INAUGURATION DAY – “Tzav” – Lev. 6-8 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

INAUGURATION DAY – “Tzav” – Lev. 6-8 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         No parade.  No speeches.  No wildly cheering crowd.  This is not the coronation of a king or the inauguration of a president.  This is a dedication of a high priest and his assistants.

         In these three long chapters we will read how Moses inaugurated his brother Aaron and sons as priests in the newly completed Tabernacle. First the necessary sacrifices are detailed.  Then Moses assembles his brother and nephews, washes them, gives them their special clothes, and performs the ceremony. He assembles the people at the door of the Tent to witness this event.  He applies holy oil to the furniture of the Tabernacle, sprinkles that oil seven times on the altar, and anoints the head of Aaron as High Priest.  He then brings in Aaron’s sons and dresses them.  

Then come the sacrifices.  A bullock and two rams, each has special significance.  The bullock is a sin offering.  The first ram is “olah” – literally a burnt offering, but the word also means “rising,” directing human thoughts upward, rising to heaven with the smoke.  And the second ram is “millu-im” – completion.  During this whole ceremony, we might find it surprising that Aaron and his sons do not lead it.  All they do is place their hands on the head of the sacrificial animal before it is slaughtered.  Moses does all the work.  Only when the rites are completed does he give his nephews instructions about cooking the meat and where to eat it.  They will stay in the Tabernacle for a full week, and work into their duties.  

This ceremony consecrated the hereditary priesthood – the cohanim —for all of Jewish history to come.  So we will read the account of slaughtering animals, and which parts were burned, which parts eaten, and how the blood was used to sanctify the priests – a drop on the right ear-lobe, a drop on the right thumb, a drop on the right big toe.  Quite graphic.  

Obviously this is not how we practice our religion today.  After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis set a principle: Prayer replaces sacrifice –t’filah bim’kom korban.  They created a prayerbook that includes descriptions of the ancient sacrifices, and taught that repeating those descriptions qualifies us as if we performed the sacrifices ourselves.  Some Jews still anticipate building the Third Temple and restoring the sacrificial cult.  Others deny that plan, consider it barbaric.  And many realistic traditionalists, even though continuing to read about the sacrifices in the daily prayers, will simply wait for the Messiah and let him decide what rites to perform in the Third Temple.

Yet when we read the Torah in the synagogue, we continue reviewing the sacrificial offerings every year, in this portion and indeed in a large part of the Book of Leviticus.  Why?  

My father, Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon of blessed memory, called it “the supreme symbol of religious idealism.”  Citing the homiletical play on the second verse of this portion, “zot torat ha-olah hee ha-olah,” he wrote: “The rabbis [thus] expressed a great truth: ‘This is the law of the burnt-offering; it leads upward.’  Only sacrifice lifts man to the highlands of the spirit.”

What we should take note of here are the reasons cited for sacrifice. They include violations of positive commandments, and of prohibitions.  Those call for what the Torah defines as Sin offerings and Guilt offerings.  Other reasons for sacrifice are even more contemporary: thanksgiving, and peace. The very Hebrew word for a sacrifice, korban, comes from the same 3-letter root as the word karov – “near.”  Through the ages, our sages stress that point.  In Hasidus, to be m’korev someone is not to sacrifice them but to bring them near, to involve them in Jewish life.   

Our sacrifice may not be expressed in slaughtered cattle, or in cornmeal flavored with frankincense.  Instead, we offer our time, our labor, our cash.   A selfless act of devotion can bring us near to G-d and to each other. 

Sharing our food with the hungry, helping those who have no help, teaching those who need to learn, and joining in prayer with any 9 Jews who need one more for a Minyan – are just a few ways we can fulfill the Mitzvah of sacrifice today.

We don’t even need holy oil.

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GETTING THE CALL – Vayikra – Leviticus 1:1 ff – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

GETTING THE CALL – Vayikra – Leviticus 1:1 ff – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         Now we begin the book of Leviticus.  Its first three words are worth dwelling on.  Unlike most English translations, this book does NOT open by saying “The L-rd called to Moses, and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”  The Hebrew original starts with the three words “Vayikra el Mosheh” – literally, “He called to Moses.”  Who called?  The text does not say.  Of course, next come the words “the L-rd spoke to him,” but we still don’t know who called Moses to attention.

