ALTARS AND IDOLS – Re’eh – Deut. 11:26 – 16:17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ALTARS AND IDOLS – Re’eh – Deut. 11:26 – 16:17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Torah reading continues Moses’ farewell discourses, and covers several topics, connected by the concept of blessing vs. curse. Follow Divine law and earn blessing, or break that law and be cursed. Most years, we tend to select the moral absolutes outlined here and glean their message. This year I cannot dodge a challenge with which Moses confronts our ancestors at the very beginning of Chapter 12.

“These are the statutes and ordinances that you must be sure to do, in the land that the G-d of your fathers gave you to possess it, all the days that you will live on earth. You must totally destroy all the places where the people you are dispossessing served their gods – on high mountains, on hills, and under every leafy tree. Break their altars, smash their pillars, burn their idols, chop down their graven images and wipe out their name from that place.”

From the commentators and from historians we learn that many of those altars provided locations for sacred prostitution. These were not just for prayer and sacrifice. They were gathering places for eating and drinking and sanctified sex. So they had to be destroyed.

Israel is to be a one-faith state. And it is to have just one sacred place, which Moses does not describe here, but after some temporary locations for the Holy Ark in places like Gilgal and Shiloh, and David dancing before the Ark in transit, we know that King Solomon would build the Temple in Jerusalem.

No Dome of the Rock. No El Aqsa. No Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Bet haMikdash stood alone.

In 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar would not rest until he destroyed – what? The king’s palace? The royal treasury? Of course not. He had to destroy the First Temple and that’s what conquered the nation.

In 70 CE the Romans followed his example, and even commemorated their destructive victory with images on the Arch of Triumph showing Roman soldiers carrying the sacred Menorah out of the Second Temple.

So now our Sedrah fairly demands the answer to the events of the 20th century:

Did modern Israel violate Torah law by turning the Temple Mount over to a Jordanian theocracy to administer? Other nations don’t do that. In effect, some of them could be said to observe the violent commandment in this week’s Torah reading. Jihadis smash statues of Buddha in Pakistan, and their archeological imams in Jerusalem find and destroy relics of Solomon’s Temple in a pan-Islamist campaign to banish Jews from the land they call Palestine. In Europe, synagogues were polluted and destroyed by pogromniks for centuries. Nazis used them for stables. Arab terrorists target them in France and the Netherlands and Scandinavia now.

Certainly our Torah portion, Re’eh – “See here!” – does not anticipate a time when a Jewish country, in its classic Biblical location, would voluntarily share its most sacred place with its sworn enemies. Various rabbinic commentaries advise us of possible future changes on the Temple Mount. One teaches that the Moshiach – the Messiah (the Jewish one, that is) – will build the Third Temple. When that happens, Israel would once more be a one-faith state.

Are there any others?

Well, Saudi Arabia comes to mind. Its holy cities, Mecca and Medina are closed to non-Muslims, and the faithful are expected to make a pilgrimage to those sanctified places at least once in their lifetime. For sure, there is no synagogue in Mecca. No church either.

21st century publicity stresses the position of Jerusalem’s holy mountain as being sacred to three religions. This despite the fact that many people who were born into those religions do not observe them, and so do not visit that mountain anyway.

Fifty years ago Israel fought a Six-Day War which strengthened its position in many areas, including East Jerusalem, fighting their way through the alleys of the old city, and encountering no significant opposition. One famous memory from that campaign recounts a message General Motta Gur radioed to headquarters. Just three words: Har habayit b’yadeynu – “the Temple Mount is in our hands!” To his shock, the government would not let him take it. They thought they could avoid large-scale Muslim attacks if they denied his conquest.

Many times since then, that decision was questioned.

Would it make Israel stronger, or bring the Moshiach any closer, if the IDF demolished a couple of mosques? Or would the Six Day War bring on a conflict of decades? We won’t know. The mosques stand, and the conflict continues.

But if we can learn one lesson from Re’eh, let it be this: We can approach G-d wherever we are. Even at the Kotel, the Western Wall – depending on who you are, and what the latest political decision may be as to where you should pray if you are female. We can pray for the advent of the Moshiach. We can certainly ignore the pretentions of our enemies. And whatever our religious approach may be, we can follow it in truth. No longer can we expect Israel to be a one-faith state. But we can make sure it will never be a no-faith state.

