ARE THESE THE NAMES? – Sh’mos – Ex. 1-6:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ARE THESE THE NAMES? – Sh’mos – Ex. 1-6:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Reading our Torah every week has to impress us with the difference it shows in different languages. Even the names of the Biblical books are different. With the exception of the first book, Genesis whose Hebrew name B’reyshis echoes that meaning, the books of the Torah seem to change their significance in translation. The name of the third book, Vayikra, has nothing to do with the priestly duties and sacrificial ceremonies of “Leviticus”. It simply means “He called.” Bamidbor doesn’t mean “Numbers.” It means “In the desert.” And “Deuteronomy,” if it means anything at all to us, it means “later” – something that comes after something else. And although it can occasionally refer to D’varim, “words,” its Hebrew name describing what Moses said, the English and/or Latin name makes it sound like an appendix.

Of all the names of all the books, none is further from a translation than the book we start reading this week, “Exodus.” Its English name heralds the epic of our people’s emancipation, their thrill of achieving national identity at Sinai, and their struggles against danger within and without. The name reminds us of what we had to do and how nearly we often failed to do it. But the Hebrew name Sh’mos just means “names.” Indeed our reading opens with a plain narration reminding us that “These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt.”

If we were listening at all for the last few weeks, we already know those names: Jacob and 11 of his 12 sons, the remaining one being Joseph who was already in Egypt; also their wives and children. No news there. But let’s look ahead. By verse 6 of chapter 1, we already learn that Joseph and his brothers and all that generation died. Their descendants distinguished themselves by a high birthrate. In fact, as we will read, they “increased and multiplied and swarmed and grew very powerful, and the land was full of them.” And what else happened? Some of them changed their names.

Changed their names, eh? We know how that goes. Goldberg becomes Gilbert. Chayim becomes Jaime. Berkowitz becomes Beck – or maybe Burke?

Did it happen in Egypt? Did Reuven sometimes become Raamses? Well, one Midrash recounts that some of the Israelites in Egypt adopted the motto: “Let us be Egyptian in all things.”

What’s this? Assimilation? Even before the Exodus! Moses faced a greater challenge than slavery, didn’t he? He had to lead people who would rather not be led, to find a country they mostly ceased longing for, to pledge allegiance to a G-d they did not know. Many of these people certainly wanted their freedom, but if given a choice would rather stay in Egypt than face the Red Sea. Yet somehow with Moses urging them on, they survived, left Egypt and became an independent nation. They even produced a legacy that grew and developed over all the succeeding centuries. They took that unique legacy with them to many parts of the world – to Asia, Europe, Africa, America. And their names went with them.

For them and for all of us, we might or might not change our names, but our prayers remind us that we are the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – not as one wit paraphrased it: Alvin, Irving and Jerome.

As reported by Jonathan Ornstein, a past winner of the Cohon Award for his work rebuilding the Krakow Jewish community, some sad survivors among Polish Jewry tried to hide from Communist oppression by changing their names. So Schwartzberg became Kowalski. Now they search for a way home. They – and all of us – get reminded at uncomfortable times that Exodus is about freeing ourselves from servitude to our enemies. Not about leaving our identity. Not about escaping from our names.

One true theme of the Second Book of the Torah teaches us that, like our ancestors who “came to Egypt,” wherever you go, you are still Jacob. You are still Rachel and Leah. You are still Reuven and Shimon and Levi. You are still Miriam and Aaron and Moshe. Let’s honor our Jewish names. Wear them with pride.

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JACOB’S UNSPOKEN MESSAGE – Va-y’khee, Gen. 47:28—50:26 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

JACOB’S UNSPOKEN MESSAGE – Va-y’khee, Gen. 47:28—50:26 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Our father Jacob delivered a parting message to each of his 12 sons, on his deathbed. Certainly he pulled no punches in expressing his view of each of them. Some of these men earned his respect, and others earned his disapproval.

