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

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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.

This week 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 it 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 included descriptions of the ancient sacrifices in the prayerbook, and taught that repeating those descriptions qualifies us as if we performed the sacrifices. 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 prayers, will simply wait for the Messiah and let him decide what rites to perform in the Third Temple.

Certainly we are now asked to sacrifice for many good causes. Our sacrifices are not slaughtered animals, but some of them can truly qualify as a korban. Because the Hebrew word for 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. 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 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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NISAN, MONTH OF FREEDOM – “Shabat Hachodesh” — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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NISAN, MONTH OF FREEDOM – “Shabat Hachodesh” — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will begin reading the Book of Leviticus, with all its detailed descriptions of sacrificial worship. We will also be observing the “Sabbath of THE Month” – Shabat haChodesh—and reading the special section added for this occasion, Exodus 12:1-20, a particularly significant passage for a few reasons.

First, this section sets up the order of the Jewish calendar which we still follow. “This month for you is the head of the months, the first of the months of the year.” This month’s name is Nisan and we will announce its arrival, to take place in just a week. Even though we count our years as beginning in the fall, we start naming our months in spring, from Nisan on.

Second, this section alerts us to prepare for Passover, the holiday of freedom. It recalls the physical and spiritual drama that our ancestors experienced when leaving Egyptian slavery.

Third, this section instructs us in the process of perpetuating the Exodus celebration in the present and the future.

Personally, I also find special significance in this section that a son of mine chanted at his Bar Mitzvah.

Initially this section concerns the special sacrifice – the Paschal lamb. “Take one lamb for each household. And if the household is too small to consume the lamb [in one evening], join with your neighbor [and share a lamb]…each according to what that person can eat.” We might note that the Torah sets no minimum or maximum on individual appetites. It’s neither “hold back!” nor “ess, ess, mine kind.” Rashi quotes the Mechilta explaining that the ill, the infants and the aged family members who cannot eat even as much as an olive (the minimum size portion) cannot be counted when dividing the lamb’s meat.

When slaughtering the lamb, they were commanded to take some of its blood and put it on the lintel and the doorposts of their house, to alert the destroying angel that this was the home of Israelites. Not an Egyptian house that was to be visited with the fearful Tenth Plague – the death of the firstborn. Some commentators develop a teaching about that blood. Later in the chapter comes the commandment: “No uncircumcised male may eat of it.” Since many Israelite slaves were not circumcised, that meant they would have to have a quick Bris in order to partake of the Paschal Lamb. And their blood could be combined with the lamb’s blood to form the signal on the doorpost. Human and animal blood join to herald freedom.

We continue to read the detailed rules of how to cook the lamb (or goat, by the way, either was acceptable): roast it whole, don’t boil it or eat any of it raw, and combine it with Matzoh and bitter herbs. (All processes we still follow at our Seder meals.) Also what to wear at that feast: travelling clothes – tie your belt, put your shoes on, and keep your walking stick in your hand – because you must be ready to go!

Indeed our people found themselves in that double situation many times throughout history – celebrating the heritage, and ready to go. Indeed many of us still do. What will empower Pesach for endangered Jews this year – in France or Ukraine or Iran – should be the hope that their imminent travel will take them to freedom.

Keyn y’hi ratzon – may this be G-d’s will.

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CALL HIM INDISPENSABLE – “Vayak-hel Pikudey” – Ex. 35-40 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CALL HIM INDISPENSABLE – “Vayak-hel Pikudey” – Ex. 35-40 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Constructing the first Jewish house of worship called for special attention, special materials and special skills. Also, special design. Remember, this has to a portable sanctuary, carried on the priests’ shoulders all the way to the Promised Land. This week, we will read first an impressive list of the materials, all to be brought as freewill offerings – gold, silver, brass; blue, purple and scarlet dyes; lambskins and goat’s hair and specific precious stones; oil for the lamps and spices for the incense. Then come the skilled workers volunteering their labor to take these materials and create everything from the Ark and its cover to the pillars and sockets and screens for the exterior. Goldsmiths and silversmiths go to work alongside the ancient carpenters and masons. Women spin the wool and linen, and the specialists among them spin the goat’s hair. Tailors and seamstresses sew the priestly clothing. Who did all this? “Every man and woman whose heart made them willing to [do] all the work.” Truly an outpouring of popular devotion.

