Sivan Tamuz – always starting with Nisan, the month of Passover.

Of course Passover does not begin the month of Nisan. It starts in the middle of the month, on the 15th. Our ancestors had two weeks to prepare for the first Seder, and we all know it takes at least two weeks to prepare for that event now – finding the “khometz” and getting rid of it, shopping for the Pesach food, inviting the guests, polishing the cup for Elijah the Prophet – and we don’t even have to smear blood on the doorpost. Still, Passover remains a favorite family festival, the first Jewish holiday.

An interesting sidelight to this week’s reading would be to compare Passover with Shabat. Since the seventh day is mentioned as a day of rest in the story of Creation, we must consider it the first Jewish sacred day. Yet we find no reference to it in the lives of the Patriarchs. We don’t find Abraham making Kiddush. Not until the Israelites leave Egypt does the Sabbath appear in the Torah narrative. The manna that sustains the people in their trek through the desert comes to them six days a week, and they are warned to collect double manna on Friday. When they do that, it does not spoil and they can eat at leisure on Saturday. Slaves have no Sabbath, but free people do. Or they should. Maybe the Patriarchs kept the Sabbath without a special ceremony, since those Mitzvos came later. And in fact, no ceremony is mentioned for the Israelites in the desert either. But the Passover ceremony is defined quite practically: “If the household is too small to use a lamb, let them share one with their neighbor… Each according to what he eats, so shall you count for the lamb.” This mitzvah should not prove prohibitive. As Rashi points out, the standard “each according to what he eats” is understood to exclude the old and infirm who cannot eat a full morsel. Thus both families can celebrate. And both will mark their homes. And both will taste freedom.

Can we do less? Today it’s not lamb, since animal sacrifice ceased with the destruction of the Temple. So maybe we share chicken. But the principle remains. Celebrate our freedom. Revel in our tradition. Sing “Had Gadyo.” Welcome Eliyahu – and feel that you, too, were redeemed.

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CHALLENGE AND CHOICE – “Va-eyra” – Ex. 6:2-9:35 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CHALLENGE AND CHOICE – “Va-eyra” – Ex. 6:2-9:35 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Torah reading ranks among the most famous and most spectacular accounts of all the ancient adventures of our people. Here we will read about seven of the famous Ten Plagues of Egypt. Blood, Frogs, Gnats, Beetles, Murrain, Boils, Hail – each one is announced in advance. And G-d tells Moses what answer to expect from Pharaoh every time.

Can we learn anything for today from this story?

Indeed we can. In fact, our rabbis learned something important from it long ago. All human beings have free choice. Challenged by Moses, Pharaoh could certainly agree to keep his word and let the people go if the plague stops. But he doesn’t. And G-d knows he won’t, because that is his character. Yes, we all have free choice, within our individual limits. But G-d knows what choice we will make. Pharaoh the king had virtually no limits, so in his case, the Torah calls it “hardening his heart.” While Egypt is suffering from a plague, Pharaoh promises to release his slaves if Moses will pray to remove it. As soon as the plague stops, Pharaoh hardens his heart and breaks his promise.

Looking at these plagues, we see that they increase in severity. The first plagues have at least a nuisance effect and at most a scare effect – water that turns to blood, frogs all over the country, gnats filling the air, etc. – while the later plagues start with boils affecting both humans and animals, followed by a violent hailstorm threatening life itself. The rabbinic comment on this sequence states that for the first five plagues Pharaoh retained his freedom of choice, so his evil decisions were his own and he risked the retribution they involved. But the last five plagues left him no alternative; in fact Moses brings him the Divine message: “This time I send all my plagues to your heart, to your servants and to your people, so that you will know that there is none like Me in all of Earth.” Next week, of course, come the last three plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn, causing Pharaoh not just to release his Hebrew slaves but to chase them out of the country. Having chosen to reject the first challenges, say the rabbis, Pharaoh now must reject the last ones. His destruction is inevitable.

Make wrong decisions a habit, and inevitably we run the risk of feeling compelled to make more and more of them. Challenges we face in daily life can seem like plagues that we could not predict, punishments we feel we did not deserve. How we face them, how we adapt our behavior to meet them, can betray or fulfill us. We have free choice. Let’s hope it lasts for at least five challenges.

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BURY ME NOT– Va-y’khi – Gen.47:28-50:26 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BURY ME NOT– Va-y’khi – Gen.47:28-50:26 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Remember this one?

Oh bury me not on the lone prairie,

These words come low and mournfully

From the pallid lips of a youth who lay

On his dyin’ bed at the close of day….

By my father’s grave oh let me be

And bury me not on the lone prairie.

That sad young cowboy had good company. None other than the patriarch Jacob. In this week’s Torah reading, he calls in his favorite son Joseph and makes him swear not to bury his father in Egypt. His last request is to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah where his parents and his wife Leah lie. Like so many other mortals facing the end of life, he wants to go home.

