SABBATH OF VISION – D’varim – Deut. 1-3:22 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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SABBATH OF VISION – D’varim – Deut. 1-3:22 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we begin the Book of Deuteronomy, also called in Hebrew Mishneh Torah – “Torah repeated”—consisting of Moses addressing his people and reviewing what they did for the last 40 years and what they learned. Or should have learned. We were there, says Tradition, because our ancestors were there.

This Sabbath is also designated on the calendar as Shabat Khazon – the Sabbath of Vision. Specifically it is the vision of the prophet Isaiah, whose opening chapter forms the Haftorah this week. As our readings and our calendar progress, Moses’ speeches in Deuteronomy will be accompanied by Isaiah’s sermons in the Haftorah for the next six weeks. Who was he?

In his book “The Prophets,” my uncle of blessed memory, Rabbi Beryl D. Cohon, described him as the “prince of the prophets, who, perhaps more than any other of the inspired figures of Hebrew prophecy, brought the fire of Heaven down to Earth.” Living in chaotic and corrupt times, “unlike the Greek poets, Isaiah dreamed of a Golden Age in the days to come, not seeing it in the days that were. Towards it mankind is moving, slowly, haltingly, but surely.” A Messianic dream, to be sure, and one whose reality we can help bring.

This week, Isaiah’s opening chapter charges Israel with offenses that bring on and aggravate their suffering. “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s stall, but Israel does not know; My people does not understand.” He denounces sacrificial pageantry alongside corruption. Quoting G-d, he says: “What value to Me are your sacrifices?… When you spread your hands [in prayer] I will hide My eyes from you… Your hands are full of blood!” Coming as it does this year, the day before the fast of Tish’a b’Av – the 9th of the month Av, anniversary of two destructions of the Temple as well as other tragedies in Jewish history – it is traditional to chant whole sections of this Haftorah in the melody of Lamentations – Aikhah. Isaiah sets out his people’s misdeeds, and the resulting destruction, very dramatically. “Your princes are rebellious, friends of thieves. They all love bribes and chase pay-offs. They do not judge for the orphan, and the widow’s cause never comes before them. Therefore, says the L-rd, I will rid Myself of My foes. I will purge your dross… I will restore your judges as they were at first.”

Yet there is hope. Speaking in G-d’s name, Isaiah urges: “Come and let us reason together. If your sins were red like scarlet, they can be as white as snow. … Zion will be redeemed through justice, and her returnees with righteousness.” To which Rashi adds that the “returnees” include both those in Zion who return to justice, and those outside who return to Zion.

Ken y’hee ratzon – So may it be.

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WORD OF HONOR – Num. 30-36 – Matos-Mas’ey – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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WORD OF HONOR – Num. 30-36 – Matos-Mas’ey – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This is one of the double-header weeks when we will read two Torah portions. Subjects covered explore a wide variety. Responsibility for vows, the war against Midian, a review of the Israelite itinerary from Egypt to the border of the Promised Land, plans to assign territory there. We will read about the shepherds of Reuben and Gad obtaining permission to settle east of the Jordan on condition that they will first fight to help their fellow Israelites conquer the country. And finally a happy ending for the daughters of Zelophehad to establish women’s rights. Way too many topics for one commentary. So let’s concentrate on Number One.

Moses addresses the heads of the matos – the tribes. “This is what G-d commands,” he says. “When a man makes a vow or swears an oath to G-d, he must not break his word.” Basic honesty, right? Not a matter of public policy for the tribal princes to enforce, but a principle of personal practice. Teach your people to honor their words.

N’darim –Vows — can take many forms, of course. A positive vow can commit one to do something definite, whether that something involves physical work or a contribution – consecrating a sacrificial animal to the sanctuary, for example. A man might say “if I sell this field for the price I am asking, I will donate 10% to the Temple.” On the other hand, a negative vow can penalize the individual himself or someone else. “I hereby vow that you can get no benefit from me – or that I will take no benefit from you.” Conflicts between people are nothing new, we know.

Women also make vows. In biblical times their vows were contingent on approval by their father if they were young and single, or later by their husband. If the supervising male does not excuse them, the vow stands, and the pre-teen girl or the married lady must carry out her commitment.

