PROCLAIM LIBERTY – B’har – Lev.25:1—26:2, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

PROCLAIM LIBERTY – B’har – Lev.25:1—26:2, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         By far the most famous words in this week’s Torah reading are the ones from Chapter 25 verse 10, which are engraved on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” Certainly an inspiring message for a newly independent nation!   Actually, in their original context, they do not mandate anything political at all. 

         As we read this section, we see a society that is first of all agricultural and secondly hereditary.  Once Joshua conquered the country, each family’s property was established, and was intended to remain that way permanently.  No family farm could be legally pulled away from its ancestral owners.  If one owner fell into debt for any reason, he could sell his crop to a wealthier tribesman, who would then operate his farm – but only until the next Jubilee year.  And the Jubilee comes every 50 years, so if the farm is “sold” in year 30, the sale is only good for 20 years.  So it is mandated in this reading.

         Similarly, if a poor Jew in ancient Israel sold himself into indentured servitude, his master had to release him when the Jubilee year rolled around.

         The Hertz commentary points out that these laws helped prevent the land and the people from becoming subservient to a privileged class.  Less debt means more equality.  The Torah does not state that, but it is worth considering.     

         In the previous section, we were instructed to count days.   7 days times 7 weeks for the time between Passover and Shavuot, which occurs on the 50thday.  Now we get a parallel instruction to count years.  Every 7thyear is a Sabbatical, a year off for the land – too bad the land cannot spend that year in Hawaii – but after 7 Sabbatical years comes the Jubilee, which means no planting and no reaping for two full years, the 49thand the 50th In this connection, the Torah promises a blessing on the 6thyear of that cycle – effectively year #48 – that will see the land producing enough to feed its owners for 3 years.  During the Jubilee year, says the Torah, you don’t need to work the land or bring in a harvest.  Just “eat from the field.”  Any field, whether it is legally yours or not.  Questions about this custom abound.  Did our ancestors really observe it?  After all, the limitation on transfer of property only applied to agricultural property.  A house in a walled city could be sold permanently.   In Israel today, shmitah produce – what grows during the Sabbatical years – is banned for religious people, and you see labels that declare “not made with Shmitah ingredients.”   Jubilee years present an even greater problem.  

         And now back to the Liberty Bell.  We are instructed to announce the Jubilee year on Yom Kippur by sounding the Shofar.  Why then? After all, the year started on Rosh Hashanah, 10 days earlier.  And what kind of liberty are we proclaiming?

         The sage Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel compared the Day of Atonement to the day Israel received the Torah.  Just as accepting the Torah could free the people from the Evil Urge and its punishments, so Yom Kippur is the day of freedom from that old foolish vengeful enemy king called Satan, who is the Evil Urge, and all this is to remind each of us to keep the Day of Freedom always before our eyes. 

         What is our kind of liberty?  No longer a year just to eat what we find because we must not grow crops.  It is, this year and every year, individually and collectively, the vision of freedom from evil.  And Yom Kippur will be the perfect day to proclaim it.  Let that T’kiah g’dolah at the end of next Yom Kippur remind us: every year can be our spiritual Jubilee.

           A little further along, in the classic translation of Chapter 25 verse 35 we read: “If your brother be waxen poor…” Waxen poor???  Like a bad face job?  No, that is the accepted Elizabethan English for the Hebrew word yamukh,which means a personal or economic downfall.   More about yamukh later.  What we can learn initially from this section is how to treat that brother. 

         First the Torah tells us that if this poor loser comes to you for help, you are to strengthen him.  If he is a native Jew, or a convert or, as Ibn Ezra includes, a resident alien, let him live.  Help him live.  Don’t let him starve.  The Hertz commentary points out that no other society had such rules.   Not only in the days of the Torah over 3,000 years ago, but right up to the Roman emperor Constantine who instituted poor-relief in the year 315.   Even Constantine’s legislation was repealed by Justinian a couple of centuries later.  And notice that the Torah directs this rule to the individual, not the state.  This is not a “stimulus package.”  It is an Israelite’s duty to save a neighbor.

         Secondly, we will read that we are not to take interest or usury from him.  Yes, he needs a loan.  He needs money to feed himself and his family.  He needs money to start over, to get back on his feet.  If I want to charge him interest, don’t I have a right to it?  No, says the Torah.  “Revere G-d, and let your brother live with you.”  Don’t try to profit from his loss.  Both in Biblical and Rabbinic law, a fine line separates legitimate interest – neshekh —from exorbitant usury —tarbis.  Here both are prohibited.