But there still was no Tabernacle. Not until one man enters. His name is Betzalel. We first met him back in chapter 31, where he is described as someone Divinely favored with khokhma, binah, v’daas – wisdom, understanding and knowledge. These are the same three qualities we seek daily in our prayers, and their initials spell Chabad, the name of the well-known worldwide Chassidic movement. Yet Betzalel does not function as a religious leader. He has the talent to “think thoughts” – not philosophy, but construction. He understands all about woodworking, metalworking and weaving. And it will be his job to put them all together. He and his helper, one Oholiab, are also gifted with the ability to teach all those skilled workers what to do. And so in the concluding chapters of Exodus we find Betzalel in charge. He builds it – not one detail, but all the parts of the Tabernacle – getting credit for everything constructed by the entire crew.

Today we’d call him an architect. He designed the Tabernacle by Divine inspiration, and he supervised its construction through his own knowledge.

As Betzalel’s design proved vitally necessary to build the Tabernacle, so each of us needs to call on our own life-design. Our Torah and tradition can provide that. Each of us can supplement it with special training – classes, parental example, personal experience. But the overall design – the architect that is our heritage – that is what we all need.

Like Betzalel, call it indispensable.

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AMALEK RETURNS — a Purim Blog by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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AMALEK RETURNS — a Purim Blog by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Before we take that first Purim drink, let’s read the Torah. What passage do we read on Purim? Vayavo Amalek – the story of a battle our ancestors fought in the desert on the way out of Egypt, a battle against a hateful and cowardly enemy tribe called Amalek. Time and again they attacked from the rear, killing the stragglers, the weakest of the trekking Israelites. Finally at a place called Rephidim they got punished. Of course they did not quit harassing Israel. After our ancestors settled in the Land and Saul became king, there was more warfare with Amalek.

So what does all this have to do with Purim? The battles with Amalek predated the Purim story by a few centuries. But the connection is there. Haman, the Purim villain, is identified in the Megillah as the son of Hamdassa the Agagite. Agag was the king of Amalek, the defeated chieftain whom the prophet Samuel kills in last week’s special Haftorah for Shabat Zachor, the Sabbath of Memory which always precedes Purim. So the rabbis logically taught that Haman was descended from Amalek.

Indeed he was. Likewise Amalek’s spiritual descendants. Titus, Torquemada, Chmelnitzky, Hitler, Arafat – to name just a few. Destroying Israel was Amalek’s goal, a goal not limited to one locality or one kind of weapon. Haman brought it to Persia. And built a 75-foot gallows to hang Mordecai.

Now Amalek returns to Persia. The current descendants don’t use gallows – or crucifixes or gas chambers or UN committees. They plan to use atom bombs.

Could Queen Esther help her people now? Recently someone compared Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to Congress to Esther’s plea to King Ahasuerus, pointing out that both were technically violations of protocol. Esther’s maneuver, reluctant though she was to try it, worked. Will Bibi’s?

Check the Megillah. Even after condemning Haman to die on the gallows he built, Ahasuerus refuses to cancel his edict setting a date for mass murder of Jews. What he does, however, is arm the Jews and give them a chance to defend themselves. This they do with great success, once again defeating Amalek. Essentially, isn’t that what Bibi seeks?

No, Bibi is no Queen Esther. And the authority he faces, although historically an ally, is no King Ahasuerus. After all, the king loved Esther. He listened to her, protocol notwithstanding. Bibi deals with a chief executive who will not face him, let alone listen to him. All the protocol talk smacks of a political excuse to mask personal hatred. Amalek returns. And once again our people is in serious danger. But we will survive. No enemy can finally prevail. We believe in miracles.

