HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE? By Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE? By Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This Shabat, Saturday morning September 20th, the morning before those midnight S’lichot penitential services in synagogues throughout the world, Jews will re-read the words from a farewell speech by Moses. The people are camped on the east bank of the Jordan. Moses knows he will not cross that river with them, and he wants them to know what to do when they enter the Promised Land. The name of this reading is “Nitzavim” – literally “Standing” – this year teamed with the next section called “Vayeylech” – “He went.” First, standing to affirm a commitment. Then going on our way. The opening lines of Nitzavim set the scene:

“You are standing today, all of you, before your G-d. Your leaders, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel. Your children, your women, the strangers in your midst, your woodcutters and your water-carriers. [You are here to] form a covenant with G-d… all who are here with us today, and those who are not here with us today.”

Who was not there? All the unborn generations. Including us. The covenant involves us all.

And what was the covenant? Of course we know the Hebrew word for a covenant is “bris.” That was the covenant of Abraham, still observed, even though lately some officials in some places consider it politically incorrect. But the covenant of Moses goes far beyond a physical operation. It extends to the responsibility for “mitzvot,” the commandments, the daily conduct that makes us what we are. Carrying out those standards of conduct – like honest dealings, respect for the sacred, educating our children – can make us more than what we are; they can make us what we should be.

Moses goes into quite a bit of detail about those standards. Then he anticipates the inevitable question, which does not appear in the Torah but resounds in each of our minds, the question we just have to ask: Isn’t this job too hard?

Later in this same reading, Moses gives his answer which we can paraphrase this way: This commandment is not beyond you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, so you don’t need to say “who will go up to heaven and get it for us and bring it down and tell it to us so we may do it?” And it is not overseas, so don’t look for someone to cross the ocean and bring it back to you. No, this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.

Very close, eh? How close is close?

If you attend a service this Shabat and hear the message of Nitzavim, you already will come closer to fulfilling the commandment. And if you don’t? What commandment did you fulfill this week somewhere else? Did you help someone who needed help because their car stalled? Did you remind your kids to get advance homework because they will be absent from school on Rosh Hashana? Did you write a letter to the editor of a newspaper that printed a slanderous anti-Israel column? By the way, we can all hold our own honest opinions pro or con about Israeli government policies, but the 6 or 7 million Jews in Israel are our people, and what affects them is bound to affect us. We are, and we remain, “am segulah,” a chosen people. Once in a while, like Tevye we might wish that the Almighty would choose someone else, but don’t hold your breath.

So now we come face to face with our spiritual day of reckoning, Yom Kippur. We said our midnight prayers at Slichot, we gloried in the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. And ten days later, here we stand, all of us. More Jews in one place at one time than on any other day in the year. Our leaders and our followers, wives and husbands and children, woodcutters and water department technicians. We stand together – Nitzavim – and we try to honor the covenant.

Reform congregations read Nitzavim on Yom Kippur morning. An apt choice, for when during the year should we be more ready to accept the closeness of the covenant? This is the time, this is the season, these are the days when we can remind ourselves that our commitment to our Torah, to our faith, to our people, is not beyond our reach. It is not in heaven, but here on earth. It is not overseas, because our forebears brought it to America. It is indeed close to us.

How close? As close as the mezuzah on your doorpost. As close as the candle on your table. As close as the book on your shelf. As close as your pride in your heritage.

The covenant is as close to us today as the medal a decorated veteran wears. By wearing it, we evidence our pride. It is as close as the cup we will lift to celebrate the Sabbath, and by drinking that wine we bring the sweet taste of heritage into our lives. It is as close as the tree limbs we will lift on top of our Succah, to recall our ancestors’ joy in the harvest. It is as close as the hour we will spend helping a child do some homework. It is as close as the jumper cables we will use to help our neighbor start that stalled car.

All of these actions are part of our covenant. They are as close to us as we will get to them. The closer we bring our covenant to our lives, the better prepared we will be to face a new year.

Have a great one!