         Ever been to a Jewish Free Loan office?  Every Jewish community of any size has one.  In Los Angeles where I live, the JFL lends for economic and medical emergencies, or to help a small enterprise get started, and its borrowers are not all Jews either.  Of the thousands of loans on their books, they show a repayment record “in excess of 99%.”  Not a bad record.   That is Leviticus in action.

         Now back to yamukh. Notice that the text specifies a downfall.  This current condition was not necessarily always there; this fellow was not always broke. Maybe he was once as successful as you are.  Maybe he just made some mistakes.   Maybe he got robbed or cheated.  Or maybe he is not very smart.  This is not a condition he planned.   No “entitlements” here.  He is out of luck and out of money.  Your job is to help him if you can.  Of course we can ask “what if this fellow makes a racket out of his poverty?  Do you still have to help him?”  A legitimate question to be sure.  The Book of Leviticus does not treat that possibility, but Talmudic justice would put it in the category of deceit.  We have commandments like “Do not deceive your neighbor or lie.”  Using the shelter of bankruptcy to take advantage of other people’s generosity is also a form of deceit.  Not worthy of help.

         Here we are dealing with something more positive.  The valuable message of this reading is our personal responsibility to extend a helping hand in an emergency.   The Klee Yokor commentary discusses the definite prohibition on taking interest for your help in this situation.  Whatever you give this down-and-outer is not a business loan. By contrast, if a rich man asks you for money, go ahead and charge interest.  Says the Klee Yokor: “Whoever owns a business always looks for G-d’s help, because of the doubt: will he profit or not?” So he borrows money.  The lender also takes a risk, so he is entitled to charge interest. “But,” says the commentary,“seek out the meaning here. The basic purpose [of this ruling] is to forbid usury.”  Your unfortunate brother must not be your victim.                        “V’khai akhikha — Let your brother live.” 

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354 DAYS AT A TIME – Emor –Lev.21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

354 DAYS AT A TIME – Emor –Lev.21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         You probably heard about the fellow who decided to become an atheist.  He left his family’s house of worship and turned his back on religion.  But then a few weeks later, he came back. 

         “You changed your mind?  How come?”

         “Atheists have no holidays.”

         This Torah reading outlines the Jewish calendar, which provides our annual cycle of holidays both serious and upbeat, and all sanctified by faith.  Indeed, Judaism as a way of life is closely connected with the calendar.  That connection goes back to our origins.  Moses reminded us that we left Egypt in the spring month.  Count 49 days – 7 weeks from the Exodus, and on the 50thday we reach Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and become a nation.  And here in Leviticus 23 we go on to detail the dates of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succoth – New Year, Day of Atonement, and the Harvest festival, all in the fall.

         So why is New Years Day celebrated on the first day of the seventh month?  Precisely because Nisan, the month that includes Passover, is the month of freedom, and is specifically designated as the first month of the year in the very story of the Exodus.  The Talmud’s tractate Rosh Hashana lists four “New Year’s days” every year: one for kings, one for numbering years, one for planting trees and one for tithes.  In our urban culture, of course, we limit our ceremonial New Year to the 1stof Tishri.  That is the day we change the number of the year.

         As we all know, the Jewish calendar, like the Chinese, is based on the moon.  354 days on average, instead of the 365 of the solar calendar.  That causes considerable variety in how Jewish holidays compare with those of our neighbors.  In 2011 and 2019, for example, Hanukkah coincided with Christmas. In 2013 it coincided with Thanksgiving.      

       7 times in every 19 years, the Jewish calendar adds a month during the spring, forming a leap year that resolves the lunar-solar difference.  An ancient scholar named Shmuel who headed the academy in a Babylonian town called Nehardea was responsible for much of the development of the calendar used today.  The Talmud describes him as a man who knew the orbits of the planets as well as he knew the streets of Nehardea.  This self-taught astronomer laid the groundwork for a system that gives Jews the world over the opportunity to celebrate their holidays at the same time.  In the days of much slower communication, they had to add a day to the holiday if they lived outside of Israel, in order to make sure they were all observing the occasion together.  Hence we still have the Second Day of many festivals in traditional Diaspora communities but not in Israel.   A notable exception to this rule is Rosh Hashana itself, the New Year, which is observed for two days in Israel too.  That second day is not considered an “second holiday of exile” (yomtov sheyni shel goluyos) but the two days are called “one long day” (yoma arikhta).  One more opportunity to hear the call of the Shofar!