Our commentators cite a few other reasons not to bury Jacob in Egypt, not even in a pyramid. After his years in Egypt, Jacob evidently became well respected, and might rate a distinguished tomb. But he does not want one, not there. Rashi and the Klee Yokor detail three factors behind this oath that Jacob requires of Joseph. One concerns lice, which inhabit Egyptian soil and would attack the body. Worms are bad enough, but lice?? (Actually tradition states that there were seven people whose bodies the worms could not devour, and Jacob was one of them. No word about lice.) A second one concerns the Egyptian custom of gathering at the tomb of an honored man and conducting pagan worship. Jacob’s grave should not prompt idolatry. And the third consideration is the tradition that when the Messiah comes, those buried outside the Land of Israel will have to roll underground all the way there to be revived. All things considered, Jacob says “take me out of Egypt, let me lie with my fathers, and bury me in their burying-place.”

Jacob then proceeds to give his last message to his sons. Not really a blessing, this message is more of a judgment on their characters, based on their behavior. Some show promise, some are plodders, others get specific charges from their father. Reuben loses the privilege of the firstborn because he once bedded his father’s wife. Judah, by contrast, proved himself a leader and gets acknowledged as such. No mention of his little intrigue with Tamar. The commentators link this praise of Judah to the future, for he will be the ancestor of King David. But of course it is Joseph who gets Jacob’s greatest love and favor. And Joseph’s two sons got blessed as equal to Reuben and Simeon, effectively giving Joseph the double portion of the firstborn which Reuben is denied. As Jacob completes his message, he puts his legs back in bed and breathes his last. It is Joseph who weeps over him, kisses him, and then orders his body embalmed.

Commentators point out that the embalming process will take 40 days, to prepare for the journey to Hebron. Joseph leads that trek. And the rest of Jacob’s family goes with him – the entire people. When they stop in Atad, east of the Jordan en route to Machpelah, they observe seven days of deep mourning, the same week of shiv’a that Jewish families still sit, although now we do so after the burial. When Jacob’s family does it, the local population sees them and concludes that this must be a very sad day for Egypt. Actually we read here that Egypt mourned Jacob for 70 days. Almost the same importance as the Pharaohs, since royalty received just 72 days. Flags at half-staff.

And maybe something more.

Jacob the foreigner earned Egypt’s respect. Now he has every right to go home.

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WORDS FROM THE HEART – “Vayigash”—Gen. 44:18-47:27 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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WORDS FROM THE HEART – “Vayigash”—Gen. 44:18-47:27 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

It is told of the sage called the Chofetz Chaim (“Desirer of Life”) that he once had to go to a Czarist official and plead for relief from a particularly harsh decree against the Jewish people. Since the Chofetz Chaim spoke no Russian and the aristocratic official spoke no Yiddish, an interpreter stood waiting. Once permitted to speak, the Chofetz Chaim delivered his message with all the feeling and sincerity that emanated from a heart as pure as his. When he finished, a pregnant silence filled the room. Then the interpreter started to speak: “Your honor, the Jew claims…” Whereupon the Russian official raised his hand and said: “No translation will be necessary. I understood.” As a result of this meeting, the decree was revoked.

Words from the heart, we are taught, enter the heart. A classic example of such an effort colors this week’s Torah reading. Joseph’s brothers stand before him, still unaware of who he is, while he knows them very well. This is the second of three trips these men make from Canaan to Egypt. One of the brothers, Simeon, was in custody as Joseph’s prisoner taken to make sure they came back. Now he is free. But Joseph could not resist using his power and his anonymity to them and played a cat–and-mouse game, ordering his servants to place his goblet in Benjamin’s bag and create an excuse to hold onto his little brother – the only full brother he has. Last week’s reading ended with Joseph demanding that they leave Benjamin in his custody and they go back to their father.

Now we witness the development of Judah’s character, as he steps forward to plead with the man whom he knows only as the Viceroy of Egypt who of course speaks no Hebrew. Emerging as family leader – even though he is not the firstborn – Judah describes his father’s dismay at losing the first son of his beloved Rachel, and now the dread of losing her other son. “His soul is bound up with the lad’s soul,” says Judah. He offers to stay in Benjamin’s place, and voices the awful thought that the old man will die when he sees his other sons return without Benjamin.

No interpreter gets a chance to speak. Joseph cannot control himself. He sends out the interpreters, the courtiers, all the attendants who surround him, and he faces his brothers in tears. In fact he cries loud enough that he is heard throughout Pharaoh’s house. But his message is for his brothers alone. His Hebrew is heartfelt: “A-nee Yosef — I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” Predictably, we learn that the brothers are nonplussed. They cannot even answer him , even though now they are all speaking the same language. So he asks them to come close to him, as he makes his true identity known to them.

Why come close? Commentators give interesting answers. The Klee Yokor says he had to show them he was circumcised, as proof positive that he was one of them. Speaking Hebrew was not enough. After all, the Egyptian interpreter also spoke Hebrew.

The Or haHayyim says he needed them close enough to whisper to them, aware that his Egyptian advisors would be listening through the keyholes. Certainly Joseph has plenty to tell his brothers, about how he is dealing with the famine, about the Land of Goshen where he plans to settle them, maybe even why he had to shave off his beard. What he says here, however, concerns them directly: “Don’t think it was you who sent me here. G-d sent me to prepare a refuge for our family.”

Those words come from the heart. How many discounted or ignored younger brothers crossed half a world to prepare a refuge for their families! Courage like Joseph’s build Jewish history.

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