“Reuben – unstable as water”…”Simon and Levi are brothers, weapons of violence their kinship”… “Judah, your brothers shall praise you”… ”Zebulon, dwell by the sea and be a port for ships”… “Issachar is a big-boned donkey” … “Dan will judge his people”… “Gad, a troop will attack him, but he will drive them away by the heel”… “Asher’s bread must be fat” … “Naphtali is a hind let loose [fleet-footed and well spoken] – and young Benjamin is compared to a violent wolf. But his longest and lovingest message is for Joseph: “Joseph is a fruitful vine…its branches run over the wall…the archers dealt bitterly with him, and shot at him and hated him, but his bow remained firm…by the blessings of Heaven above and of the deep below, and the blessings of the breast and of the womb” …

Yet, deep down, he loved them all. And they were sufficiently devoted to him that they all took the journey to bury him as he wanted, in the Cave of Machpelah.

What we generally overlook in reading this section is what might be called a lighter view of the whole process that Jacob undertook. Maybe he chose his words carefully, maybe not. Most likely he did not plan them in as much detail as was analyzed by one of our classic commentators, the Baal haTurim.

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, as we know. Aleph is 1, Bet is 2, Yud is 10, Khaf 20, Koof 100, etc. The Baal haTurim calculated the value of the first letter of the first word of each son’s message, and found a total equaling 365 – the number of days in a solar year.

Then he calculated the value of the last letter of the last word in each message, and guess what that total came to? 354 – the number of days in a lunar year.

His conclusion is no mathematical trick. Both the permanent power of the sun and the moon are indicated in these messages. He says that just as the Almighty causes the sun to give light by day, and the moon and stars by night, so both the solar and lunar years give evidence that the functions of Creation do not change. So also do these messages of Jacob’s show that his descendants will always be G-d’s people. That relationship does not change either.

As the traditional expression goes, halevai omeyn – So may it be.

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“Magnanimity and Grace” Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Vayigash 5777

My son, Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, is this week’s guest writer for my Torah Blog:


Magnanimity and Grace”  Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Vayigash 5777

This week’s Torah portion of Vayigash begins with the climax of the great Joseph story that fills the last sections of the book of Genesis. Joseph is the powerful ruler of Egypt, richest country in the ancient world. His miraculous ascent from slavery and prison to the heights of political power is the stuff dreams are made of, and he is the master of all he surveys, subservient only to a Pharaoh who trusts him completely. He is handsome, rich, hugely powerful, with a wife and two fine sons, completely assimilated into Egypt’s elegant culture, and still comparatively young. The world sits at his manicured feet.

But wait, there’s more! For into this idyllic scene blunder Joseph’s early tormentors, the very half-brothers who taunted him and beat him up. These are the conniving thugs who stripped him and tossed him into a pit in the earth and sat down to eat lunch, debating, in his hearing, whether to kill him or just abandon him to thirst and starvation–and then sold him into slavery in a foreign land instead.

Now, twenty years later or so he has had the opportunity to return the favor, to exact at least a psychological vengeance on these half-brothers. After a sequence of twists and turns Joseph has manipulated them into a state of confusion and terror, unmanned these arrogant unruly rural ruffians into fearful submission. He has had his dish of revenge served cold, and seems to have enjoyed it.

And then something changes in Joseph. Perhaps he simply tires of psychologically torturing his half-brothers. Perhaps it is that he has finally seen his full brother Benjamin again, the only living reminder of his dead mother Rachel. Perhaps it is that the fullest measure of revenge is magnaminity. Perhaps it is simply that Joseph’s exceptional ability to act pragmatically exerts itself and he must end the cat-and-mouse game one way or another. Or perhaps it is the stirring confessional speech that his powerful half-brother Judah delivers that brings Joseph to a new place.

But near the beginning of Vayigash, in the dramatic high point of the story, Joseph chooses to reunite with his family. He sends out his advisors, counselors, and courtiers. He cries out in a voice loud enough to be heard by all. He tells the brothers that he is Joseph. Weeping now, he embraces his brother Benjamin, asking, “Is my father still alive?”

One can imagine the shock of that moment even now, 3600 years after the events. The brothers may have had an inkling that he was indeed Joseph; it’s implied in the text of the story. But the full revelation must have been stunning nonetheless. Their worst fears are realized: they have been, and are now, completely in the power of a despised half-brother they comprehensively wronged. What now?

