CREDITORS, DEBTORS & SLAVES – B’har – Lev. 25-26:2, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CREDITORS, DEBTORS & SLAVES – B’har – Lev. 25-26:2, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read some ancient economic and social standards, starting with the law of the Sabbatical Year, still acknowledged in Israel today. No plowing, no cultivating, no harvesting during the seventh year of the cycle, the year called sh’mitah. Exported food shipments get marked “Not made with Shmitah products” so observant Jewish customers will not hesitate to buy them. Giving the land a year of rest is how our ancestors preserved it, and prevented the desert from taking it over.

Sedrah B’har, this week’s reading, includes considerably more about the 7-year cycles and their effect. An important extension of the cycle comes after 7×7 or a total of 49 years lead into the Jubilee Year, #50. Again on that year, the Israelite is commanded not to work the land, and to free all slaves, as both humans and property return to their ancestral status. Strikingly, the Torah text provides an answer to the farmer’s inevitable question: “If you say ‘What will we eat?… we may not sew or reap,’ I will bless your work on the sixth year so the land will produce enough for 3 years.” That is, years 48, 49 and 50! Further spelled out is the requirement that all slaves, both Hebrews and Canaanites, must be freed for the Jubilee year.

Historically, the institution of human slavery, and the laws about it in the Torah, form a particularly interesting lesson. Now, more than a century and a half since Lincoln, we sometimes overlook the fact that in some parts of the world slavery still exists. Reportedly, many Arab sheikhs have African slaves. No wonder that statistically more black Africans have immigrated to this country voluntarily than were ever brought here in slave ships. And in ancient times, human slavery was a recognized and accepted condition. So how does the Torah deal with it?

In Torah times, people became slaves for one of two reasons. Either they were captured in battle, or they got so deep in debt that they sold themselves – and sometimes their whole families – into slavery to pay off their debts. It is the second reason that produced Hebrew slaves. They were expected to work for 6 years and had to be released on the 7th – unless they voluntarily chose to remain in servitude. Then their owner had to take them to the doorpost and drill a hole in their ear, fitting them with an earring that marked them as slaves. Rabbinical wisdom explained this process as symbolic: “The ear that heard the revelation at Mount Sinai,” they said, was the part of the body that marked the decision to replace the free practice of G-d’s word with subjugation to another human being.

A non-Jewish slave had to accept the performance of Mitzvos while in servitude, and when freed became fully Jewish. When a master set a slave free, he had to provide that slave with a document of separation similar to a divorce paper, establishing the freed slave’s independence. Quite a few differences we might notice between Torah law and pre-emancipation practices in the American South – and certainly a contrast with how slaves are treated elsewhere in the world, even now. Talmudic discussion of these laws underscores the principle that long ago discontinued slavery in Jewish history, namely the concept of the n’shama, the sacred identity of each human being as a child of G-d.

No prince, no conquering enemy, no creditor can take that identity away from any of us.

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AGE OF SERVICE – Emor – Lev. 21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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AGE OF SERVICE – Emor – Lev. 21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read a section which should sound familiar to anyone who attends services with any regularity. Parts of it get repeated in traditional synagogues on holidays throughout the year, since they detail those celebrations. For me personally, Emor is particularly familiar since I read it at my own Bar Mitzvah and it has stayed in my memory all these years. In addition, my family – all three generations of us, from all over the country – will gather this year for my 90th birthday, which occurs on the Hebrew calendar the day after we read this portion. Their expression of joy and love gives me at least as much inspiration as the eternal message of Emor. Maybe I did something right?

Reviewing the text, we find that it opens with a long list of directives to the Cohanim – Aaron’s descendants, my ancestors. Treated here, we find the physical requirements for male priests to serve in the Temple, the eligibility of their female family members to eat t’rumah – the food that Israelites brought the priests as a sort of religious tax, the conditions required of both the priest and the Temple itself when offerings were made, etc.

Clearly, these mandates concern adults. But no definition of an adult. We do not find here any mention of the age of service. How old does a young cohen need to be when he starts? And at what age can he – or must he – retire?

Elsewhere in Biblical and Talmudic teachings, those questions get answered – not with hard and fast laws, but with differing opinions. For example, in Tractate Khulin, we find several clues. One says that the young cohen is considered eligible to serve when he grows 2 pubic hairs – kind of an ancient Bar Mitzvah age. But the very next line recounts that his fellow priests would not let him serve under the age of 20.

