TAPS ON SHAVUOS – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon


TAPS ON SHAVUOS – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This year puts the Hebrew and English calendars in rare contact. On Saturday night begins the festival of Shavuos, the Feast of Weeks, when we celebrate the anniversary of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. After our ancestors crossed the Red Sea to attain freedom from Egyptian slavery, and after seven weeks of a trying and dangerous march through the desert, they arrived at the mountain and accepted the Commandments that became our Constitution. And we became a nation. So in our synagogues on Sunday morning we will stand and listen once again to the Ten Commandments, or as they are called in Hebrew aseres ha-dibros – the ten statements, the eternal simple principles of right and wrong.

That’s not all there is to this festival, however. Like some other major holidays – Passover, Shmini Atzeres, Yom Kippur – Shavuos includes a memorial service, Yizkor. In traditional congregations, this takes place on the second day of the holiday, Monday morning. And this year, it coincides with Memorial Day when Americans honor those who gave their lives in battle for our country. This year, we may very well hear taps sounded on Shavuos.

For all of us, it offers a special opportunity to expand our solemn observance. Military tombstones include many Stars of David alongside crosses. And we can fly the flag on our homes in loyal respect, while we go to our congregations to say the Yizkor prayers.

Of course, Memorial Day continues after taps are played. Americans enjoy a national holiday. Maybe our neighbors would like to share our traditional dairy dishes this Shavuos. As we join in observing sacred memories, we can legitimately celebrate our two holidays together. After all, it doesn’t happen every year. Khag sameyakh!

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COUNT ME IN, OR OUT –BAMIDBAR – Numbers 1:1—4:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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COUNT ME IN, OR OUT —BAMIDBAR – Numbers 1:1—4:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read about a census. Moses had to confirm the numbers of the people he led, specifically men over 20 who qualified for military service. He also had to assign tribal leaders, lay out the camp, and delegate tasks to the tribe of Levi, whose duties were not military but religious.

Did this census take place on some special holiday? Not at all. We learn that it was on the first day of the month of Iyyar in the second year out of Egypt. And we know they crossed the Red Sea on the 7th day of Passover, the 21st of Nisan. So we find a period of 12 months and 10 days between countings. When the Israelites left Egypt, their draft-age men numbered 603,550. They walked through the desert for six weeks, received the Torah at Mount Sinai, shlepped on some 11 more months — and how many are left? 603,550. No more, no less. Coincidence? For every older man who died on that trek, did one 19-year-old turn 20? Looks that way, because that census was not a documented process. It was poll tax. Each man brought half a shekel, and that’s how he got counted. Now, before designating where each tribe would camp, Moses had to be sure that camp would be defended.

Where did Moses have to do all this? Bamidbar – in the desert. That word, that barren location, identifies not only this week’s reading but this entire book of the Torah. “Desert” is the Hebrew name. “Numbers” in English. It identifies the climate of our story. Again we register. Again we report to leaders. Again we take orders. Again our people must count us – and count on us – to defend them from violent enemies. Kol yo-tzey tzava – All who go to the Army. All who go to the IDF. There, in the desert.

Did we ever leave the desert? Or did the desert ever leave us? Past enemies made deserts out of verdant countryside. Today’s enemies bring their desert and their desert way of life with them. We still need to be counted. Are we all registered? Do we have leaders ready to defend us? We may not be confined to the desert any more, but we should be able to count — on each other.

Polls and surveys publish all kinds of numbers about us. What percentage of which generation is religiously observant? How many American Jews support Israel? Is the world Jewish population rising or falling? We can find numbers everywhere. And when we look for each other we may realize we are in the desert, divided, confused, lost.

Bamidbor/Numbers can wake us to realize that we are in fact the same people who left Egypt so many centuries ago. Whether we are 603,550 or a few million, we face the same challenges and inherit the same duty. Wherever we live, we must count. On each other.

Kol yo-tzey tzava – All go out to take action.

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YOUR BANKRUPT BROTHER – Behar/Bekhukosai — Lev.25-27 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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YOUR BANKRUPT BROTHER – Behar/Bekhukosai — Lev.25-27 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s double reading covers the last three chapters in the Book of Leviticus, and also covers several subjects, so let’s single out just one. In 25:35 we read: “If your brother be waxen poor…” Waxen poor??? Well, that is the accepted Elizabethan English for the Hebrew word yamukh, which means a personal or economic downfall. More about that 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. As the Hertz commentary points out, 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 in the year 315. Even Constantine’s poor-relief 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 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. Last week we read 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.

We are dealing with something more positive. The valuable message of this week’s 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 what you give. 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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TO PROFANE OR TO SANCTIFY – “Emor” – Lev. 21-24 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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TO PROFANE OR TO SANCTIFY – “Emor” – Lev. 21-24 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The section called “Emor” – literally “Say!” – will be read this coming Shabat in traditional congregations outside of Israel. It was read last Shabat in Israel and in Reform congregations elsewhere. Just a calendar discrepancy. Personally, of course, I feel a special connection to “Emor” because I read 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 some detailed rules and regulations for the priests – the Cohanim, Aaron’s sons and descendants – from their personal conduct to their sacrificial duties, and continuing with the entire sequence of the Jewish religious calendar, “Emor” is quoted at other times of the year besides these two weeks. In Chapter 23, for example, we read the sequence of counting the Omer, the very period we are in right now, leading us from the freedom holiday of Passover to the anniversary of becoming a nation on Shavuot. Which by the way always comes at the same time in Israel or outside of it.

Between these two sections, we find two short sentences that give all these laws their basis. They come at the end of Chapter 22. 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.” 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. Acceptable conduct in family affairs 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. Every Jewish businessman carries the responsibility for the good or bad effect of his actions on all his people. 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?

Our commentators frequently relate Kiddush haShem to Kiddush hakhayim – sanctifying life. Throughout our history, tragic events occurred that caused pious heroes to give up their lives for their faith, and they are said to have died al Kiddush haShem – for the sake of sanctifying the divine name. Whether they had a choice or not. Inquisitors demanded: “Convert or die.” Nazis and jihadis offer no alternative: “Kill the Jews!” Their victims are mourned with the righteous.

All-important in this principle 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 or 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? It is that kind of life that sanctifies G-d’s name. That kind of behavior sanctifies our lives. That is Kiddush haShem. Kiddush hakhayyim too.

This week and every week, every day, let the words of “Emor” remind us of our ongoing choice: profane or sanctify. Judaism offers us some practical help to make our lives count.

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BE HOLY BECAUSE G-D IS HOLY? — “Ah’rey/K’doshim” Lev. 16-20 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BE HOLY BECAUSE G-D IS HOLY? — “Ah’rey/K’doshim” Lev. 16-20 — by Rabbi 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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