         With all its complex history, the Jewish calendar constitutes a sacred schedule giving us colorful special days that add meaning to all the grey weekdays of our lives.

         Personally, of course, I feel a special connection to “Emor” because I chanted this section at my own Bar Mitzvah.  That was a long time ago, but the message of this reading rings just as strongly in my ears today.  Opening with detailed rules and regulations for the priests – the Cohanim, Aaron’s sons and descendants – from their personal conduct to their sacrificial duties, “Emor” continues with the entire calendar sequence. Between these two sections, we find two short sentences that give all the laws their basis.  They come at the end of Chapter 22.   There, verse 31 says: “Keep my commandments and do them; I am G-d.”  And verse 32 adds: “Do not profane My holy name, and I will be sanctified among the Israelites; I am G-d who sanctifies you.”  Here are divinely inspired rules that, if we follow, enable us to achieve Kiddush  haShem – sanctifying the Divine name.  Violating those rules amounts to Khillul haShem –profaning that name.

         Violations can take many forms, some more obvious than others. For example, our Torah instructs us to use true measurements – weights, lengths, coins, all must be accurate. Prevent cheating.  In legal disputes, we are cautioned to do justice “justly.”  Tricking a witness in a trial, or manufacturing evidence against a litigant – even if you deeply believe him guilty –is unfair and therefore prohibited. In family affairs, acceptable conduct has countless Mitzvos to be observed, including the rights and duties of wife and husband to each other, of parents and children to each other, and of all to the care of ill and dead family members.

         Crime and punishment get dealt with in this section too.  “One who strikes [wounds or kills] an animal shall pay for the damage. One who kills a human shall die.” But it takes two eye witnesses to convict the killer. All these and many more Mitzvos can be fulfilled – or violated.

         Violating a principle of conduct in business, particularly when dealing with Gentiles, can bring serious trouble to the entire community.  Our enemies come up with many false charges to support their actions against us.  We must not provide them with legitimate cause.  In this connection the Hertz commentary quotes the story of the fellow in the boat drilling a hole under his seat.  It’s only under his seat, but all will drown.  A Jewish crook can give an open door to anti-Semites.  That is definitely khillul haShem.  And what about the opposite?  Suppose we are doing right?  Inquisitors demanded “convert or die.”  Nazis and jihadis offer no alternative: “Kill the Jews!” Their victims are mourned with the righteous.

          All important is not death but life.  Living in such a way as to sanctify the name of the G-d we worship involves fulfilling Mitzvos, from observing the occasions of our calendar – Sabbath, festivals, matzoh on Passover and fasting on Yom Kippur – to how we interact with other human beings, Jewish or Gentile.  How we live our daily lives makes us aware of those Mitzvos, and carrying them out builds our character.  Do we deal honestly in business?  Do we respect our elders?  Do we teach our children Torah?  Do we help the poor?  Do we support just causes?  That’s the kind of life that sanctifies G-d’s name.  That kind of behavior sanctifies our lives.  That is Kiddush haShem (sanctifying the Holy Name), Kiddish hakhayyim too (sanctifying life).  Torah offers us some practical help to sanctify our lives.

          Today and every day, this week and every week, let the words of “Emor” remind us of our ongoing choice: profane or sanctify.

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WHO IS HOLY? — K’doshim, Lev. 18-20 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

WHO IS HOLY? — K’doshim, Lev. 18-20 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This Torah reading bears a close relationship to the previous one.  On non-leap years they are read together in synagogue services.  Their relationship involves the effects of wrong conduct, actions to be avoided. Prohibitions and the warnings of punishment are featured in the previous chapter.

Warnings and prohibitions are not enough. This section, called K’doshim – “Holy ones” – sets out penalties for violating these laws.  We don’t find any prison time mentioned here.  No fines, either.  Minor infractions call for burnt offerings.  Major violations incur execution or ostracism.  Torah law may not be politically correct.  Too bad.  But what does all this strict punishment have to do with holiness?

In its very special way, the Torah defines Holiness before even going into detail about punishment.  To be holy does not mean setting yourself apart from human society and its temptations.  No ivory tower.  Don’t try to be what’s called a “holy Joe.” 

Just the opposite, in fact.  Holiness requires that we deal justly and respectfully with each other.  Honor your parents.  Keep the Sabbath.  Pay a day-worker before nightfall.   Do not deceive your neighbor or lie, and never swear falsely because that is blasphemy.  Do not curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block in the path of the blind.   The stumbling block law in Jewish tradition is interpreted morally as well as physically.  Talmudic leaders defined temptation to do wrong as “placing a stumbling block.”