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A BASKET OF THANKS – “Kee Tavo” Deut. 26-29:8, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A BASKET OF THANKS – “Kee Tavo” Deut. 26-29:8, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week Moses concludes his second parting Discourse and begins the third. His message once again highlights choices, to be dramatically presented to the people once they enter the Promised Land. Six tribes will hail the positive on one mountainside, and the other six will warn about the negative on the facing mountainside. He details requirements for tithes. He reminds them of their Covenant with G-d. He restates the violations that can bring curses in their wake. He instructs them on how to build an altar, using no iron tool – no weapon-like implement – in that process. Expanding on the history they and their parents lived, Moses recalls his people’s experience in Egypt and concludes this section by recounting the victory over formidable enemies like Sihon and Og.

Before getting into his oratory, however, Moses delivers a simple commandment about First Fruits. In the very second sentence of this week’s reading he says: “Take some of the first [to ripen] from every fruit of the ground, that you gather from the land that G-d is giving you, and put them in a basket. Then go to the place that G-d will choose for His name to dwell there, and go to the “cohen,” the priest, who will be there in those days and tell him: ‘I declare before G-d today that I came into the land that He swore to our fathers to give us.’ And the priest will take the basket from your hand and place it before the altar.” Not all the crops qualify to enter the basket, says Rashi quoting the Talmud. Just the seven fruits typical of the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olives and date-honey. These fruits represent the land. Bringing them to the altar expresses the Jew’s thanks for that land.

Why must the first fruits be placed in a basket? Really, why “dafka” a basket? Other mitzvot about offerings do not have specifications like this. Couldn’t the farmer just tie them in a bundle? Shlep them in a sack? What is so special about this basket that Moses includes it in the commandment?

It remained for the Lubavitcher Rebbe to deal with this question. In his Likutei Sichos he quotes the Midrash that teaches the mystical idea of creation, namely that the Divine intention to create Jewish souls “preceded everything.” So Jewish souls are comparable to “first fruits.” From this mystic text, we learn that before birth the soul is in Heaven enjoying a pure and ecstatic relationship with the Creator. Nevertheless that soul is sent to Earth to inhabit a body which conceals its Divine relationship. But through the very concealment, a human soul can carry out a mission in the physical world which is exactly G-d’s purpose in sending it here. In essence, then, just as the offering of first fruits needs a basket to attain its place at the altar, so the human soul needs a body to accomplish its purpose on Earth.

Following this idea through, we can conclude that as the priest “takes the basket from your hand,” so the L-rd takes the body when the time comes. Let us hope that the soul within that body earned its place on the holy altar.

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BETWEEN US HUMANS – “Kee teytzey” Deut. 21-25 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BETWEEN US HUMANS – “Kee teytzey” Deut. 21-25 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s reading will cover many principles of conduct between people, setting standards for how we can be expected to treat each other. From the respect toward a female war prisoner, to the care of the body of an executed criminal; from the fair treatment required for the child of an unloved wife, to the rule to pay a day laborer before the sun goes down; from the responsibility to return lost animals or articles to their owner, to the penalties for rape, and to the warning about keeping honest weights and measures to prevent cheating in business – and many more.

For this week, let’s select just two of these standards. Verse 5 of chapter 22 states: “A man’s clothes shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment, because those who do so are an abomination to G-d.” Is this just a Politically Incorrect mitzvah? Now wait a minute. Consider local custom. I remember my Rebbe telling me about two villages facing each other in Israel. On one side of the road was a Hasidic community where the men wore 19th century type European shirts and trousers and the women wore long dresses. On the other side was an Eastern Sephardic village where the women wore pants and the men wore long desert robes. Was one or the other community violating this mitzvah? Of course not.

This prohibition really concerns sex roles. Clothing only dramatizes the issue. Judaism, from Torah times till today, values the family above much else. Confusing conduct within that structure can destroy the family, as we see happening too often now. What Moses reminded his people in this week’s reading is to maintain normal healthy relationships between men and women.

