PROPHETS OF HOPE AND WISDOM – Tzav/Shabat hagadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

PROPHETS OF HOPE AND WISDOM – Tzav/Shabat hagadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s Torah portion, like most of the readings in Leviticus,
details ancient ceremonial sacrifices.  Every congregation will be
able to review the sacrificial process at the initiation of Aaron and
his sons into the priesthood in the Tabernacle.  When that reading
concludes, and the Haftorah follows it, however, not all synagogue
attendees will hear the same message.
Chabad, and other Hassidic communities, will read Jeremiah’s stern
pronouncement against leaders who violate G-d’s commandments, and he
predicts dire results for them and those who follow them.
Many, if not most, congregations – the non-Hassidic ones — will read
a special pre-Passover message from Malachi, declaring that the people
have a chance for their hopes to be fulfilled – including the arrival
of Eliyohu haNovi – Elijah the prophet, whose wine cup graces our
Seder table.  All this in observance of the “great Sabbath” (Shabat
hagadol) that anticipates our festival of freedom.
Why the difference?  Very simple, really.  Hassidic tradition is far
from being negative.  It simply limits Shabat hagadol to those years
when this Sabbath coincides with Erev Pesach.  Predict Elijah’s
arrival in the morning, and expect him that night.  Other sacred
traditions seem to acknowledge that we anticipate Passover for many
days, not just one.
What distinguishes both of these Haftorah choices is the literary
structure the prophets used in communicating their messages.
Jeremiah starts by denouncing the leaders for stressing the offering
of sacrifices while they commit heinous sins in the name of the
Almighty – even to the extreme of sacrificing their own children.  He
predicts Divine punishment for them, and destruction for those who
follow them, even indicating special guilt of the evil royal family –
hamishpakhah hara-ah hazot!”  And he leads into one of the prime
sermons of all time:
Thus says the L-rd: Let not the wise man glory in his brain; let not
the strong man glory in his brawn;
Let not the rich man glory in his gain;
Let anyone who glories, glory in the good sense to know Me, who makes
kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for those are what I
desire, says G-d.
Certainly a powerful message for any Sabbath.  Weekdays too.  Jeremiah
could stir his people, and his words still ring.
Now what about Malachi and the Shabat hagadol sermon?  Malachi in fact
stresses Divine patience.  We do wrong, yet we get another chance, and
another and another.  He urges us to distinguish between tzadik and
rasha – between those who do right and those who do evil.  After
predicting that a great fire will destroy the criminals, he recalls
Moses and the Torah and the laws and judgments commanded to all
Israel.  Although Malachi does not mention the Exodus itself, the
rabbis who scheduled this reading clearly connected that event with
the trip to Sinai – here called Mr. Horeb – and our historical
acceptance of those laws and judgments.  And he climaxes his message
with the famous promise:
Here I send you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and wonderful Day of G-d arrives.  And he will return the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.  Lest I come and strike chaos on all the Earth.
After which we symbolically repeat:  Here I send you Elijah the Prophet…
So on this Shabat Tzav, whichever Haftorah you listen to, you have
great words to hear.  Words of hope and words of wisdom.  And a
beautiful cup – Elijah’s cup — to sanctify your Seder table.
Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NISAN, MONTH OF FREEDOM – Vayikra 5778 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

NISAN, MONTH OF FREEDOM – Vayikra 5778 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
On this coming Shabat morning, every traditional congregation will
bring out not one but three Torah scrolls.  Truly a rare occasion.
This week we will begin reading the Book of Leviticus, with all its
detailed descriptions of sacrificial worship.  That’s one scroll.  We
will also be marking Rosh Chodesh — the first day of a new month with
its accompanying reading in another scroll.  And we will observe the
“Sabbath of THE Month” – Shabat haChodesh—by reading from scroll #3
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 welcome its arrival this Shabat.  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.  That
blood proclaimed that this was 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 bloods join to herald
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 those 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 Syria or Ukraine or Iran – should be the
hope that their desperate travel will take them to freedom.
Keyn y’hi ratzon – may this be G-d’s will.
Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A DO-IT-YOURSELF SHRINE – Sedrot Vayak’hel & Pikudey Ex.35-40 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A DO-IT-YOURSELF SHRINE – Sedrot Vayak’hel & Pikudey Ex.35-40 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This is a special week in the cycle of the Jewish year.   All right, so every week is special.  So what’s so special this week?