         True, most commentators assume that the call came from G-d, because the immediate previous section, at the end of Exodus, specifically tells us that Divine glory filled the Tabernacle.  So if a call came to Moses from there, it had to be the voice of G-d.  It remained for the Lubavitcher Rebbe to ask “Who is calling?” and to differ with some earlier commentators as to the basis, but he too assumed the Divine source.

         Now let’s take another look at this text.  The Torah not only does not waste words, it does not omit words.  No message reaches its target unless that target is there to receive it.  Every target – particularly a human ear – needs to be ready, needs an alert, an alarm, a call to attention.  The source of that call could be natural or supernatural, human or animal or technical.  G-d might send us a message, and we might not be listening.   So Vayikra el Mosheh really applies to all of us. If a Moses needs a call, what about us ordinary people?  A baby cries, a bird squawks, thunder roars, tires shriek, a plane power-dives – were you listening?   Maybe you weren’t, but you are now.  And if you have the head and the heart to get the message, you can save yourself and those you love.         

Who called to Moses?  It doesn’t matter.  Moses heard the call, and was ready.  So may it be for us.        


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HOW MANY EXILES? – Pekudey – Ex.38 -40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HOW MANY EXILES? – Pekudey – Ex.38 -40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         The Book of Exodus concludes with an elaborate description of the process of assembling the Tabernacle and initiating its ritual. After a year of wandering in the desert, on the first day of the first month of their second year out of Egypt, the people of Israel has its portable headquarters – a home for its worship and a guide for its journey.  The last section of this reading tells us that the Divine presence shows by day in a cloud resting on the Tabernacle, and at night by a fire burning inside.  When the cloud rises, the people move on, extending their progress toward the Promised Land.  When the cloud settles, they camp.  

         Here we have a physical, visual symbol of Jewish destiny. As the “pillar of cloud by day, and the burning fire by night” are said to guide our ancestors on their ancient journey through the desert, we too could have our cloud and our fire.  We can find them in our living tradition.  Our faith should guide us on our journey through life and through history.

         The great commentator Nachmanides, the Ramban,writes that Exodus is the book of the first exile — first of four exiles scheduled for Israel.  This exile was decreed in the 15thchapter of Genesis, where the people’s redemption from exile was also predicted.  But that exile was not finished until the Tabernacle was complete and Divine glory could dwell among the people.

         Four exiles: Egypt, Babylon, Rome and Spain.  Did the independence of the State of Israel end the 4thexile?  

         Maybe not.   Maybe we are still in the 4thexile, without an invasion, without an inquisition.  Maybe we are in exile from ourselves.  Right now.  Maybe we find too many of our people wilfully turning their backs on the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire.  

No maybe about it.   

Many years ago I found myself discussing the concept of a Messiah with a Hebrew school class.  I asked them who did they think the Messiah would be.  It was a 12-year-old boy who answered: “I think the Messiah is all of us. We can save ourselves.”

Good answer, Billy.  Indeed we need to save ourselves.  We need to end our exile from ourselves and from each other.  We need to share the basic beauty of our heritage, the potent power of our Torah, over and above our quarreling opinions. There is so much in Judaism to share.  We don’t have to agree on every interpretation, but we must somehow join in the goal of “saving ourselves.”  In all the many parts of the world we live in, and in all the rival religious movements and political parties we sponsor, we can still find each other.  We must.  Together, together, we can find that pillar of fire and follow it into a future we can share.   

No 5thexile!

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ENOUGH ALREADY! – Vayak’hel – Ex. 35:1-38:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ENOUGH ALREADY! – Vayak’hel – Ex. 35:1-38:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         This week we will read the portion Vayak’hel – “Moses assembled the entire people.”  Usually this section is joined with the next one, Pikudey – “the records of the Tabernacle.”  But during a leap year like this one, the two sections occupy two weeks.  So this week we can concentrate on Moses’ purpose in calling a super meeting.