Even more applicable to our lives is the charge just before this, in verse 4: “Do not watch your brother’s donkey or ox falling down in the road and hide from them. Help him lift them up.” An overloaded animal, or a stalled car, the principle is the same. If it was yours, you would welcome help. You must do no less for your neighbor. And part of the principle is in the words “help him” – not just do it for him. Your neighbor should be right in there working with you, not leaving it to you. Whether it involves picking up a spilled load and putting it back on the vehicle, or sharing your hot-shot cable to restart his truck, don’t hide. Help. It’s a Mitzvah.

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TAKE A LOOK – “R’ey”, Deut. 11:26-16:17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

TAKE A LOOK – “R’ey”, Deut. 11:26-16:17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

At a roadhouse in Wyoming, one feature on the menu is “Steak juice.” What is steak juice? Chilled beef blood. Some cowboys must like it. The Torah does not. “Just be strong, not to eat the blood, for the blood is the soul. Do not eat the soul with the flesh.” (from this week’s reading, Deut. 12:23) As Moses continues his review of Torah teachings, we will also read about other dietary laws and their significance; about how to worship G-d and how to prevent worship of idols; tithes; debts and loans; helping the unfortunate; how to treat an indentured servant; and the calendar of the religious year. All of these teachings have either historical or practical value, or both, for us.

Particularly timely this year is the Haftorah, the prophetic reading that corresponds to “Sedrah R’ey.” Third of the seven messages of comfort that follow the grief of Tish’a b’Av, this is Isaiah’s promise of hope to his defeated and impoverished people. “All who are thirsty, come to the water” he calls. “Whoever has no money, go and buy and eat… buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And in line with the spirit of the Sedrah: “All your children will be students of G-d, and great shall be the peace of your children.” Free wine and milk might be a welcome gift from some welfare state, but personal peace requires inspiration.

For our time, Isaiah’s message sounds a goal and an alert. “No weapon formed against you will succeed, and every tongue that rises against you must you condemn!” Did Isaiah see it coming? Hamas rockets and CNN slander? Our enemies might look different but their goals never change.

Even our friends can exhibit behavior Isaiah predicted. “You will call to a nation you did not know, and a nation that did not know you will run to you, because of the L-rd your G-d, the Holy One of Israel who glorifies you.” No nations seem to be running to help us today, but some significant individuals are. Recently reported is the first-person story of an Arab spy who not only supplies vital military intelligence to the IDF, but actually studied and brought his wife with him to become Jewish. By his own account, he read the Koran and determined that the jihadis were totally misinterpreting it, while the Israelis were following the spirit of the Bible. Then he attended a Yom Kippur service, and felt at home.

Other outsiders, from England and Japan and the United States, are rising against the hate-mongers. Pastors from many Christian denominations take thousands of their people on pilgrimage tours to Israel every year, and we can be sure those people will not be marching in any anti-Jewish rallies. These days when we need all the friends we can get, we can only hope for the complete fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “an eternal covenant… for the sure mercies of David.” In Jewish lore, the Messiah will be a descendant of King David, and he will usher in worldwide peace. Maybe the Moshiach will be a brilliant technologist who will attract the sincere friendship and admiration of the entire world, as Israeli knowhow already attracts many industries that are free of political bias. Maybe not. Either way, we could really use him!


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HEEL AND TOE – “EYKEV” – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HEEL AND TOE – “EYKEV” – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The name of this week’s reading is EYKEV – meaning a result. “Eykev tishm’oon” it says – As a result of listening to the commandments and following them, you can expect to accomplish good things in your life. And if we don’t listen, and we don’t carry out the Divine will, we will suffer the consequences. Cause and effect. Interestingly enough, EYKEV also means Heel. The imagery is unique: just as surely as the heel follows the toe, so follow the results of our actions.

This is the message Moses gives the people during his farewell speeches at the end of his life. Every year we read it. And every year we wonder if it makes any impression.

Of course Moses was not the only leader who gave the people such messages. Just a few weeks ago we read in the Haftorah of Balak a message from the prophet Micah: “HIGID L’KHA ADAM MAH TOV – “He told you, man, what is good and what is required of you: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your G-d.”

