WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE – Shabat Hol HaMoed Succot – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE – Shabat Hol HaMoed Succot – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A friend and colleague of mine use to say “Succos has no Mazel.” People are all “shulled out” from the High Holidays, and another religious occasion just doesn’t turn them on. If that observation feels familiar, you are missing a great deal. A week to express our joy in nature, for one thing. Nature, the yield of our planet, is a gift from G-d, and this week we can fulfill a special Mitzvah by our pure joy in that gift. V’hayeeta akh sameyakh, says the Torah: Just be happy! So we build our Succa, we roof it with branches – pines in the east, corn stalks in the Middle West, or palm branches in California – and we peek through that roof to see the stars. We invite our friends to share a meal in our Succa, and we even go to shul!

Of course the Torah has more messages this week than just “be happy.” Every day we read about the holiday calendar, or about the sacrifices our ancestors offered to observe these occasions. Standing out from the other Torah readings is the one for the Sabbath during Succos. This time we read the story of a supernatural spectacle: Moses experiencing G-d. Standing on a rock at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses is given the unique opportunity to witness the Divine procession, and even allowed to view the passing glory from the back. All this in response to his urgent plea for evidence of the authority that is being given to him. From this same mountain just a scant few days ago, Moses saw the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, and in his shock he broke the Tablets of the Law that he was bringing them. Returning to the camp, he set the Levites to execute mortal punishment on the idolaters, and then he turned to G-d in prayer.

“You tell me to bring this people up,” Moses pleads, “but whom will You send with me? And how will I know that You are with us?… If Your presence does not go with us, do not take us away from here. How will it be known that I and Your people found favor with You? Only if You will go with us, and we will be distinguished, I and Your people, from all the nations on earth.”

Only if we will be distinguished. Those four words “we will be distinguished” are one word in Hebrew: v’nifleenu. From the root word palah – to separate, to make different, to distinguish – comes Moses’ one condition for Jewish identity. V’nifleenu – we will be different.

So how different are we? Can we be distinguished from every other nation on earth? After all, no two national groups are identical, are they? Can’t you always tell a Greek from an Eskimo? Or a Zulu from a Swede? Maybe it’s a little more difficult to distinguish between a Cuban and a Spaniard, or between a Turk and…. a Jew? Features and coloring get confusing, at times. But Moses gave us a further measure of difference. If the Divine Presence goes with us, he prays, that will distinguish us.

Is the Divine Presence not available to other nations? King David sang “G-d owns the earth and its fullness, the world and all who dwell there.” Not only Jews. Other nations may have other beliefs, and make other choices. But they too are G-d’s creatures.

What’s the difference?

Choice is the difference. Many scholars have debated whether we are the “chosen people” or the “choosing people.” By choosing to take the Divine Presence with us on our journey through life, we can fulfill Moses’ prayer. When we build our Succa and rejoice in G-d’s gift of Nature, we distinguish ourselves. When we shake the “four species” –lulav & esrog – to all six directions, we distinguish ourselves.

Certainly observant Jews are not the only nation that is religiously committed. We know that. Here in America we see it demonstrated among church groups. It is truly impressive to note that frequently those church groups who are most fervent tend to be our best friends. We were here first, and they respect that history. Our Bible is their Old Testament. We can expand the letter of the Torah with centuries of rabbinic interpretation, but the commitment that we feel parallels that of our friends. What’s the difference? We were here first. Just as Moses brought the Divine Presence with him and his tumultuous people, through the desert, through the trial at Sinai, through battles with savage tribes to reach the Jordan, so we bring that Presence with us through exile, through persecution, through Holocaust – and back to the Jordan and the Salt Sea and the Holy City. Enemies still attack us but we can draw courage from the One who journeys with us. Our friends of other nations respect our sacred survival, our hereditary rights and our determined devotion. Let us value our difference.

V’nifleenu, said Moses. “We will be distinguished.” That humble distinction is a treasure, as Succos reminds us today.


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LEND ME YOUR EARS – Haazinu – Deut. 32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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LEND ME YOUR EARS – Haazinu – Deut. 32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Our Torah reading this week starts with a call that can easily be translated “Lend me your ears!” No, this is not Marc Antony haranguing the Romans, and it has nothing to do with burying Caesar. This is Moses calling Heaven and Earth to attention.

This 41-line poem shows links with the entire subject matter of Torah and indeed it was reportedly sung throughout the year by the Levites in the Sanctuary when they prepared the Sabbath offering. Two sages of a past century insisted that every Jew should memorize Haazinu with all its melodic cantillations, in preparation to greet the Messiah. They also held that regular chanting of Haazinu would help achieve success in business. That may be open to question, but this much is for sure. Haazinu is the last song Moses will sing. It resounds with power and protest and principle.

After the formalities of Rosh Hashanah and the stringency of Yom Kippur, we owe it to ourselves to take a fresh look at this, the last song of Moses. As we go through the text, well-known lines stand out.

“Give ear, you heavens and I will speak; earth, hear my words!”

“Let my doctrine fall like rain, my speech distill like dew…”

“When I call the Name of the L-rd, give greatness to our G-d!”

        And the words that begin every Jewish burial ceremony: HaTzur tamim po’alo – “The Rock, His way is perfect…”

        We sing our protest as did Moses: “Corruption in Him? No! That defect is in His children, a generation crooked and perverse.”

        We face history: “Remember the days of old; consider the years, generation after generation. Ask your father, he will tell you; your elders will speak to you.”

        We sing of Divine guidance of our ancestors: “Like an eagle waking the nest, and hovering over the young…, [G-d] rode him over the heights of Earth and he ate the fruit of the fields…’

        Then comes bad news: “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked – fat and thick and gross – and he forsook his Creator, disgraced the Rock of his salvation.”

        Moral corruption brings tragic defeats: “They are a perverse generation, children with no loyalty. They provoked Me with a non-god, angered Me with their vanities. I will punish them with a non-nation, with vile aliens will I provoke them.”

Moses names no names here. He leaves that to us. What is a non-god? In those days it was an idol called Baal. Later, that definition included mythic characters on Mount Olympus, or patron saints. Or deified humans from Jesus to Mohammed to Buddha to Lenin. And vanities? Plenty of those, from Scientology to Political Correctness. Valid objects of worship for some, perhaps, but not for Israelites.

Divine retribution is predicted through a non-nation. What is a non-nation? Let’s call it a tribe, whether political or ethnic. Like Nazis. Or “Palestinians.”

        Moses’ prediction of salvation seems more than possible to happen: “Nations, sing aloud of G-d’s people, for He avenged the blood of His servants,
Returning vengeance to His enemies, and atoning for the land of His people.”

Today it takes some effort to recall the mid-60’s when it was “in” to be Jewish. Not only was “Fiddler on the Roof” Broadway’s biggest hit, but the State of Israel was in high favor. “Look what those Jews endured and look what they built! What a plucky little country.” Then came the Six-day War, more admiration for Jewish military success – but it didn’t last long. Public opinion started turning. Apparently the world could accept Jews as victims but not as victors.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps we missed something. Haazinu has it. After “Jeshurun got fat and kicked,” the Creator lets the savage results take place:

“From outside, the sword bereaves, and in the chamber is terror…
They are a nation void of counsel, they have no understanding…
How can one man chase a thousand, or two put ten thousand to flight?
Only if their Rock had given them over…”

Eichmann loaded freight cars and sent Jews to Auschwitz, much as Hungarian officials are doing with Syrian refugees today. Why didn’t we fight back before losing 6 million? Perhaps we can still learn from Haazinu:

“If only they would become wise, they would understand.
They would discern the result.” Lu khokhmu!

The comedian who said “Vy do ve get so soon old and so late shmart?” got the message. Violent action in a just cause is not wrong. Torah wisdom can help us determine the justice of our cause. Let’s “become wise.”


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ETERNAL WITNESS – Vayeylekh, Shabat Shuvah – Deut. 31, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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ETERNAL WITNESS – Vayeylekh, Shabat Shuvah – Deut. 31, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Moses our Teacher is delivering his last speech, exhorting his people to keep the Torah he helped them receive. Gain courage and wisdom from it, he urges. No longer will he be with them to lead them, teach them, judge them. “Today I am 120 years old,” he says. “I cannot go out and come in.” Follow Joshua now because he will be the one to lead the way across the Jordan into the Promised Land. But above all, Moses calls on his people to write these words. “Take this Sefer Torah – this Book of the Law – and place it by the Ark of the Covenant of G-d. There it will be your witness.” An eternal witness.

Witness to what? A realist to the end, Moses predicts wrong behavior by his people. After all, they have free will. They can choose the wrong road. And they will. “I know that after I die you will wreak destruction, you will leave the path I commanded you to follow, and evil will befall you.” Was he predicting disaster immediately after his death? Not at all. Rashi points out that the people did not engage in treasonous destruction all the days of Joshua. From this we learn that a faithful student is as valuable as his teacher. The evil would come later. As we know too well, it came many times.

But with the aid of the Torah, said Moses, we can return. A few centuries later, the prophet Hosea sings in our Haftorah: “Return, Israel, to the L-rd your G-d, for you have stumbled.” And so we have the opportunity to return, every year. Our Sabbath, this Sabbath, takes its name from Hosea’s prophecy: Shabat Shuvah – the Sabbath of Return. Coming as it does during the Ten Days of Repentance, it gives a very special and uniquely Jewish quality to this whole season. Because the Hebrew word t’shuvah is usually translated “repentance,” we could lose track of the fact that it comes from the same root as shuvah – “return.” The root is Shuv: Go back. Return to where you came from. Every morning the Jew prays: “My G0d, the soul You gave me is pure.” Christianity holds that man is born in sin. So he needs someone else to die to redeem him. That’s not the Jewish view. Each one of us is endowed with tzelem Elokim – the Divine image. No, we might not look divine, but that sacred spark is inside us. When you forget that, you can make the wrong choice, but you still have the power to return. That is what these Ten Days are about. From the New Year through Yom Kippur, we can take a close look at our lives, and we can return to where we should be.

Did you take advantage of your neighbor? You can make it up to him. Did your neighbor insult you? You can forgive him. Restore your relationship to a positive point, the point where it once was.

Did you implement your Judaism in your community? And through your own observance? Or were you lax? You can return.

What about the family? Did you honor your parents or did you neglect them? Did you treat your mate as one “sanctified to you,” as a “helper beside you” or as someone to take for granted? Did you teach your children by example? Or did you overdo your authority and make them rebel? Or perhaps did you just let them run wild? Many choices, many roads to stray on. These ten days give us the chance to return.

All the penitential prayers, all the ceremonies of forgiving each other, all the buildup to the holy fast day – it’s all a spiritual journey of return. We were there once. We can go back. It is to the success of our journey that Hosea looks as he concludes his vision: “You will give truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham, as You swore to our fathers in days of old.”

So may it for us on this Sabbath of Return.


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CAN WE STAND TOGETHER? Nitzavim – Deut. 29.9-30, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CAN WE STAND TOGETHER? Nitzavim – Deut. 29.9-30, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Some years, this week’s reading is paired with the portion that follows it, but this year because of Rosh Hashanah not arriving until the beginning of next week, Nitzavim stands alone. Indeed this reading paints a symbolic picture for us all. We, the Jewish people, stand alone. Can we stand together?

Moses harangues us in these chapters: “You stand today, all of you, before the L-rd your G-d, your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives – and the stranger in your midst.” Yes, those not born Jewish who determined to join us, stood with our ancestors at Mount Sinai. “Your woodcutters and your water-drawers” are specified here – not to eliminate other vocations, but to illustrate that a humble worker had the same rights as a tribal leader when it comes to hearing the Divine Covenant.

What we were reading in earlier chapters of the Torah is good to remember this week. Those people standing at Mount Sinai included leaders and laborers, yes, and also included the children of rebels. Their fathers agitated against Moses, insisted they should forget about any Promised Land and should return to the “fleshpots of Egypt!” And now their children stand to receive the Torah?

Other witnesses to rebellion stand with them. Survivors of the calamity at Baal Peor, when idolatry combined with prostitution to produce an epidemic, halted only by the violent action of Pinchas – those memories are still with them. The Moabite girls were eager, and the Israelite men were ready to appease their enemies in exchange for those favors. Now those who resisted and survived stand to receive the Torah?

And what about the 10 spies and their bad report? It – and they – robbed the people of courage, so they were ready to give up. Run back, surrender, appease the enemy! They were ready to throw away the Land of Israel without even negotiating a nuclear deal! Should they receive the Torah?

Yes, said Moses, you are here. Your officers and your followers, your right wing and your left wing, your judges and your workers, your families and your tribes – stand together now. This Torah is your blueprint, your way of life for today and all the future days. And you know what? You will interpret it many different ways. You will disagree. Even your wise men will disagree. But you can still stand together, work together, become a nation. You can do it because you have free will!

Maimonides, our great legal and critical teacher, called this the “pillar of the Law and of the Commandments.” When Moses reminds us, “Today I call Heaven and Earth to witness, I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you may live, you and your descendants,” he is just saying that we have a choice to make, that the Torah shows us what choice will bring us life, and make it worth living.

As we face a difficult New Year, let us hope and pray for the wisdom to stand together and make the right choices.


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ENTERING THE LAND – Kee Tavo – Deut. 26.1—29.8, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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ENTERING THE LAND – Kee Tavo – Deut. 26.1—29.8, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s reading continues Moses’ farewell addresses to the people on the east bank of the Jordan. Included, along with a review of other commandments, is the dramatic description of six tribes standing on each of two facing mountains enunciating a series of blessings and curses. The blessings are promises of rewards earned by following Divine guidelines and the curses detail tragic destruction as results of violating them. The famous tokhakha, as the fearful curses are called, is aptly described as second only to the actual suffering recorded in Jewish history.

At the beginning of this portion, however, we read of an offering which may seem odd to lead off with. It concerns bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple as an offering. It says: “When you enter the land that G-d gives you to inherit, and you take possession and dwell there, take some of the first fruits of the earth that you take out of the land G-d gives you, and put it in a basket. Go to the place that G-d will choose for the Divine presence to dwell there, and bring the basket to the priest…” Wait, there’s more. The Torah gives the farmer a whole speech to say when delivering the fruit – which of course was limited to the crops native to the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and honey. The farmer then reviews ancestral history from Egypt on, culminating in acquiring “this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, look, I brought the first fruit of this land that You, G-d, gave me.” To which the Torah adds: “Rejoice in all the good that G-d gave you and your family – you, and the Levite, and the stranger in your midst.” It is not enough to enjoy the bounty of the earth yourself, you must share it with those who do not have property of their own.

Note the words “take possession and dwell there.” Quoting the Talmud (in Tractate Kiddushin), Rashi notes that this commandment did not take effect until the people had conquered the land and divided it into family plots. To which the Klee Yokor commentary adds the fact that this is one of just two places where these terms “take possession and dwell there” occurs. Once they have possession and residence, Israel could “get fat and start kicking” as the prophet says, seeking areas of rulership like other nations. So this process of First Fruits has the purpose of bringing down the haughty attitude that could come with possession and residence, as if to say that this land is theirs because they acquired it with the sword, forgetting G-d. Just as the courage to conquer had a Divine source, so the blessing of residence involves responsibility – to carry out the Mitzvos.

In fact, responsibility is the one condition that emerges from this whole discussion. The very opening sentence “When you enter the land” is phrased in the singular, treating the entire Israelite nation as an individual. And indeed, until the entire population was in the land, no Bikkurim – no First Fruit ceremony could take place. If even one Jew still remained outside, this national expression of gratitude for a homeland had to wait. The Lubavitcher Rebbe applies that example to today: “As long as there is a single Jew who is materially or spiritually deprived, the rest of us cannot experience complete joy. The plight of our fellow Jews – and through them the plight of all humanity and creation in general – should inspire us to action to remedy this situation.” Relieving other people’s suffering gives us more to be grateful for. Kee tavo – then YOU will enter. Something to think about this week.


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