Joseph moves immediately to reassure them and to relieve their fears, while he gently reminds them that he is the authority now. Everyone will move down to Egypt and live in land he provides for them. Jacob comes down to Egypt, too. The family is reassembled, but in a very different configuration, for the unquestioned new patriarch is Joseph, and the great story will continue in a new land and a new direction.

There is something about this story that compels us to examine our assumptions about just how things work in our world. Unpredictable things occur. What we expect is often not what occurs. Fate may play a role.

And in the best of circumstances, and with God’s help, our own actions, like Joseph’s, may begin with base motivation and yet rise to a level of magnanimity and grace.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Arizona. 

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ADVERTISING AS A SACRED DUTY – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ADVERTISING AS A SACRED DUTY – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The Aramaic name for it is “Parsumey nissa.” The time for it is early evening, when people are on their way home from work. And the action involved is striking a match, lighting some candles in a candelabrum and placing it in our front window. Facing the street. Why? Because it’s Hanukkah. Because a miracle happened in Israel in the Jewish year 3586, and we celebrate its anniversary. How? By advertising the miracle – “parsumey nissa,” – setting those bright candles out there where people will see them. It’s Hanukkah, everyone! We should all know something about advertising, shouldn’t we?

Before we do all this, of course, we chant a blessing, giving thanks for the miracle that happened for our ancestors, in those days, at this time. This action – exhibiting our lit menorah for all passersby to see – is how we advertise the miracle of the Maccabees, when as our prayers tell us “G-d, in Your great mercy You fought their battle…and the strong lost to the weak, the many to the few, the impure to the pure, the wicked to the righteous, and the arrogant lost to those who devoted themselves to Your Torah.” So this act of advertising is truly a sacred duty. Let’s remember the purpose of the menorah this year: Parsumey nissa.

What we should also remember, of course, is the fact that we do not glorify the personalities of the Maccabees, but we celebrate the victory they achieved by their inspiration, their determination to resist oppression. They defeated attacks on their faith – our faith. And like their modern successors, they had no allies. Their story took place only 2,191 years ago, and things like government and politics were rather different then. Or were they?

Believe it or not, they had such a thing as corruption then too. After driving the Greek invaders from the Temple, Judah Maccabee and his brothers proceeded to take over ruling the country. As glorious as they were in battle, they were inglorious as rulers. So we still celebrate their victory, but not their personalities. It’s “Parsumey nissa” — Publicize the Miracle. Not “Publicize the Maccabees.”

In our day as we approach the 22nd century since the Hanukkah miracle, we can couple our sacred advertising with a prayer for a new miracle. The very name of our holiday, remember, is Hanukkah – literally Dedication. With Divine inspiration, our ancestors were able to reclaim the Temple and dedicate it, with that little bottle of oil – the only one that the Maccabees found still sealed with the High Priest’s seal – just enough to burn for one day. And we recall the miracle that it burned for 8 days. That, says the Talmud, is the true miracle of Hanukkah.

We can also recall the experience of 1967 – not 21 centuries ago, just 49 years ago – when an Israeli general liberated the Old City and radioed headquarters with the historic message “Har haBayit b’yadeynu” – the Temple Mount is in our hands! And they would not let him take it. Today Jews are not permitted to pray on the Temple Mount. Today the UN won’t even call it the Temple Mount. Today enemies that make the ancient Greeks look noble attack Jews at prayer and at bus stops, with arson and with rockets. We see lives destroyed and nothing gained. No miracle to advertise. At least, not yet.

Some historians link the Maccabean war to a conflict between the two main Jewish groups of that time – the traditionalists and the Hellenistic assimilationists who wanted to be just like the Greek overlords. The Maccabees’ victory put a Kohen Gadol – a High Priest – once again in control of the Temple and its public. In the succeeding years, however, they compromised with the Hellenists, thus turning the Talmudic sages against them. Rather than glory in the Maccabees, the religious leaders insisted that Hanukkah was only about the 8-day jug of oil, and actually mention it in only one paragraph of the Talmud. The miracle of the oil thus outlasted the thrill of victory. Jewish unity was as problematic then as it is now.