Down through the ages, lawgiver, prophet and sage keep trying to teach us basic values. Personally, this Shabos is very special for me, since I observe my father’s 55th Yortzite this week. My father z”l was a rabbi and a teacher of rabbis. The last sermon I ever heard him deliver was based on both of these texts. In fact, he contrasted them. Here, in effect, was his message:

Micah stresses three ideals: justice, mercy, humility. These make the character of a religious human being.

Moses also stresses three ideals. In Chapter 10 verse 12, he asks: “Now, Israel, what does G-d expect from you? To fear the L-rd your G-d, to love Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and soul.”

The parallels are not hard to draw. The Biblical concept of “fear of G-d” implies reverence. Not fright, but supreme respect. If we truly revere G-d we want to pattern our lives after the qualities we associate with Him. And justice is one primary attribute of Divinity, the MIDAS haDIN, the “quality of justice” that we recall with such drama on Yom Kippur. So, reverence for G-d – Moses’ first ideal – leads to doing justice – Micah’s first ideal.

“Love of G-d” is actualized by love of our fellow creatures. We believe that we all carry the Divine image in us. That image includes the MIDAS haRAKHAMIM, the quality of mercy. Even Shakespeare said it is “not strained.” Judaism teaches us to treat each other with kindness, to carry over some of the respect we feel for G-d into a mutual respect in dealing with people. Micah’s second ideal – loving mercy – is the clear result.

And serving G-d with total respect implies a type of attitude and a type of conduct: AVODAH is one of those Hebrew words that has two meanings – Work, and Worship. To worship G-d with sincerity requires an attitude of humility. You can’t pray honestly unless you feel a good deal less important than the Divinity you pray to. And you can’t strive to do better and better work unless you realize that you yourself are less than perfect. Unless you have some humility. When Micah said “walk humbly with G-d” he meant exactly that.

So Moses and Micah struck three parallel alerts.

Then my father went on to point out the difference between these two prophetic messages.

The difference comes in the very next sentence. Here Moses says “LISHMOR ES MITZVOS HASHEM – Keep G-d’s commandments!” That is the tool he gave us at Mount Sinai – the tool to carry out and accomplish these ideals.

Micah said nothing about Mitzvos. For a very good reason too. Micah was addressing the whole human race: ADAM – Mankind. Moses was addressing YISROEL – The Jewish people. For us, Mitzva is the key that unlocks the door of a better life.

All this, of course, is on the individual level. EYKEV covers the national level too. Moses reminds them of the chosenness of Israel: “RAK BAAVOTEKHA — Only your ancestors did G-d desire to be His beloved people” – and then he follows this section with a discussion of the land they are about to enter, and tells them that HaShem watches the land of Israel all year round.

Today we see our people in Israel dealing with attacks both violent and verbal. We pray for their survival, their success, their safety. We hear controversy about whether Mitzva-observant Jews should leave yeshiva training to serve in the army, and we also hear about military arrangements developed to facilitate that service. And we recall Moses’ promise to the IDF of his day, that they will triumph “IM SHOMOR TISHM’ROON – If indeed you will guard the Mitzvos” by learning and doing them, and guard again by reviewing them to prevent forgetting.

Does this mean that only observant Jews should fight for their country? Hardly. Certainly they are not the only ones who live there. So, try this basic interpretation. The policies of a nation produce some logical results. If Israel is a Jewish nation, we should expect it to follow Torah values, and indeed it does even in warfare, always striving to avoid civilian casualties, fighting clean. Essentially Israel follows the vision of EYKEV for ERETZ YISRAEL. We need to implement it for KLAL YISRAEL – for global Jewry. We have the tools to achieve it: LISHMOR ET HAMITZVOT – Keep the Mitzvos, as Rashi points out “LO L’KHINNOM ELLA L’TOV LOKH – Not for nothing, but for your own good.”

Micah gave a message to humanity. Moses gave a message to the Jews. We ignore both at our peril. We can accept both for our own good. It follows as the heel follows the toe.

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