Another opinion is based on the Biblical habit of equating cohanim and leviim – since Aaron and his descendants came from the tribe of Levi; in fact we read that no less than 24 times does Scripture use the term Hacohanim hal’vi’im – “the priests, the Levites.” So as Rashi tells us, a man went into training at 25, began service at 30, and had to retire at 50. That would seem logical for the Levi, since he was part of the Levitic choir and his voice might be less reliable as he got older. But would it apply to a Cohen, whose service more often consisted of slaughtering sacrificial animals?

Still another precedent quotes the word yazkin – a verb from the root zaken, an old man – and defines it as reaching the point where hands and feet shake from old age. That is when a Kohen would have to retire. As the esteemed Rabbi Reuven Lauffer points out, no Kohen would be required to perform a task unless he had the physical strength to do it.

Now to go into modern times, and my own experience. If I first officiated as cantor at High Holiday services at age 17, and, thank G-d, 73 years later I still participated in the public Priestly Blessings (dukhenen) with my son this Passover, would I qualify for service in the Temple?

I hope so. And here’s hoping we all live to see the Temple rebuilt. We are told that the Mashiakh will be able to decide to replace animal sacrifice permanently with sincere prayer. That should enable more kohanim to serve to my age, and hopefully way beyond.

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Be Holy Because G-d is Holy? K’doshim — Lev. 19-20 — by Baruch Cohon

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Be Holy Because G-d is Holy? K’doshim — Lev. 19-20 — by Baruch Cohon

Coming right after Passover, this Torah portion challenges us.

We just celebrated our freedom from ancient slavery, and welcomed Elijah’s promised heralding of a great time to come. Now we resume the narrative of Israel’s trek toward the Promised Land. Moses continues teaching the people all the laws based on the revelation at Sinai. And here comes something really basic. “Be holy.”

What is holiness?

The Hebrew word “kadosh” signifies something reserved, set aside, special. If it is set aside for a sacred purpose, it is accurately translated “holy.” So how are we to become holy? The first sentence of this week’s reading says “be holy because G-d is holy.” So we should follow the Divine example. “Imitatio Dei” is the Latin term for the same idea. But now comes a problem. The second sentence goes Into detail: “Each of you, revere your mother and your father.” How’s that again? Does G-d have parents?

Next, “Keep the Sabbath.” And a number of negative commandments, starting with “Do not practice idolatry,” and later, significantly, “Do not completely harvest your field, but leave a corner for the poor and the stranger.” The qualities of holiness begin to add up. “Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t deceive each other. And don’t swear falsely, profaning G-d’s name.” Prime clues to our character concern how we treat each other. “Don’t curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Consideration of this kind, say our rabbis, also applies beyond physical misdeeds, and includes economic or intellectual “tripping” someone who is less savvy.

How we dispense justice is a measure of holiness, says the Torah. “Don’t favor the poor, and don’t honor the ‘gadol‘ — the Big Shot, the aristocrat, but judge your fellow ‘b’tzedek‘– fairly.” Notice that the description of fair judgment uses “tzedek” the word for “righteousness.” The same Hebrew root-word “tz’dakah” also means “charity.” Tying concepts like these together helps to approach holiness.

“Don’t oppress the stranger…treat him like one of your own…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “Keep honest weights and measures.” And one climactic sequence: “Do not be a talebearer among your people, and don’t stand idly by your neighbor’s blood. I am the L-rd. Don’t hate your brother in your heart; reprove your neighbor, but don’t bear sin because of him… Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The last of these principles gets quoted most often, and raises a question of its own. It seems to mandate equality. It assumes that you love yourself. Therefore if you lack self-respect, what value does your regard have for your neighbor?

Of course, the reading does not stop here. It goes on to define proper and invalid religious ceremonies. It also mandates penalties for violating Torah laws on family relations, dietary standards and sexual contacts.

We must conclude that this is not “imitatio Dei.” Whatever we may individually believe about G-d, we cannot imagine that He has any of these problems. So when the Torah says “be holy because G-d is holy,” what can we learn from it? Try this idea: G-d is described as “holy” in our tradition. G-d is beyond human understanding, but has revealed a way of life to Moses and our other teachers. To the extent that we can follow that way of life, we can attain some degree of that holiness. Not the kind of personality popularly derided as a “holy Joe,” (too often a synonym for hypocrite) but the upright, honest, fair, considerate and positive human being that we truly respect. We might not altogether reach that goal, but hey — isn’t it worth a try?