Let us keep whatever Mitzvos we are able to, in Los Angeles or Tel Aviv or on the Temple Mount, and let us do it sincerely. Sincerity can bring us blessing. The opposite already brought us enough curses.

Uvokharta vakhayim – Choose life! Ken y’hee ratzon.

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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 ma 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 57th 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 ba-avosekha — 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 es haMitzvos – 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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HAWAII LOOKS AT ISRAEL – Va-eskhanon – Deut. 3:23 – 7:11 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HAWAII LOOKS AT ISRAEL – Va-eskhanon – Deut. 3:23 – 7:11 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Ancient law, including Torah law, could exact death penalties where none were justified. For example, if A kills B, then A is condemned to death, and B’s next of kin is empowered to find him and kill him. That’s if the court finds there was serious enmity between A and B, and the killing was deliberate. If the killing was accidental – a blade flew off the handle of A’s axe and struck B, for example – and there was no evidence of A’s plan to commit any murder, then A is acquitted. But B’s next of kin is not convinced. What protects A from a revenge killing?

That is one condition we will read about in this week’s Torah portion. Among the many more familiar subjects covered in Moses’ farewell discourses – like a restatement of the Ten Commandments — this one is easy to miss. In fact it is treated elsewhere in the Torah too. Here we learn some unique detail. So let’s see what happens to A, the accidental killer.

Chapter 4, verse 11 tells us that Moses designated 3 cities east of the Jordan as Cities of Refuge. There, one who “murdered his friend unintentionally, who did not hate him yesterday or the day before, can flee to one of those cities, and live.” Back a few weeks, to the reading in Numbers chapter 35, we learn that there were also 3 more such cities west of the Jordan, and we can read details of how all those cities functioned. The dead man’s kin (called go-el ha-dam — the “redeemer of blood”) had to stay out of the city where the killer was, and the killer had to go to trial. We learn practical definitions of motive, of weapons involved, and of the legal procedure. Final sentencing – whether to death or to permanent residence in a City of Refuge – was to be done by the national court. Talmud tractate Sanhedrin further defines who served on that court. No less than 23 judges on any capital case, and the king cannot be one of them. The High Priest could, but his role causes some problems. This Gemara discusses how the law applies to a High Priest who kills, or who gets killed. Convicting the guilty and protecting the innocent are basic goals.

The accidental killer who was sent to the City of Refuge could expect to stay there for an indeterminate length of time. No specific number of years. He had to wait for the death of the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest. After that, Torah law sets him free, and warns the “redeemer of blood” to stay away from him, or face certain execution.

Centuries later, Orey Miklot – Cities of Refuge – appear in, of all places, the Hawaiian Islands. Spend any time in Hawaii and you might get a chance to visit one. It’s a cave, accessible only by water. Once inside, you will see a display that shows how that cave was used. It was a refuge for an accidental killer. If the tribal chiefs tried him and found that he had no plans to murder the victim, he was entitled to live in the cave, fish for food, and stay out of the reach of the vengeful relatives. And how long must this go on? Until the death of the Big Kahuna.

Here I found an exact repetition of millennia-old Torah law – half a world away! How did it happen?

What I learned was fascinating. When the Hawaiian Islands were still uninhabited, some adventurous Polynesians decided they wanted to take them over. They looked for navigators to pilot their boats through the Pacific Ocean, and found that the best qualified pilots were Jewish refugees – probably fleeing European pogroms – who were available and anxious to work. The Pacific was not that different from the Baltic, so they reached Hawaii. Arriving in their new home, these navigators acquired some influence, and incidentally taught their Polynesian passengers some Torah. A professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii was said to discover a major number of words in the Hawaiian language that have parallel sound and parallel meaning to those words in Hebrew. Like Kahuna = Cohen. Or Makana = Matana (a gift).

Certainly, Cities of Refuge were different from Sanctuary Cities. Yet they shared some goals, like protecting the innocent. Sometimes, they very likely succeeded.

In Honolulu or Jerusalem, let justice be done!

