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

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

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 in recent centuries crossed half a world to prepare a refuge for their families!  Courage like Joseph’s builds Jewish history.

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NOW WE KINDLE THE CANDLES – Hanukkah – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

NOW WE KINDLE THE CANDLES – Hanukkah – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          Haneyrot ha-lalu anakhnu madleekeen – My old Hanukkah record sings itself anew every year in Hebrew or in English or both.  The gifted Israeli bandleader and multimedia artist, David Yakobian, who made the original recording with me, remains my good friend.  Like other Jews the world over, we and our families look forward to celebrating these 8 days and the miraculous survival they recall.

Now we kindle the candles, remembering the days of old,
Lights full of myst’ry, lights full of history, 
Sparks from the battles brave and bold,
Blazing a story of ancient glory, 
Maccabees who fought to worship free, 
Still standing by us, old Mattathias
Calls “Ye faithful, come along with me.”
As each night we add one light, 
We add a prayer that freedom be for all,                          
So we know we keep them holy
Till the Eight are thrilling great and small.

          So we kindle the candles…  *

This year, as usual, we look for friends in other parts of the human race who can join in our celebration.   One historic event climaxed in Washington recently at the White House Hanukkah reception, as the U.S. Government officially acknowledged Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel.  Thus a friendly administration agrees that Eer haKodesh – the Holy City – is central to Jewish life for some 3,000 years and to the modern Jewish State for at least 68.  How this decision will be implemented remains to be seen.  But all Jews can welcome the spirit of this policy, and join in lighting a candle.

          Remember the order of our candles.  We place them in the Menorah starting on the extreme right.  That’s the first night.  Every night after that, we add a candle, increasing by one each night and setting them in place from right to left.  Then we light them, from left to right.  Always light the new one first.  Every day is a new experience, hopefully a new miracle, a new prayer of gratitude for freedom. 

          Next Monday when eight flames send their combined message of joy to the world outside, let’s join in the faith that miracles from Heaven do not stop.  As our Maccabees found just enough oil to burn for one night – and it burned for eight – so let our world alliances and our religious and national strength live and increase. 

          She-hekhe-yonnu v’kee-y’monnu v’higiyonnu laz’man ha-zeh.  “Thank G-d for our life and our sustenance to reach this time.”


*Music for the song can be found in the book “Songs for my People” p.40  (available from this writer)

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DREAMS OF GLORY – “Vayeyshev” Gen. 37-40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

DREAMS OF GLORY – “Vayeyshev” Gen. 37-40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          Of all the dreamers in human history, Joseph stands out.  We meet him in this week’s Sedrah Vayeyshev, at age 17, telling his father and his older brothers about his dreams.   One is a dream of physical glory, in which he sees his sheaf of grain stand up in the field while all their sheaves surround his and bow.   The second dream is highly symbolic, with the sun and moon and 11 stars bowing down to him.  Already unpopular with his brothers, since he was Jacob’s favorite son, these dreams earn him their mortal hatred.  They refer to him as “baal hakhalomos – the dream-master.”  They consider murdering him, and decide instead to sell him into servitude.  His dreams of glory begin to turn into nightmares.

          Yet, 20 years later those dreams come true.

          What happens in between makes the story of Joseph not only a great classic biography, which inspired retelling it by writers from Thomas Mann to Andrew Lloyd Weber.  It also gives us a unique lesson in how to make our dreams come true.  Joseph’s character develops under all different kinds of pressure.

          First come the Ishmaelites on the caravan, who buy him from his brothers for 20 silver coins.  All of a sudden this spoiled kid becomes a slave.  He is human merchandise that they will sell in Egypt for whatever they can get, and until they arrive there he will earn his meager meal by helping tend the camels.   A boy who seldom even got a direct order from his indulgent father, now gets plenty of orders – and kicks and slaps — from heathen camel-drivers.  He learns to take it.  He has no choice.

          Then comes Potiphar, the Egyptian aristocrat, captain of the guard.  He puts Joseph to work in his house.  By now Joseph knows enough about taking orders to anticipate what needs to be done, and with native intelligence and youthful energy he does it efficiently.  So Potiphar makes him major domo.  Bright and good-looking, he is soon running the whole estate.

          Then comes Potiphar’s wife.  She takes a look at this young man and decides she wants him.   Her proposition is anything but subtle:  “Lie with me!”  Young as he is, Joseph senses the risks.  And his home training warns him that this is wrong in the sight of G-d.  So, unlike some of our politicians, he turns her down.   What might be going through the mind of this 18-year-old slave, we don’t know.  Is he a virgin?  Is the lady attractive?  Could he really desire her?  The Torah narrative ignores those questions.  But the cantillation for the word va-y’ma-eyn (he refused) is a shalshelet, literally a “chain” – the rarest and most ornate of musical figures in Torah chant, reserved for important words.  That refusal is very important.

          Incidentally, Rashi quotes the Talmudic opinion that Potiphar himself had a homosexual desire for Joseph.  Which might explain his wife’s eagerness for something she was not getting from her husband.  The Torah identifies Potiphar as a saris, usually translated “officer” or “courtier” but literally meaning “eunuch,” as were many of ancient potentates’ courtiers, surgically emasculated to safeguard the king’s harem. 