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This leap year on the Jewish calendar produces some rare coincidences. Tomorrow, for example, as we observe Yom haShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day – our Mexican neighbors will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo. A dramatic contrast if there ever was one.

Looking ahead to August, the 14th of that month lives strongly in our memories – mine particularly – as Victory day in World War II, the day Japan surrendered. This year it coincides with the Fast of Av, actually the 10th of the month of Av, with the fast postponed from the 9th, Tish’a b’Av, since the 9th falls on Shabos. The 9th of Av is the day that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed. So we’ll recall two ancient defeats and one modern victory on the same day. Another contrast.

But just wait till December. And look out for the celebrating public! The first day of Hanukkah falls on Christmas, December 25th, and the last day of Hanukkah falls on New Years Day, January 1st, 2017. L’khayim!


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OFF TO AZAZEL – Ah’rey Mos – Lev. 16-18, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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OFF TO AZAZEL – Ah’rey Mos – Lev. 16-18, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read some famous do’s and don’t’s that the Torah provides to enable us to elevate our lives. Given just “after the death of Aaron’s two sons – ah’rey mos shney b’ney Aharon” who lost their lives by bringing a “strange fire” into the Tabernacle, these laws created a structure designed to prevent such fatal errors in the future. That future is where we live now.

Opening with the Day of Atonement ritual, this week’s reading details rights and wrongs in food, worship, family and sexual relations, pointing out that wrong conduct in Egypt and among the previous residents of Canaan caused their defeat, and charging the Israelites to keep their Promised Land clean of moral violations.

Recognizing human weakness, the Torah sets up the famous ritual of the scapegoat, wherein the High Priest takes two goats, equal in lineage, and offers one as a sacrifice. The other one he symbolically loads with all the sins of his people – he knows he must expect them to sin. And he sends out the goat with an appointed messenger to a mysterious place in the desert called Azazel. Perhaps that was the name of a mountain from which the hapless goat got hurled. If so, we have no exact location for it. Definitely, whatever and wherever it was, Azazel was the destination for the sins we need to destroy. And the day of this ritual is the day we still observe by “afflicting our souls – v’inisem es nafshoseichem,” in other words fasting. Here the Torah sets the date, the 10th day of the 7th month, to atone for our sins. As our tradition stresses, fasting alone won’t do it. T’shuvah, t’filah u-tz’dokkoh – repentance, prayer and charity are required. By the end of that long Yom Kippur day in shul, we should be able to breathe free, to take that first bite and face the future with renewed strength.

Our Sedrah continues by discussing proper and improper ways to prepare meat. During Temple times, the fat was burned and the blood sprinkled on the altar. Blood is still not to be consumed. No steak juice. It was connected with idolatrous worship and therefore prohibited to Israel. Interestingly enough, this Sedrah does not discuss kosher and non-kosher meat. We read those laws elsewhere in the Torah. Here we are concerned with domestic animals: shor o kesev o eyz – ox, lamb or goat, all approved foods, slaughtered properly. We also recognize game animals and birds which are permissible food, and we learn than their blood should be poured on the ground like water, because “a creature’s life is in its blood.” By refraining from drinking the blood, we respect the life that we took by shooting that creature. Hunting is thereby a recognized action that humans take to provide themselves with food. But even then we remind ourselves that all life comes from G-d.

Our portion then discusses other censorable topics like incest, perversion, and assorted varieties of immorality. Some of these practices were associated with idolatrous worship by the Canaanite tribes. Others are just plain wrong. That is, they are against Torah law. Included is bestiality; no “pet sheep” for the Israelite farmer, and no carnal contact between his wife and their ox. Also included is homosexuality; “Do not lie with a male as with a female; it is an abomination.” Also lesbianism, called maasey eretz Mitzrayim – the actions of the land of Egypt, where female members of the royalty and aristocracy were known to keep concubines. If and when a modern society chooses to reverse those laws, an inevitable controversy with religious doctrine arises, as we see today. What effect will these controversies have on family structure?

When we can answer that question, maybe we will find out where Azazel is.


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