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GIANT ENEMIES – D’varim – Deut. 1-3:22 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

GIANT ENEMIES – D’varim – Deut. 1-3:22 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, consists of Moses’ three farewell orations to his people. This week we will read the first one, reviewing Israel’s travels and trials en route to the east bank of the Jordan river. A major challenge faced them in the person of Og, the giant king of Bashan. Moses recalls the battle at a place called Edrei. He also recalls G-d telling him “Do not fear him, because I give him into your hands.”

Fear him? Why should Moses fear Og more than the other kings who tried to block Israel’s progress?

We learn that Og was a last descendant of a race of giants. Like Goliath in the career of David, this huge creature struck terror into his enemies wherever he went. No man dared fight him. So he became the champion by default. In Og’s case, we even have the dimensions of the bed he slept on – an iron bed, because as the Ramban’s commentary explains a wooden bed would break beneath his weight. Nine cubits long by four cubits wide, we read. Since a cubit is defined as the distance from a man’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger, that makes it equal to about 18 inches, a foot and a half. Therefore Og’s iron bed was at least 13’ 6” long by 6’ wide. Clearly this man dwarfed a whole modern basketball team.

And yet, not only did Moses not fear him. He defeated him and his army.

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.

Then he 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.

Terror – whether of physical size, numerical superiority or surprise attack – is in the mind of the object of that terror. The source of terror can be crushed.

Og was Osama. Og was Arafat. Og is Nasrallah. Og is Khamenei. And none of them ever needed a 13-foot bed.

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 – Numbers 33 – Matos-Mas’ey – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ONE LAND – Numbers 33 – Matos-Mas’ey – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Another double-header week finds us reading two Torah portions, covering a wide range of subjects. Vows and how to fulfill them, journeys and battles in Israel’s progress toward the Jordan, exceptions and precedents to form the rules of inheritance – all are covered in these concluding chapters of the Book of Numbers. Among them we find a message that should jolt us.

The end of Chapter 33 brings us to a prophetic prediction that haunts Jewish history. On the bank of the Jordan at Jericho, G-d tells Moses to “speak to the people of Israel, and tell them: When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, you must drive out all the inhabitants before you. Destroy their idols and their shrines. Demolish their high places. Clear out the land and dwell there, for to you did I give the land to possess it. Divide the land by lot, according to the size of families. To the numerous give more, and to the smaller give less. According to your ancestral tribes, apportion the land.”

Then comes the warning. “And if you will not drive out the inhabitants, then those you let remain will become spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you on the land where you dwell. And then, what I intended to do to them, I will do to you.”

Who were those “inhabitants?” Tribes called Canaanites, Hittites, Perizites, Hivites, Amorites, Jebusites, Girgashites. Where are they now? Maybe they just changed their names. Same function, but what do they call themselves? Hamas, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Fatah, and one ancient people called Philistines — extinct for centuries, only their name was adopted and latinized to “Palestinians,” first to accommodate the Roman Empire, then the Ottomans, then the British, and later to validate the genocidal ambitions of Yasser Arafat.

For Moses there was no “two-state solution.” Any more than there is now. As proven from his day to this day, when a war is fought and territory changes hands, those who live in that territory have a choice: accept the new reality, or move.

Presumably the Canaanites moved. Surrounding countries absorbed them. The difference, all these centuries later, is that the surrounding countries, their ancestral relatives and current co-religionists, refused to absorb the modern “Canaanites” and instead used them as a political weapon to do what none of them could do in battle but still hope to do by manipulating the UN – destroy Israel. While they pursue their plot, the “spikes in the eyes” and the “thorns in the sides” continue, otherwise known as rockets and suicide bombs.

In the Biblical campaign of conquest, Joshua in fact did not succeed in driving out all those tribes. Some remained to harass. Some even became resident aliens and accepted the Seven Mitzvos of the children of Noah. Unlike one John Kerry and several succeeding “diplomats”, they identified Israel as a Jewish state.

The thorns-in-the-side had to be expelled again and again. But the ancient Israelite rulers did not take their most sacred spot — the Temple Mount – and turn it over to their enemies. Results include recent “spikes in the eyes” like the murder of Israeli policemen, even though they were not even Jewish but Druze citizens. And of course the UN denying the identity of the Temple Mount as a Jewish holy place.

Maybe some of our leaders needed to take another look at the warning at Jericho.

2014 06 01 The Golden Gate, also known as: Gate of Mercy, Gate of Eternal Life, Beautiful Gate.

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