         As a nation, they are to embark on a super task. Still camped at Mount Sinai, this meeting takes place, as Rashi informs us, the day after Yom Kippur.  Moses just obtained Divine forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf and received the second Tablets of the Law.  Now he will lead his people to implement their connection to G-d by building a holy Tabernacle.  This task is not limited to any chosen few, but must include the entire Israelite nation.  Accordingly, Moses will call on all who are willing to donate t’rumah – an offering – consisting of the raw materials which will be used to create the Tabernacle.  “Take from yourselves an offering for G-d,” he says.  “All who are generous hearted, bring the offering… gold and silver and copper; blue and purple and scarlet linen, goat’s hair and red-dyed ramskins, sealskins, acacia wood.  Oil and spices, and jewels for the sacred garments.”  There’s more, of course.  The women were to weave, and the men to transport, and all are called on to dedicate their possessions and their work.  Because this travelling house of worship is to represent them all.

         But this is not Moses’ first message to this super meeting. Before even starting on his list of raw materials, he instructs his people to work 6 days and rest on the sacred seventh, Shabat.  “Anyone who works that day will die,” he says.  Don’t even build a fire on the Sabbath day.

         Nokhamol Shabbes? Again Shabos?  This makes no less than 8 times it is discussed in the Torah so far.  Not to mention at least an equal number coming up.  Clearly our tradition spares no opportunity to state the importance of Sabbath observance.  Keeping Shabos may not be easy, indeed it  frequently causes serious problems, but the one situation where it may be annulled is pikuakh nefesh – saving a life.  First comes human life.  Observance, no matter how important, comes second.  Still, a sacred structure like the Tabernacle should not be built on any sacred days.

         Of all the ideals and concepts and processes that Judaism created and gave to the world, perhaps nothing can compare with the weekly day of rest.  As other societies observe it on different days – Sunday or Friday, as we know – the Jewish Sabbath can become a serious problem for those who try to observe it in non-Jewish countries.  Yet rightly was it stated that “more than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel.”  It is a day, a value, a ritual we can all share.  Good clothes, good food, Kiddush and synagogue services and singing zmiros around the leisurely dinner table – all express joy in our heritage. Whether our work involves building a Tabernacle or building an outhouse, it should not be done on the Sabbath.  

         But frequently it is.  Strict Sabbath observance was long considered impossible in modern life. Today, some Jews are reviving Shabos with inventive skill.  Take a day to unplug!  Use Friday night for family visits.  Join groups like National Jewish Outreach in a communal Shabat Across America. Creative people are coming up with various ways to be a little more Jewish once a week.

         In our Torah portion, only after Moses reminds the nation of the importance of the Sabbath, does he call on them to contribute their offerings to the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  Betzalel and Oholiav, the master builders/architects/designers, take all this donated raw material and begin their work.  Soon they realize they have more than they need.  Enough already!  Stop bringing!   When they notify Moses of this surplus, he orders a loud proclamation: “Let no man or woman do any more!”  Definitely the first and only time that a temple fundraising project had to be stopped for its success!  And here Moses accomplished something even more important: national unity. How did this happen?  They were working together, doing it themselves while sharing the Sabbath, and thus they developed a strong community.  

By working together, joining in a common cause, and observing our Mitzvos as faithfully as possible, we can still produce results that outstrip our needs.  Worth trying, isn’t it?

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BE COUNTED – Kee Tissa – Ex. 30:11—34:35, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

BE COUNTED – Kee Tissa – Ex. 30:11—34:35, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         “When you count the sons of Israel,” Moses is told, “let each man give a ransom for his soul.”  What goes without saying here is that it is not a direct count.  Our commentators provide the explanation that counting people directly can activate the ayin hora – the Evil Eye.   In the effort to avoid that mystic disaster, our people found various ways to count each other indirectly.   The synagogue shamas must make sure a minyanof 10 qualified Jews is present for services, so he recites the Biblical verse that begins Hoshiah es amekha (Save Your people), which contains exactly 10 words, while visually indicating one man per word. And if Grandma wanted to know that all the children were assembled for dinner, she would talley them saying Nisht eyns, nisht tzvey… (Not one, not two, etc.).