The bottom line is that a neder is a sacred promise. Your word of honor. Violate it at your spiritual peril. Breaking the vow would also mean bringing a penalty sacrifice. No wonder the Talmud devotes an entire tractate to the subject of N’darim. As a matter of fact, this year the daily Talmud lesson – daf yomi – is covering this tractate now. Innumerable situations are discussed.

One who says he will not benefit from those who go to sea is permitted to deal with land dwellers. Or vice versa. And then the rabbis bring up the case of sailors who are really in the category of landlubbers because their voyages are so short, just from Akko to Jaffa – one day’s journey.

One who says he will not profit from Israelites, but we assume his suppliers and customers are Israelites, has to buy high and sell low. If he says Israelites will not profit from him, he must buy low and sell high. But nobody listens to him, says the Talmud. Because of his vow he would sell low and buy high? Let him do business with Gentiles.

One who vows he will not have pleasure with his wife, and then says that he really meant his first wife that he divorced? Quite a discussion on questions like that. If one makes a vow and then needs to cancel it, he must get help from an expert – mumkheh – who knows the laws very well.

A rather obvious case involves a man who vows not to have any benefit from his friend. He must not allow the friend to use his tools, nor may he use the friend’s tools. He must not lend him money or borrow from him. The sage Yosi son of Hanina comments that this is as if they foreswore any benefit from each other.

Vows don’t happen much any more, and these instances illustrate why that is true. When a Jew today declares his intention to do something, it is traditional to add the words b’lee neder – No vow intended. Over the centuries Judaism learned and honored the principle of keeping our word. We are still learning it. Hopefully, we honor it.

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A SPEAR IN HIS HAND – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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A SPEAR IN HIS HAND – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

At the end of last week’s Torah reading we saw a priest named Pinkhas take a spear in his hand and kill both an Israelite tribal prince and the Midianite sacred prostitute he was showing off – thus halting the orgies and the resulting epidemic that was raging in the camp.

This week’s reading opens with Moses receiving the Divine word to award Pinkhas “My covenant of peace. He and his progeny will have a covenant of eternal priesthood because he was jealous for his G-d and he atoned for the people of Israel.”

By his act of violence, does Pinkhas earn permanent High Priesthood for himself and his descendants? He was not carrying out a legal execution. The couple he killed, Zimri and the woman named Cozbi, never went to trial. They flaunted their violation. All the Israelites saw them enter the tent together. And all saw Pinkhas run them through, right through the tent.

Or did he? Psalm 106 tells the story a little differently. “Pinkhas stood and prayed,” says the Psalm, “and the plagued ceased.” Was King David taking liberties with the facts to elevate the reputation of Pinkhas? Is Pinkhas really such a hero? He killed two defenseless people.

Was it prayer or was it murder? Or was it something else, something unique? Maybe Pinkhas carried out an act of affirmation, a violent and shocking act to be sure, but an extreme act made vital by an extreme situation. Maybe he saw a need no one else could see, a need for a nation to be shocked. They did not seem to realize that Midian was their enemy, with the false prophet Balaam plotting their destruction and actually causing the infection and death of some 24,000 Israelite victims of the disease contracted from the Midianite women. Only next week will we read about the military campaign that defeated Midian and killed Balaam. Pinkhas is there too, but he is not the leader of the campaign. More like an enlisted man. His father Elazar is the army chaplain. But without Pinkhas and his spear, would the battle of Midian ever be fought?

An extreme story, yet one to remember. The goal of many a war is peace. World War 1 was supposed to make the world safe for democracy, so in World War 2 we used to wisecrack that we were fighting to make the world safe for peace. Sorry, folks. That didn’t happen. Ink on the peace treaties of 1945 was scarcely dry before Arab armies attacked the new State of Israel in ’48, Communist forces fought their way to ruling China in ’49, and other conflicts followed.

And yet, Pinkhas and his sudden violence did save his people from an immediate threat. There are situations where nothing else works. Not diplomacy, not negotiations, not even prayer. He “turned back [Divine] anger from the people of Israel” with a brutal but courageous attack. He shocked his people into action, and gave his name to this week’s Sedrah – as well as to countless Jewish boys throughout the centuries. We don’t name our sons Balaam, or Cain or Adonijah (David’s spoiled son). But young Pinky’s abound.

Sometimes extreme situations need extreme action.