So, until we get a new miracle, the best we can do is celebrate the old one. We can do so with songs and with latkes and sufganiot, with joy and with hope. We can enjoy advertising the miracle of Hanukkah once again.

Have a Happy. Anyway.

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WHO SELLS JOSEPH? – Va’yeyshev – Gen. 37-40, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

WHO SELLS JOSEPH? – Va’yeyshev – Gen. 37-40, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Among the world’s most famous stories, Joseph’s ranks high. Modern writers from Thomas Mann to Andrew Lloyd Weber based well known adaptations on this week’s Torah portion. A rather confused version of it found its way into the Koran. Surely as an allegory of sibling conflict, it cannot be equaled. From its point in history, some 39 centuries ago, through 4 centuries in Egypt, through 15 more mostly in the Land of Israel, another 18 in total exile, to our own current 68 years of life in and out of the restored Jewish state, Jacob’s descendants find themselves re-living parts of the story of Joseph.

One climactic event in the story takes place early on, when Joseph gets sold to a “caravan of Ishmaelites.” These descendants of Joseph’s great-uncle Ishmael, his grandfather Isaac’s lifelong enemy, were the ancestors of today’s Arabs. They proceeded to put their new slave to work tending the camels while they trekked their way to Egypt, where they re-sold him. That much is clear.

What stimulated some disagreement among our commentators is the Torah’s wording of this sale. First, we find Joseph joining his brothers who are tending the flocks, and they are anything but glad to welcome him. They strip off Joseph’s coat of many colors – symbol of his father’s favoritism that turned his brothers against him. Then they debate whether to kill him, and how. Reuben convinces them not to shed his blood themselves, but to drop him into a pit while they have lunch and debate what to do with him. Reuben apparently is not eating with them, but goes away – we don’t know where – and hopes to rescue Joseph and return him to their father. But Judah, the born leader among them, uses that lunch to convince them not to kill their brother – since his death would bring them no profit – but to sell him to those Ishmaelite traders whom they can see approaching from a distance. Meanwhile, another group shows up, from somewhere closer. These are described as Midyanim sokharim – Midianite merchants. The sentence continues: “They pulled Joseph and lifted him out of the pit, and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 silver coins.”

They? Who were they?

Who pulled? Who lifted? Who sold? Was it Joseph’s brothers or the Midianite traders? Rashi says that “they” refers to Joseph’s brothers. But Rashbam’s commentary states that it was the Midianites who passed the pit, heard human cries there, pulled Joseph to safety and sold him. All this during the brothers’ lunchtime debate.

Does Rashbam’s interpretation cancel the brothers’ guilt? Certainly they planned to sell Joseph. Did they or didn’t they? Could that lunchtime debate change their plans for betraying their brother?

Indeed this is a question that could be asked innumerable times over the past 3900 years. Who betrayed Jerusalem to the Roman legions – a Bar Kamtza who reportedly precipitated the attack out of revenge because he was rejected from a high class dinner? Or perhaps some false friend from the surrounding heathen tribes?

Daily news now underscores both answers. Selling out Jews and Israel by political leaders who benefitted from Jewish support? We see it happening over and again. Subsidize our enemies as they work up a nuclear bomb, for just one example.

And brother selling out brother can aggravate mass murder, as it did in World War 2 Budapest, where a young Jew reportedly identified other Jews to the Nazis for seizure, confiscation and dispatch to death camps – in exchange for cash fees which eventually he expanded to billions, and now finances efforts to destroy Israel.

George Soros, as he now calls himself, is hardly the only “brother” whose treason endangers us. People with much smaller fortunes, but with some political skill, mount various movements which can defeat Jewish goals and destroy the Jewish future.

What we need to remember is what Joseph achieved in spite of the damage his brothers did. He had nothing to work with but his faith in his heritage and in his own ability, but he rose to rule Egypt, and succeeded in rescuing his family – the very brothers who once hated him.

Like Joseph of old, we have many colors on our coat. We are all anything but identical. Yet we have common interests and a great shared heritage. We can fulfill that heritage if we work together.

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