Legal challenges are discussed too.  Judges may well note the ruling: “Do not favor the person of the poor and do not glorify the person of the mighty.  Judge your neighbor with justice.”  Principles like those apply to non-court situations also, as we will read about relations with someone whose actions you disapprove: “Do not hate your brother in your heart.  Rebuke him, and do not bear sin because of him.”

Perhaps the most down-to-earth expression of holiness is this: “Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against one of your people.”  The classic examples of this disapproved conduct goes this way: Vengeance is when you ask to borrow your neighbor’s axe and he refuses; then next week he asks to borrow your ladder and you refuse, saying “You wouldn’t lend to me, so I’m not lending to you.”  A grudge is when he refuses to lend you his axe, but when he comes to borrow your ladder you say: “Sure, here it is.  You see?  I’m not like you!”

Most famous of all the holiness teachings is the line “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  To me, this means that first you need some self-love.  If I have no respect for myself, what value is my love for my neighbor?  As Hillel said in Pirkey Avot, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”  Of course, the process goes both ways.  By building a habit of treating other people right, we can also take some pride in our own lives.

Who is holy?  Potentially, you and I.

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A POST-PASSOVER MESSAGE – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A POST-PASSOVER MESSAGE – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         First of all, let’s be clear.  Up-pun my word, this is not about Past Overposted messages.  This is about Passover messages we should post, and not ignore.  Don’t pass overthem.   Maybe we missed them amid the holiday excitement, but now we can take time to check them out.

         One message is contained in the calendar.  Everywhere outside of Israel, Jewish tradition calls for Yom tov sheynee shel galuyot — a “Second day of Festival in the exile,” so we have two Seder nights, two Holiday services on the first two days, and two more on the last two days, including Yizkor – memorial prayers — on the 8thday.  Thus, for all of us who live in other countries, Passover is observed for 8 days. 

 This year, observant Jews in Israel face a strange situation.  With the first and eighth days coinciding with Shabat, the 7thday of Pesach is on Friday, which means that after sundown Jewish law permits khametz – leavened food – to be eaten.  So, after crunching that matzoh all week, Jews in Israel could enjoy a beautiful fresh khallah.  Just one problem: where would they find it?  Being observant, they would have to keep the house free of khametz until sundown Friday.  Could they then start to put away the Passover dishes and pots, bring out the ones for khametzand start baking khallah?  Of course not – it’s Shabat!   Israelis tell me that the dilemma is recognized.  The Shabat coincidence does not happen every year, of course.  So in a year like this, when it does happen, observant Israelis will join with us in the diaspora and eat matzoh on the 8thday. 

Another feature of the season is a process of counting the days, 50 of them in all, beginning on the second day of Passover and continuing until Shavuot, the next festival.  Quite a bit later in the Torah comes the commandment: “Count for yourselves, from the day after the Sabbath, the day when you bring the Omer to be waived, seven complete weeks.  Until the day after the seventh week, you will count 50 days.”  

The “sabbath” referred to here is the First Day of Passover, whether it falls on Shabat, as it does this year, or any other day of the week.  And the Omer was a sheaf of grain from the year’s first barley harvest.  The High Priest waved it as a thanksgiving offering.  It took the newly free slaves just seven weeks to travel from the east coast of the Red Sea to Mount Sinai.  On the day after they arrived, the 50thday, they received the Torah.  The resulting holiday is called Shavuot – literally “weeks” – to recall their travel time.  The Talmud identifies it as Atzeret– “concluding festival” – and its biblical description is Yom haBikkurim – “the day of First Fruits.”  Our prayers give Shavuot a more powerful name: Zman matan Torateynu – “the time of giving our Law.”  Passover celebrates our physical freedom.   Cross the Red Sea and Goodbye Egypt.  That was step one.  Free at last! Step two, 50 days later, was arriving at Sinai and receiving the Torah, our sacred Constitution.  That made us a nation.