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FOR ALL US TALKING DONKEYS – Numbers 22-31 – Balak – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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FOR ALL US TALKING DONKEYS – Numbers 22-31 – Balak – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

You see your friend riding a bicycle too close to the lane of a fast moving truck, what do you do? You yell “Look out!” Right? But what if you lost your voice? Do you catch up with your friend and pull him away?

Such emergencies spice this week’s Torah reading, in the story of the soothsayer from P’tor, known in Jewish tradition as Bil’am harasha – Balaam the wicked.

Why wicked? Early in the story we might accept Balaam as a friend of Israel. After all, he declares his faith in the Jewish G-d, he apparently follows Divine orders, and he even gives Israel its most famous blessing in the words we repeat when we enter any synagogue: Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov – “How goodly are your tents, Jacob.”

How does Balaam deserve the end he gets in Chapter 31 when the Israelites defeat the kings of Midian, and finding him there, “slay him with the sword?”

He gets warned, but rejects his warnings.

It starts when Balak, king of Moab, sends messengers to P’tor to ask this famous soothsayer to come and curse “this nation that came out of Egypt” and now frightens Moab. Balaam invites the messengers to stay overnight, while he communicates with G-d and is told not to go with them. “Do not curse this nation, for it is blessed.” So he stays home. Balak does not give up, however. He sends higher-ranking nobles, and promises great honor to Balaam, a kind of write-your-own-ticket deal. Again Balaam consults the Divine and gets this answer: “If they came to invite you, go. But only the words I put in your mouth may you say.” The next morning, Balaam saddles his donkey, takes his two servants with him and begins his journey with Balak’s representatives. No sooner are they on the road than the Torah tells us: “G-d was angry because Balaam went.”

What happened here? Did G-d change His mind? Not likely. The commentary called Or haKhayyim (“Light of Life”) explains the story. While Balaam refused the first invitation and told the messengers G-d would not permit him to go, he behaves differently now. He just picks himself up and goes. Not a word about Divine permission or about the limitations on it. He acts as if he is above all that, just doing what he wants to do. That is his first mistake. The Torah describes him confidently riding down the road, oblivious of a Divine angel – presumably the malach hamovves, the angel of death – standing in front of him with a drawn sword. His donkey sees the angel and veers off the road into a field to save Balaam’s life, whereupon he slaps the donkey.

Mistake #2 proceeds from there. Balaam decides that now that he is going to Balak, nothing – not even G-d — can keep him from damaging Israel. Sensing this, the angel with the sword intercepts Balaam at a narrow spot between two fences. Again the donkey swerves, and bruises Balaam’s leg against one wall. Again Balaam slaps the donkey.

Mistake #3 involves Balaam on the night before, relying on his own witchcraft to determine if this trip will really benefit him, and he decided that it will make him rich and powerful. So he ignored the first two warnings. He keeps riding. This time the angel of death blocks the road at a turn so narrow that there is no way to get around him. So the donkey sits down. Furious, Balaam takes a stick and starts beating the donkey.

Now comes “Look out!” G-d “opens the donkey’s mouth” to ask: “What did I do to you, to make you strike me three times?” Balaam rages: “You ridiculed me! If I had a sword in my hand I would kill you.” More reasonable than he is, the donkey pleads: “Am I not the same donkey you rode all your life? Did I ever do this before?” Balaam has to admit: “No.” Only then does he see the danger. He bows before the angel, who tells him that if not for the donkey’s alert action, “I would kill you, and keep her alive.” Her? For no apparent reason, Balaam’s donkey is female. Her warning is worth heeding.

Still Balaam does not change his mind. The Torah text traces his course. He reluctantly speaks the words of blessing that G-d puts in his mouth. So Balak withdraws his offer. Then Balaam, no longer trusting in his sorcery, sets out to destroy Israel another way. He organizes a campaign of seduction. “The men of Israel began to whore around with the daughters of Moab,” we will read in Chapter 25, resulting in an epidemic of idolatry and disease. The plague spread by Balaam’s sacred prostitutes kills 24,000. When the Israelite army conquers Midian, no talking donkey will warn Balaam this time. His evil life ends on a sword.

Most of us might not have the opportunity to grab our friend’s bicycle and pull it away from that truck. But we can yell “Look out!” And hope that the leaders take warning from us, the talking donkeys. We need to talk. Those who do, can be heroic – or mistaken. They can also be worth be worth listening to.