So in this week’s reading, Moses must ask for half a shekel from each Jew as a kofer nafsho (a ransom for his soul), and by counting the coins he could arrive at a census.  Just half a shekel.  This is not a fund-raising effort.  Specific orders demand that “the rich shall not increase [the amount] and the poor shall not reduce it.”  This half-shekel coin is called “an offering to G-d” because, says the Klee Yokor, it makes rich and poor equal.  A rich man cannot brag to his poor neighbor: “Look, I gave so much more than you did.”  Implying, of course, that his gift makes him important.  Like a PAC contribution.

Yes, this is a count.  But we must note that it is not a national census.  The population is numbered tribe by tribe elsewhere in the Torah.  Here we see no total figure.  Rather than a census, we should call this registering for the draft.  Men 20 years old and up are the only ones included.  These are the future soldiers who will fight to conquer the Promised Land. As the Hertz commentary points out, “this word ‘ransom’ occurs only three times in the Torah, and each time it refers to the money paid by one who is guilty of taking human life in circumstances that do not constitute murder.  Thus, the owner of an ox who killed a man, after the owner was warned that his animal was dangerous, was held responsible; but as his crime was not intentional he was permitted to pay a ransom.   Such a ransom was forbidden in the case of deliberate murder… The soldier who is ready to march into battle is in the eyes of Heaven a potential taker of life, though not a deliberate murderer.  Hence he requires a ‘ransom’ for his life.”

What we may find odd in this situation is the use to which the ransom money is put.  No weapons will be purchased with it, no intelligence operations financed, no military officers hired.  This money will go toward the construction and care of the holy Tabernacle, led by the expert craftsmen Betzalel and Oholiav, as described in this reading. All the future draftees who just got counted will be expected to learn the Mitzvos, like Sabbath observance which is detailed later in this reading, and observe them, with just as much devotion as they will show by risking their lives for their G-d and their people in the battle for the Land.

Of course the most famous section of this reading is the story of the Golden Calf, which our sages tell us happened somewhat earlier.  One minor episode in this story is worth our attention here.   After Aaron capitulates to the people’s impatience and builds them an idol, then announces “a holiday tomorrow,” the people spend the next day bringing offerings to the Calf, and sitting down to eat.  And to drink.  Then vayakumu l’tzakhek – “they rose up to make merry!”  Considering their inebriation, Rashi gives us some implied meanings for that word l’tzakhek: 1-sexual promiscuity, as Potiphar’s wife used the word when she accused Joseph of attempted rape; and 2- bloodshed, as brought on during the struggle between Saul and David when the corrupt generals Abner and Joab set up a supposed entertainment by the young recruits, which becomes a massacre.  Comparisons like these illustrate the depraved nature of idolatry, and how it prompted Moses to shatter the tablets and to threaten the idolaters with death. Only after deep trouble, after the many casualties caused by the Levites’ attacks, after Aaron’s rehabilitation and Moses’ own soul searching, could he go back up the mountain and receive the second set of Tablets of the Law.  This time, he achieved such close contact with the Divine that his face shown with a beacon of light, frightening those who saw him.  We will read how Moses had to wear a veil in camp after that.

Among the profound and famous passages in this week’s reading, we must not overlook the Thirteen Attributes –sh’losh esreh meedos – which we repeat while facing the Ark on all major holidays: “The L-rd, the L-rd is G-d, gracious and merciful, patient, with great kindness and truth.  He vouchsafes kindness to thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.  By no means clearing the guilty, He will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generations.” Note that in our prayers we never finish the passage.  We express our hope by stopping before the punishment predicted in the last sentence. 

Do we have that much hope?  A quick look at Jewish history can confirm both the favor and the punishment we know. Maybe we just need to join equally in that half-shekel registration, and remove Moses’ veil.

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