Of our Three Festivals – Shalosh regalim  — Passover is undoubtedly the most widely observed.   All the family takes part, all the communities join and compete and dramatize this happy season.  Succot doesn’t come close to Passover’s popularity, being overshadowed by the High Holidays that immediately precede it.  But it has its colorful attraction, in the little holy shack that recalls our ancestors’ historic travels en route to Canaan.  And with the added celebration of Simhat Torah, it provides a joyful start for the new year.  Sadly neglected is Shavuot, shortest of the festivals – just one or two days, not the full week of Passover or the 9-day event of Succot plus Simhat Torah. And it is a serious occasion – no special drinks, no humor – a time to pledge allegiance.  Reform and Conservative American congregations hold Confirmation ceremonies on Shavuot, which gives those young people going through the ritual an opportunity to honor the Jewish education they received.  For them and their families, it is a religious Graduation Day.  Unfortunately, the majority of our population tends to ignore Shavuot.  So here is an opportunity for a creative mind or two to bring our national attention to our pioneer national event.  “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the Assembly of Jacob,” we learn.  As we count the days leading up to that great event, each day just might contain a new idea, a human contact, a step forward toward implementing a Shavuot message we can all share.  As we count the days, let’s look for ways to make our days count.       

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ONE TORAH – First day Passover – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ONE TORAH – First day Passover – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon                        

         This year our great holiday of freedom begins on Shabbos, so we will read the special portion for the First Day of Passover, from the Book of Exodus chapter 12, describing the fateful night of the original Exodus. From the preparation of the sacrificial lamb to marking the doorposts of the Hebrews’ homes, the narrative continues with the Tenth Plague – death of the firstborn, which struck the Egyptians but spared the Hebrew slaves.  The avenging angel saw the blood on the doorposts and passed over – pasach.  So here comes the commandment that the people must keep this festival in celebration of this great deliverance, even when they reach their homeland.  Here we also read how the Egyptians, struck and bereaved and desperate, pushed the slaves to go – go free, get on your way!  They even gave the Israelites valuable gifts, including gold and silver, to urge them out.  Many Egyptians followed them, forming an eyrev rav – a mixed multitude.   After 430 years in the country called bet avadim (“the home of slaves”}, the people of Israel get their instructions for their free future:

It was a night of watching for G-d, bringing them out of the Land of Egypt; that is tonight, a night of watching for all generations.  This is the law of the paschal sacrifice: no alien may eat any of it.  … But if a proselyte lives with you and will offer a Passover sacrifice, let him and all the males in his household be circumcised; then they can eat.  One Torah shall be for the native and the proselyte who lives among you (resident alien).

One Torah, one law.  No penalties for aliens, and no special privileges for them either. Without doubt, circumcision represents sincere commitment.  One holiday meal would hardly seem enough of an attraction to take that step.  Very few men were likely to do that.  So we must recognize that some really valuable converts entered our fold, to be required to follow the same mitzvos as born Jews.

         Elsewhere we learn about resident aliens, called literally ger toshav.  They lived among the Israelites in the Land of Israel and were not expected to keep the 613 commandments required of Jews. All they needed to observe were the 7 mitzvos b’ney Noakh – the commandments of the sons of Noah, given after the Flood: (1) establish courts of justice, (2) prohibit blasphemy, (3) prohibit idolatry, (4) prohibit incest, (5) prohibit bloodshed, (6) prohibit robbery, (7) do not eat flesh cut from a living animal.  Not a word about observing the Sabbath, or keeping kosher, or celebrating any particular occasions.  Not even about whom – or how many – to marry.  Just everyday morality.  Did the ger toshav just possiblyhave it easier than his Jewish neighbors?

         Viewing today’s policy debates about resident aliens, their rights, liabilities and privileges as “refugees,” “illegal immigrants,” or “terrorists,” maybe we need to take another look at the principle of One Torah – one law for the native and the foreigner – and the difficulties in applying such an apparently just policy.  Certainly, world conditions changed many times since this principle was stated. Not even Noah’s 7 commandments are all observed everywhere.  Blasphemy?  Idolatry?  Incest?  What punishments do they provoke?

         Historical problems frequently become modern problems in places like the Middle East, as recent events illustrate.  When two countries have a war, and territory changes hands, the people who live in that territory have a choice: accept the new government or move out. That generally applies everywhere in the world.  But not in Israel.  Witness the bitter controversy raging over the West Bank and Golan.   From a historical perspective, the One State Solution already exists for Israeli Arabs and Druze who hold citizenship and serve in the IDF and the Knesset.  One Torah for them.  But others still pursue a fictitious nationality promoted by Arafat.  It was former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir aleha hashalomwho put it straight when she said “There are no Palestinians.”  For those who insist on calling themselves by that name, exit will work, and they violently resist that.  

         Ancient Israel, modern Israel, the United States or any other country, can face problems that come with a mixed population.  In Torah times, most states assumed unanimity, and ruled their people accordingly, whether it suited facts or not.  In those days, Israel already recognized differences in its inhabitants, and governed all with One Torah.   In our high-tech, multi-ethnic world, we should do no less.

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