Was Edward Snowden a talking donkey?

Is a rabbi or minister who warns against measures that destroy the American family a talking donkey?

And what about Bibi Netanyahu? Another talking donkey?

Let’s learn from Balaam’s mistakes. Listen.

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KNOW THE LAW – AND UNDERSTAND IT? – Khukas – Numb.19:1—22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

KNOW THE LAW – AND UNDERSTAND IT? – Khukas – Numb.19:1—22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Torah law comes in three varieties. One is called eydos – ordinances. A second one is called khukim – decrees. And the third is called mishpatim – judgments.

We define eydos as rules of life that would be obvious without even writing them down. Frequently they are compared to accepted customs that acquire the force of law. Wearing clothes, for example.

Mishpatim are logical conclusions from reality, formalized into law. The word mishpat means “justice.” To be fair, to be just, we must follow these laws. Like the Torah’s admonition that a murderer shall not be put to death until he stands trial. Make sure we have the right one.

Khukim – decrees, or statutes, present a different challenge. They seem to defy human intelligence. Since this week’s reading is called Khukas we have a perfect opportunity to explore some puzzling commandments. One which opens our reading describes the sacrifice of the Red Heifer, an offering which has no stated purpose but is described in full detail. We are told that this offering took place only nine times in all Jewish history, and we still don’t know why. But it is anticipated for the tenth (and last?) time when the Messiah arrives. Along with that sacrifice comes the law of tum’ah – contamination – applied to the priest who gathers the cow’s ashes. He sprinkles the sacrifice with holy water, thus purifying it. But he himself becomes contaminated – therefore unable to join in any normal activity – and remains so until nightfall. So this is a case where the same action “purifies the contaminated, and contaminates the pure.”

Tum’ah becomes more serious when a human being comes in contact not with a dead animal but a dead human body. Now it lasts a week. And if the death takes place in a tent, or if the body is brought into the tent, everything in the tent is contaminated and must be sprinkled with cleansing water, as of course the living humans too. In today’s Jewish world the mikvah substitutes for the ancient sprinkle. Proximity to death still contaminates, so a Jewish cemetery will have water faucets available for visitors to use. And returning from the funeral to enter a house of mourning, we prepare a pitcher and basin on the porch for our guests.

Yet the riddle remains. How do we explain the concept of ritual contamination? This law is not based on logic. Don’t argue. Just do it!

A decree or a statue, therefore, is a law passed down from above by absolute authority, whether human or Divine. In Chapter 30 we will read: “These are the decrees that G-d commanded Moses.” And later in the Book of Joshua we see how he signed a treaty with the people binding their agreement to dispose of all their idols, and ”made it a statute and a law.”

All through this reading we will find the imminence and effect of losing treasured people. First it is Miriam who dies. We read simply that she dies and gets buried. We don’t know who buried her, or what kind of mourning the people did. But we know they felt her loss. In her honor, says our Midrash, a miraculous well followed the Israelite people all through their 40 years in the desert. As soon as she died, they had no water to drink. That’s what they complained about.

Soon thereafter, they lose Aaron. He and his son Elazar climb the mountain, he gives Elazar his priestly robe, and his life ends. He is buried on the mountain, and the people mourn him for 30 days.

Why 30 days? Significantly, we will read no law about 30 days of mourning. Yet we still observe it. Granted, it is now just the first of 11 months of Kaddish, but the first month is the deepest, starting with the week of shiva when the mourners traditionally stay at home and refrain from work or other regular activities while they accept sympathy calls; and proceeding through the rest of the 30 days when it is customary not to visit the grave or to partake in entertainment. Aaron was a great man in our history, but memorializing him took no different form from how we honor each of our departed ever since. As we will read in Deuteronomy, Moses himself was also mourned by the entire people for 30 days.

We need these various kinds of laws – ordinances, judgments, decrees — to help us relate to each other. They teach us to respect those who live by those laws, to support those who teach and enforce those laws and to share an ordered society.

Dealing with death is different. No law we can write or even understand limits any one lifetime. Human beings live and die by a decree we cannot know. All we can do for those we love while they are with us, is to help them live. After that, we can honor good people’s memories as we have always done — from the heart.

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