Indeed Mrs. P keeps tempting Joseph day after day without success, until one day when the other servants are not in the house she grabs his cloak to pull him into bed.  He leaves the cloak in her hands and goes out.  Frustrated and angry, she uses the cloak as evidence to frame him for attempted rape.  So Joseph goes to prison.

          Next come his jailer and his fellow prisoners.  He impresses the jailer enough to become his right-hand man.  And his fellow inmates come to him to interpret their dreams.  In the following Torah portion we will read how Joseph’s interpretations lead Pharoah to release him and make him viceroy.  Add some Divine inspiration, and Joseph is in position to receive his brothers and his father, and to save them from starvation. 

          How did he get there?  It was no easy trip.  The Ishmaelite caravan taught him to work.  Servitude on Potiphar’s estate developed his ambition and enabled him to find ways to achieve it.  Never forgetting his father’s teaching, he is able to weather his sexual trials and to make the best of an unjust punishment.  By the time he meets Pharaoh at age 30, Joseph has all the qualifications to live out his boyhood dream.  Running the country for the next seven years and controlling its economy to survive poverty, he earns the right to have “the sun and moon and 11 stars bow to him.” No, it wasn’t easy.

          Fulfilling our dreams never is.  Typically it involves hard work, strength to endure disappointments and rise above them, backbone to live by our principles, and enough imagination to preserve the vision we aim for.   Like Joseph, we might have to spend 20 years getting there.  Maybe less, like Mark Zuckerberg.  Or maybe more, like most of us.  But it is our challenge, a sacred journey that calls us to bring our vision to life. 

          Brakha v’hatzlakha – The most successful blessing: fulfill your dreams!

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DOT’S DA DIFFERENCE – Vayishlakh – Gen. 32:4 – 36, by Rabbi Baruch  Cohon

DOT’S DA DIFFERENCE – Vayishlakh – Gen. 32:4 – 36, by Rabbi Baruch  Cohon

          Nowhere in the Torah do we find dental bridges mentioned.  I mention them here because I happen to have one in my mouth, and this week’s reading reminds me of it every year.  Why do I have a bridge between my teeth?  It so happens that while eating dinner with guests in our Succah one year I bit down on a stainless steel fork and broke a tooth.  Rather than make a scene, I just spit out half a tooth and finished my meal carefully.  But other teeth later loosened around it, and my dentist fitted me with a bridge.   No more problems.  But what does this have to do with Torah?

          Just this.  This week’s reading includes the story of Jacob meeting his brother Esau for the first time in years, as Jacob returns from Haran.    He now has a family, and flocks and herds and camels, hardly the same lone terrified Jacob who fled his brother’s anger.  How will Esau react to him now?  He sends messengers ahead, to Esau in Mount Seir in the place called Edom, with gifts, to announce his arrival.   They report back, telling him that Esau is coming to meet him alright – with 400 armed men.  So Jacob divides his followers into two camps, figuring that if Esau attacks one camp, the other camp can be saved.  The night passes, with Jacob praying, and then struggling with a mysterious stranger – possibly an angel – but in the morning he manages to set out and meet Esau and his 400-man army.  Jacob has his wives and children take turns approaching their dreaded uncle.  Jacob himself goes ahead of them and bows seven times.  And then, to our surprise, we read: “Esau ran to meet him, fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”  Is this the same man who wanted to kill him?  What about the little army?   And what about those dots over the word for “and kissed him?”  Dots over words are rare in the Torah.  What do they mean?

          This is where the dental problem comes in.  Commentators, from Rashi on, tell us that what Esau really intended to do was to bite Jacob’s neck.  In fact, the 3-letter Hebrew root words for “bite” and “kiss” are quite similar.  Nashak and nashach.  Only one letter is different – kuf (the K-sound) in the word “kiss” and the guttural chaf in “bite.”  To which one Midrash adds this explanation: Esau did bite Jacob’s neck, aiming for the jugular.  But at that moment Jacob’s neck miraculously turned to iron.  Esau broke all his teeth.  No wonder he cried!

          Maybe the Midrash has a message here for all of us, personally and nationally.   The old stiff neck can protect us from false friends.  All the bowing that Jacob and his wives and children did for Esau – no dots.  It was sincere.  Esau’s display of emotion remains questionable.  The Torah’s dots pose that silent question.  We might well dot various agreements made with questionable groups today, including some of Esau’s descendants. 

          We notice that Esau proceeds to accept Jacob’s gifts, and invites him to bring his family to Edom.  Jacob declines, citing the difficulty of travel for his children.  Really, how does he know when to expect Esau’s next attempted attack?   Better leave some space between them.  Through the centuries after that, Israel and Edom remained enemies.  Rabbis in the Talmud even refer to Rome, the enemy in their day, by the code name Edom.  Esau’s actions left the taste of danger in the mouths of Jacob’s family.  As it left those dots in the Torah. 

          Nobody dots nuclear treaties these days.  Seems like the least we could do.

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