For one thing, this Saturday will be Shabat M’vorkhim – the Sabbath when we bless the month of Nisan, the month of freedom, which begins in just one more week.  We look forward to the month that includes Passover and celebrates Israel’s freedom from Egyptian slavery.  Also we will have a double Torah reading, to complete the Book of Exodus which tells the story of that liberation and of Israel’s hard won nationhood.  As at the end of every book of the Torah, we will repeat the call: Khazak khazak v’nit-khazek – Be strong, be strong and let’s strengthen each other!

An added special reading distinguishes this week as Shabat Parah, literally “the Sabbath of the cow.”  What’s that about?  It identifies an additional reading which describes a particularly mysterious ceremony.  Ritual purity is a condition that our Torah requires of every Jew.  Normal living can preserve that condition, but tum’ah – contamination – can result from unplanned events, like contact with a snake, or touching a dead body.  How to remove this contamination?  The additional reading for this week tells us about the ceremony of the Red Heifer, where this select breed of cattle was slaughtered and burned to ashes, while cedar branches and hyssop and scarlet were thrown on the fire.  Then the aromatic ashes were soaked in fresh water and the elders sprinkled the wet ashes on the contaminated Jew.  What makes this strange ceremony particularly mystifying is the ruling that says the elders who do the sprinkling become contaminated!  So the net result is that this process “purifies the contaminated, and contaminates the pure.”

The Hertz commentary draws a parallel between this physical impurity and the effect on the personality of those “who help others to self-sacrifice and holiness, and not infrequently themselves become hard and self-centered.” 

Maimonides notes that tradition calls for the repetition of this reading on the Sabbath just before the special reading for next week, Hakhodesh hazeh lakhem rosh khadashim – “This month shall be the beginning of months for you”, announcing the Jewish people’s redemption and freedom.  So the themes of purity and redemption are linked.  In the special Haftorah for this week, the prophet Ezekiel reminds his people of their bloodshed and idolatry that defiled the Land of Israel and led to their exile.   Then he predicts their redemption and return.  Other nations will see what with G-d’s help the returnees will do to their country, and they will say: “This desolate land has become like the Garden of Eden!” 

Today’s returnees can rightly boast of scientific redemption.  What they might need to do is acknowledge some Divine inspiration.  This week’s regular reading calls on us to honor the spiritual “purification” that brought us out of ancient trials, from slavery and suffering to an independent homeland.                                                                                        

In these, its last chapters, the book of Exodus describes a real artistic explosion, as all the talents of these ex-slaves get mobilized to build the first Jewish house of prayer, the Tabernacle in the desert.  First Moses calls on one man he knows can design and build such a portable structure, Betzalel of the tribe of Judah.  Besides being a skilled craftsman who understands construction using precious metals, wood, stone and cloth, Betzalel and his assistant, Oholiav of the tribe of Dan, have a talent for teaching.  So they can guide others to execute what they design. 

Then Moses calls for contributions.  Pass the word through the camp that everyone should bring whatever they can donate of those construction materials, plus oil for the lamps, to prepare for this sacred task.  And he reminds them that no work, even for this holy purpose, is to be done on the Sabbath. 

So we find out that people responded with spirit and ability – an ability that is called khokhmat lev – “the wisdom of the heart.”  Men carved, women sewed.  The princes among them brought gems for the high priest’s vestments.   Organized under Betzalel’s leadership, the contributions poured in. 

In fact, they got more than they needed.  Moses had to send cryers through the camp, proclaiming: “Let no man or woman do any more work on the holy offerings.”  Rabbis and synagogue presidents always shake their heads over that line.  One time in history a building campaign was oversubscribed! 

Really, why could they do it?  Why can’t we?  The Torah goes into great detail about all that Betzalel and his men did with the contributions for the Tabernacle.  All the beautiful furnishings they built, the ark and the altars and the ten curtains with the poles that held them as this portable shrine got carried through the desert – all constructed from the donations of common people.

Maybe there is a message in that experience that makes this reading even more special.  They could oversubscribe because they were doing it themselves.   This was not Betzalel’s tabernacle.  Not even Moses’ tabernacle.  This was ours.  This belonged to the entire community.  Maybe we can still accomplish such an outpouring of shared work.  All we need is a little khokhmat lev.  Just some “wisdom of the heart.”

Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HOW DISTINGUISHED ARE WE – Kee Tissa – Ex.30:11—34, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HOW DISTINGUISHED ARE WE – Kee TissaEx.30:11—34, by Rabbi
Baruch Cohon
     This week’s Torah reading is among the longest, most varied and
most dramatic readings of the year. In its nearly four long chapters, we
will read first about how the Hebrew tribesmen in the desert had to
register for the military draft. Then come the definitions of the liquids and
their containers required for the Tent of Meeting, Israel’s portable
     Sabbath day and its sanctity is revealed in the prohibition of any
work on that day, even if that work includes building the sanctuary.
Meanwhile Moses is spending 40 days on the top of Mount Sinai, at
last receiving the Tablets of the Law, two flat stones that bear the Divine
engraving of the 10 Commandments. And simultaneously, in the camp
below, the people are dancing around the Golden Calf. First religious
rebellion in our history!
     Moses and Joshua start down the mountain and Moses sees the
idolatrous celebration going on. In his rage he breaks the tablets.
Returning to camp, Moses burns the Golden Calf. The people
     Then we will read Moses’ prayer, as he begs for Divine mercy on
Israel. Ending words are “Let us be distinguished , I and Your people,
from the other nations on Earth.”
     Now Moses receives a second set of tablets, and learns the 13
Attributes of G-d, which we recite on all sacred festivals. And those
festivals are described here.
     Our reading continues with some basic ancient Kosher laws, like “Do
not boil a kid in his mother’s milk.”
     As a result of Moses’ direct contact with G-d, his face shines. He
resorts to veiling his face when facing his people.
     Selecting one verse from this climactic reading is a challenge. For
this week, let’s re-read the conclusion of Moses’ prayer:
     ךמעו ינא ונילפנוLet us be distinguished, I and Your people, from all
the other nations…” Certainly the Jewish people was distinguished from
other nations even before entering the Land of Israel. And not only by
receiving the laws of life directly from Heaven. It was selected as a target
by desert tribes and primitive potentates from Amalek to Philistia.
What else is new? In today’s world we find ourselves distinguished
by our number of Nobel prizewinners…by the ultimate failure of those
who would wipe us out…or by our unique talent for internal
disagreement. Really, how distinguished are we?
     Somehow, can we turn those talents to achieve the true distinction
that we are capable of? Can we rise above political puerility and manage
to blend our ancient inspiration with modern reality? To realize that we
don’t have to agree about everything, but we have to work together – that
would be a true distinction. That could unite us worldwide and forge a
favored future.
     Then we could fulfill Moses’ prayer, and at last be “distinguished, I
and Your people, from all the nations on Earth.”
     Let’s accept the challenge.
Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on HOW DISTINGUISHED ARE WE – Kee Tissa – Ex.30:11—34, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

D-DAY – a pre-Purim message — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

D-DAY – a pre-Purim message — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          This month we look forward to our supremely happy holiday, Purim.  We celebrate the risk that Queen Esther took, to reveal her identity to her impulsive royal husband, Akhashverosh – sometimes identified as Xerxes.   He could turn her out of the palace for deceiving him, and send her to die with the rest of the Jews.  After all, he was an absolute Middle Eastern monarch.  Didn’t he depose her predecessor Vashti just because she refused to parade naked before his guests?  Wasn’t the current super-antisemite Haman his favored officer?  And wasn’t it her uncle Mordechai’s refusal to bow that stimulated Haman to plot genocide of her people?

          But Esther couldn’t deny her uncle’s message:  “Who knows if for a time like this you attained royalty?” When her parents died it was  Mordechai who rescued her and raised her.  Mordechai’s very name represented everything she valued: Mem for mitzvah (sacred duty), Resh for rakhamim (mercy), Daled for din (justice), Khaf for kavod (honor) and Yud for y’hudi (Jewish).  And their enemy’s name?  It was shorter but even more representative:  HaMaN represented H for hate, M for mass murder and N for nightmare, something she already experienced. 

          So she appealed to the absolute Middle Eastern king, and he ordered Haman executed.  And the date Haman decreed to wipe out the Jews was turned into Purim when the king gave those Jews the royal OK to defend themselves, and they won every battle.  So the first Purim day was the original D-Day – destruction day for Israel’s enemies.

          Haman’s spiritual descendants don’t go away, do they?  Today’s Persian officer even uses Haman’s name, just pronounces it in Arabic as kHoMeiNi.  The same three consonants still represent Hate, Mass Murder and Nightmare.   And there is an absolute Middle Eastern monarch who opposes him, namely the young Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.  His task this Purim would be even easier than that of Akhashverosh.  With an order from the Crown Prince, a quick attack across Arabian airspace could finally defeat today’s Haman a good deal more spectacularly than the original Haman. 

          What a Purim that would be!   Of course it’s unlikely to happen, unless a modern Esther shows up.  A glamour girl like Gal Gadot could play the part, if Prince Mohammed just held a beauty contest to pick a new queen. 

          What’s that you said?

            Dream on?

Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on D-DAY – a pre-Purim message — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon