ONE GOLD BLOCK – B’ha’alot’kha – Num. 8-12, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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ONE GOLD BLOCK – B’ha’alot’kha – Num. 8-12, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Torah reading opens with instructions to Aaron the High Priest for lighting the Menorah, the sacred candelabrum. Perhaps the most universal symbol of Judaism, this 7-branched candlestick appears on buildings, products and stationery. It stands proudly in synagogues. It signifies victory, and with two added branches it becomes the trademark of Hanukkah.

It also appears on an arch in Rome to symbolize Israel’s defeat. Capturing the Menorah made the Romans believe they had indeed ended the Jewish nation. How wrong they were.

We honor the Star of David, but it won’t replace the Menorah. Not on Shabos, and certainly not on Hanukkah. In fact, this week’s Haftorah from the prophet Zechariah (“Sing and rejoice, daughter of Zion!”) is the same one we read on Hanukkah.

What is so special about this candlestick? One distinction is the way it is made. This was not put together piece by piece, a base, then attach a shaft and six branches. This, we learn in the text of the Book of Exodus and elaborated by the Talmud and the commentators, was formed from one block of gold. “Of beaten work shall the candlestick be made. Its base, its shaft, its cups, its knobs and its flowers shall be part of it.” One block of gold, beaten into shape. Three branches extended on each side, and one in the center. And the cups were shaped so as to project the light forward, not just straight up. The Menorah should spread Divine light to the world.

Truly, the Menorah represents our mission and our history. Spreading light, both spiritual and secular, continues even if some enemies deny it. It represents the Jewish people, all of us. And it all starts from that one block of gold – the Torah.

Today’s global Menorah might not be limited to 6 – or even 8 – branches. Haredim, Mizrahim, Chabad, Satmar, Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Ykar – where do you stop? The one essential quality we all share, we need to treasure, to preserve, and do our best to extend, is our mutual source – that One Block of Gold. Interpretations vary – and how! – but the shared foundation lives. It lives, it gives us light, it enables us to spread light – to each other and to the world.

Aaron lit the original Menorah, and set the pattern. Now it’s our turn. Shine the light outward.

Before we can succeed in doing that, however, we must shine that light inward. We need to learn our heritage well, well enough to be comfortable with it. The principles and practices that define Jewish life, past and present, produce the fuel for the light that we can shine and share. Pick an area of Judaism that you want to make your own. Chances are you can find adult courses and discussion groups that explore it – whether in person or on line. Further possibilities can lead to other areas, a broader acquaintance. As the light grows, your opportunity grows with it. When you can kindle some light on the Calendar – or on Personal Identity – or Jerusalem in our history – you will know you are ready to start shining that light outward. Just remember the words that every observant Jewish woman pronounces on Sabbath and holiday evenings: “V’tzivonnu l’hadlik ner” – We are commanded to kindle a light.

Upward and outward, keep it burning.


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BLESSINGS SURVIVE – Naso – Num. 4:21—7, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BLESSINGS SURVIVE – Naso – Num. 4:21—7, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Our reading this week recounts no less than five ancient practices that we no longer observe, no matter how pious we may be otherwise.

No longer do the Levi tribesmen carry the sacred objects – the holy Ark, the altar, etc. – on their shoulders from campsite to campsite. That duty applied only until they reached the Promised Land.

People who get ritually contaminated, as by contact with a dead body, are not quarantined outside the community. They can go to a Mikveh and bathe.

The Ordeal of Jealousy – including the singular “Sotah water” process – was discontinued many centuries ago.

Nazirites who dedicated their lives even temporarily to Divine service had to forego haircuts, alcoholic beverages and any ritual contamination, with some detailed instructions for handling whatever problems might interfere, as long as they remained Nazirites. This entire practice ceased with the destruction of the Temple.

And the identical offerings of the princes on dedicating the altar, while their details can still teach us a lesson in the equality of ritual responsibility, took place just once.

The exception to this list comes in Chapter 6, with a simple instruction to Moses: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel.” And it dictates the famous three lines that appear in everyday synagogue services, and at every Jewish wedding, to this day. First, the 3-word sentence, translated “May G-d bless you and keep you.” What does “keep you” mean here? Our commentators interpret it as referring to whatever we may own. This is a physical blessing: Bless us with possessions, and make us safe from robbers. Certainly as valuable a blessing today as it ever was. Second comes the 5-word sentence meaning “May G-d shine the light of His presence on you and favor you.” This, say our commentators, is a spiritual blessing. The Midrash expands it to say “May G-d make your eyes bright with Divine light; let prophetic light brighten the souls of your children, and let the light of Torah illuminate your home.” And finally the 7-word sentence meaning “May G-d turn toward you and establish peace for you.” As the Hertz commentary points out, the last line does not say v’yiten – literally “give” you peace, as it is frequently translated. It says v’yasem – “establish” peace. A much more permanent blessing.

As a cohen, I have the hereditary responsibility to join other cohanim in pronouncing this blessing in the synagogue on festivals, and it is a privilege that resounds in our ears when we hear the congregation chanting Amen after each line – or in many synagogues Ken y’hi ratzon: “So may it be G-d’s will.” And when we do this dukhenen as it is called, we should always remember the very next sentence in this Torah reading: “They will put My name on the people of Israel and I will bless them.” We cohanim serve as mere agents, delivery men as it were. We do not originate the blessing, because it comes from the Almighty. In fact, the Chabad prayerbook includes a significant paragraph for each cohen to say privately after the ceremony, affirming “we have done what You decreed for us. Now deal with us as You promised. Look down from Your heavenly abode and bless Your people Israel….”

So may it be.


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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. All who brave the international desert. Count them in. Any who don’t – count them out.

At this season we do a great deal of counting. In fact, this Shabos we conclude the seven weeks of s’firas ha-omer – “counting the Omer,” the 49 days following Passover when the special offering called the Omer was waved before G-d in anticipation of the 50th day, Shavuoth, when we received the Torah. This year, Shavuoth begins Saturday night as Shabos ends. We like to say that we count our days in order to make our days count. Indeed we should.

We should take note, too, of the different Hebrew words for the counting process. The Torah commands us to count the days with the word v’sofarta from the root safar which is also the root of sefer – a book, and sippur – a story. Interestingly enough, by completing the count we produce a total, which is not a story, not a book, but sakh hakol – everything. And an accountant in Hebrew is not a sofaer; that’s a scribe. The accountant is called an orekh kheshbon – one who verifies the sum by his calculation, kheshbon coming from the root word khoshev – to think.

There’s more to it. S’firah refers to counting days, yes. But here in the very second verse of Numbers, Moses is told: s’u es rosh b’ney Yisroel – literally “lift the head of the sons of Israel.” Counting people, particularly the people of Israel, must involve respecting each individual. Lifting each head high. The Klee Yokor commentary states that this choice of words indicates a certain value and a certain responsibility that makes the Jewish people unique, because of hashgakha protees – individual supervision, the concept that G-d cares about each one of us, while His attention to other nations is as groups. Could that kind of attention apply to all humans? After all, we have to remember that G-d is unlimited. Or perhaps we are singled out – chosen, if you will – for personal responsibility.

Furthermore, in the same verse, Moses is directed to count them b’mishp’khosom – in their families. Recognizing the family as the basic unit of any civilization, tribal in Moses’ day, industrial later. Threatened now. Every one of those 603,550 men represented his family, and had to risk his life for them.

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 desperation and their desert violence 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. Just lately we learn about whole communities in South America becoming Jewish – an estimated 60,000 of them. (one for every 10 of Moses’ soldiers!) Will they in fact add new purpose and power to our future?

And on the other hand when we look for each other, if we find bitter antagonism both political and religious, we may feel that 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 – Count us in.


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CREDITORS, DEBTORS & SLAVES – B’har – Lev. 25-26:2, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CREDITORS, DEBTORS & SLAVES – B’har – Lev. 25-26:2, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read some ancient economic and social standards, starting with the law of the Sabbatical Year, still acknowledged in Israel today. No plowing, no cultivating, no harvesting during the seventh year of the cycle, the year called sh’mitah. Exported food shipments get marked “Not made with Shmitah products” so observant Jewish customers will not hesitate to buy them. Giving the land a year of rest is how our ancestors preserved it, and prevented the desert from taking it over.

Sedrah B’har, this week’s reading, includes considerably more about the 7-year cycles and their effect. An important extension of the cycle comes after 7×7 or a total of 49 years lead into the Jubilee Year, #50. Again on that year, the Israelite is commanded not to work the land, and to free all slaves, as both humans and property return to their ancestral status. Strikingly, the Torah text provides an answer to the farmer’s inevitable question: “If you say ‘What will we eat?… we may not sew or reap,’ I will bless your work on the sixth year so the land will produce enough for 3 years.” That is, years 48, 49 and 50! Further spelled out is the requirement that all slaves, both Hebrews and Canaanites, must be freed for the Jubilee year.

Historically, the institution of human slavery, and the laws about it in the Torah, form a particularly interesting lesson. Now, more than a century and a half since Lincoln, we sometimes overlook the fact that in some parts of the world slavery still exists. Reportedly, many Arab sheikhs have African slaves. No wonder that statistically more black Africans have immigrated to this country voluntarily than were ever brought here in slave ships. And in ancient times, human slavery was a recognized and accepted condition. So how does the Torah deal with it?

In Torah times, people became slaves for one of two reasons. Either they were captured in battle, or they got so deep in debt that they sold themselves – and sometimes their whole families – into slavery to pay off their debts. It is the second reason that produced Hebrew slaves. They were expected to work for 6 years and had to be released on the 7th – unless they voluntarily chose to remain in servitude. Then their owner had to take them to the doorpost and drill a hole in their ear, fitting them with an earring that marked them as slaves. Rabbinical wisdom explained this process as symbolic: “The ear that heard the revelation at Mount Sinai,” they said, was the part of the body that marked the decision to replace the free practice of G-d’s word with subjugation to another human being.

A non-Jewish slave had to accept the performance of Mitzvos while in servitude, and when freed became fully Jewish. When a master set a slave free, he had to provide that slave with a document of separation similar to a divorce paper, establishing the freed slave’s independence. Quite a few differences we might notice between Torah law and pre-emancipation practices in the American South – and certainly a contrast with how slaves are treated elsewhere in the world, even now. Talmudic discussion of these laws underscores the principle that long ago discontinued slavery in Jewish history, namely the concept of the n’shama, the sacred identity of each human being as a child of G-d.

No prince, no conquering enemy, no creditor can take that identity away from any of us.

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AGE OF SERVICE – Emor – Lev. 21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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AGE OF SERVICE – Emor – Lev. 21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read a section which should sound familiar to anyone who attends services with any regularity. Parts of it get repeated in traditional synagogues on holidays throughout the year, since they detail those celebrations. For me personally, Emor is particularly familiar since I read it at my own Bar Mitzvah and it has stayed in my memory all these years. In addition, my family – all three generations of us, from all over the country – will gather this year for my 90th birthday, which occurs on the Hebrew calendar the day after we read this portion. Their expression of joy and love gives me at least as much inspiration as the eternal message of Emor. Maybe I did something right?

Reviewing the text, we find that it opens with a long list of directives to the Cohanim – Aaron’s descendants, my ancestors. Treated here, we find the physical requirements for male priests to serve in the Temple, the eligibility of their female family members to eat t’rumah – the food that Israelites brought the priests as a sort of religious tax, the conditions required of both the priest and the Temple itself when offerings were made, etc.

Clearly, these mandates concern adults. But no definition of an adult. We do not find here any mention of the age of service. How old does a young cohen need to be when he starts? And at what age can he – or must he – retire?

Elsewhere in Biblical and Talmudic teachings, those questions get answered – not with hard and fast laws, but with differing opinions. For example, in Tractate Khulin, we find several clues. One says that the young cohen is considered eligible to serve when he grows 2 pubic hairs – kind of an ancient Bar Mitzvah age. But the very next line recounts that his fellow priests would not let him serve under the age of 20.

Another opinion is based on the Biblical habit of equating cohanim and leviim – since Aaron and his descendants came from the tribe of Levi; in fact we read that no less than 24 times does Scripture use the term Hacohanim hal’vi’im – “the priests, the Levites.” So as Rashi tells us, a man went into training at 25, began service at 30, and had to retire at 50. That would seem logical for the Levi, since he was part of the Levitic choir and his voice might be less reliable as he got older. But would it apply to a Cohen, whose service more often consisted of slaughtering sacrificial animals?

Still another precedent quotes the word yazkin – a verb from the root zaken, an old man – and defines it as reaching the point where hands and feet shake from old age. That is when a Kohen would have to retire. As the esteemed Rabbi Reuven Lauffer points out, no Kohen would be required to perform a task unless he had the physical strength to do it.

Now to go into modern times, and my own experience. If I first officiated as cantor at High Holiday services at age 17, and, thank G-d, 73 years later I still participated in the public Priestly Blessings (dukhenen) with my son this Passover, would I qualify for service in the Temple?

I hope so. And here’s hoping we all live to see the Temple rebuilt. We are told that the Mashiakh will be able to decide to replace animal sacrifice permanently with sincere prayer. That should enable more kohanim to serve to my age, and hopefully way beyond.

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