More than ever, we should celebrate this Purim. Drown out Haman’s name with those groggers. Drown your worries with another L’hayyim – could be non-alcoholic if you prefer! And let our Purim performances show Amalek that nobody can destroy our sense of humor. That is definitely a Purim miracle.

As the old song goes, Haynt is Purim, brider, es is a yomtov grois! Today is Purim, brothers, a great big holiday! Enjoy it.

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CONSECRATING CLOTHES – “T’tzaveh”, Ex. 27:20–30:10, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CONSECRATING CLOTHES – “T’tzaveh”, Ex. 27:20–30:10, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Those who perform sacred rites, whether the High Priest in Jerusalem, the Dalai Lama in his Himalayan refuge, the Pope in Rome, or a Navajo Medicine Man, build their holy image by what they wear. In religious life ancient or modern, sophisticated or primitive, we recognize more readily a ritual leader who “looks the part.” Our reading for Shabat T’tzaveh provides an impressive pattern for that image.

Here we will read of priesthood. Aaron becomes the official High Priest of Israel in the desert, and his sons assist him in some serious duties. The first of his duties is to kindle the Eternal Light – ner tamid – which signified the sanctity of the Tabernacle, and still shines in our synagogues. While now it shines day and night, the Torah calls for it to be lit at night with enough pure olive oil to burn till morning. And we all remember the Hanukkah miracle, when the one-day jug of oil burned for 8 days.

Of course, kindling the light is not a blue-jeans job. All the priests had to wear specific clothing and Aaron’s was to be particularly distinctive. So the bulk of this week’s reading will describe each of these consecrating clothes in detail. Breastplate, ephod, robe, checkered tunic, mitre and sash. Skilled craftsmen were called on to make these garments. Gold thread, turquoise and purple and scarlet wool, and fine linen fashioned by an expert weaver. The breastplate had 12 gems on it, 4 rows of 3 stones each, with the names of the tribes on them. And what is an ephod? It is described as a snug sleeveless short coat with shoulder straps, worn over the robe. Under the robe, the priest wore trousers – which most men of that era did not – to ensure modesty when he was offering sacrifices.

Sacrifice was the daily duty of the priests, the Cohanim. And after we read all the minute details of their wardrobe, we will find a description of the sacrificial ceremony that ordained the priests. Then comes the order of the daily meat and meal and wine sacrifices, and the design of the altar of incense. It seems that the Torah even anticipates the inevitable soiling of the consecrating clothes with sacrificial waste – blood, fat, etc. – because it requires that they be worn for just one week at a time. The original consecration ceremony was repeated daily for seven days. And what did they wear after that? We do not read about a change of robes, but maybe we need to take that for granted. Consecrating clothes should be clean.

The priest’s outfit was not all cloth, however. Besides the breastplate which symbolized the total nation he served, he wore a forehead plate (tzeetz) which fit around his head over his mitre or turban and bore the words “holy to G-d.” And attached to his robe were bells which he rang when he entered the sanctuary, alerting the people gathered there that the priest arrived and the ceremony could begin.

Religious regalia set its wearers apart from the populace they served. Perhaps it even gave them a questionable air of superiority. We know that in later times some priests misused their position with sometimes disastrous results. Both on individual and communal levels, the Tzidukim or Sadducees were known to exercise their authority in direct opposition to the rabbinical view of tradition. They wore their priestly robes with excess pride. No wonder that modern Jewish practice limits the elaborateness of consecrating clothing for officiants. Today’s cohanim, myself included, wear no special robes. In fact, when asking G-d’s blessing on the people, we just take off our shoes and pull the tallis over our heads.

It is we who consecrate our clothing, designating some of it for special occasions. Our clothes do not consecrate us. What we say outranks what we wear, and can symbolically make it sacred.

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