You had a Question?          By Rabbi Baruch Cohon

You had a Question?          By Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Many doctrines don’t want to be challenged.  Whether religious, political or psychological, their protagonists fully expect to proclaim these doctrines – to teach them – without ever having to defend them.

A reminiscence of my father’s illustrates that fact on a quite elementary level. In his youth in Czarist Russia, my father of blessed memory learned Torah in a Yeshiva.  When an idea in the lesson challenged him, he asked the teacher about it.  The teacher, thoroughly grounded in tradition, had a habit of answering with a quick reprimand: Sheygetz, freg keyn kashes nit! – “Little Gentile, don’t ask questions!”  Developing into a rabbi and teacher of rabbis in the United States, the former yeshiva boy welcomed questions, from his students and from the lay people he led.

Indeed he impressed on me, and hopefully on many of them, the blessed fact that Judaism draws wisdom – even inspiration – from the research and discussion that a constructive question stimulates.  Just consider the questions raised by scholars in the Talmud.  Find a Biblical quote to answer a question by Hillel – and you can fully expect Shammai to find a corresponding possuk to contradict it!  And maybe the Halacha (the rabbinic ruling) follows still another answer. Debates like these fill many pages of the Gemara text, and explain all kinds of Jewish practice.

No doubt about it.  Questions asked in search of truth have built a way of life that can, and should, motivate us all in a positive, even a sacred, direction.

Ask your way to truth, little Sheygetz!       

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The Freedom Miracle – by Baruch Cohon

The Freedom Miracle – by Baruch Cohon

Every year the festival of Passover reminds us Jews that our ancestors were once slaves in Egypt.  And every year the anniversary of the Emancipation proclamation reminds Black Americans that some of their ancestors were once slaves in the United States.   Many centuries separate the two liberations.  Circumstances were quite different.  Yet a parallel miracle distinguished both events. What were those miracles?

One possible miracle of the Exodus was when the Red Sea was split and the fugitive slaves crossed on dry land.

That’s not the one.

A possible miracle of Emancipation was when Lincoln and the North won the Civil War.  That’s not it either.

The freedom miracle that stands out for me was illustrated dramatically right here in the USA during the movement against Jim Crow laws.  An activist in that cause indicated Martin Luther King and said: “We’ve got our Moses.”

The Divine inspiration that impelled Moshe Rabbeynu – Moses our Teacher – to lead his people to freedom at the Red Sea and to accept their Constitution at Mount Sinai was the same miracle as the one that motivated Dr. King.  That is the freedom miracle.  It implies responsibility.

We have enemies, now just like in Moses’ time.  Human beings can be right and good, or wrong and evil, at any time.  Yesterday they shook our hands.  Tomorrow they might stab us in the back.  How do we defeat them?  Can we ever expect a new miracle?  Maybe we can.

By working with our positive neighbors, we can seek the freedom miracle now, just as our ancestors sought it in their day.  Just by reaching for a hint of that Divine inspiration,  we can still hope to improve the world and find future blessing.  You are not Moses and neither am I.  Not Dr. King either.  But we can learn from them and never give up on the freedom miracle.

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Sidelights of Jewish Learning by Rabbi Baruch Cohon


Sidelights of Jewish learning

A daily excursion into the world of the Talmud called Daf Yomi – “A page a day”– yields important insights that I can recommend.  Note that Talmudic pages run about 14” long on each side, so we’re talking about a good hour’s study, even with an expert teacher.  Here’s a recent detail.

Midway through the tractate P’sahim, which primarily concerns the great freedom holiday of Pesach — Passover, we come to a rabbinic discussion of various laws regarding activities on the days surrounding that festival.  For example, the day before Pesach, 14 days in the month of Nisan, is a day of preparation for the holiday.  Preparing should be both a physical action and a change of attitude.  So should we do our regular jobs that day?  And if so, should we work all day and just rush home in time for Seder?  Or should we work till noon, and spend the rest of the day getting in the mood?  Or should we take the whole day off? 

The way the rabbis of the Talmud treated this matter shows a significant characteristic of theirs that we can value.  As these questions come up regarding different kinds of work, one frequent decision they make is this: If the members of the local community do the job, you can do it too.  If they don’t, then you shouldn’t do it either.

Our chachomim – our “wise men” – maintained a healthy respect for community customs.  As long as those local customs do not conflict with halochoh – Jewish religious law.  When they do, the community needs instruction.

Remember, these deliberations are not Biblical.  They took place a few centuries later, so varying customs do not reflect tribal habits.  Nor do they reflect industrial requirements like contracts and union rules, which came in centuries after them.  They are considering the independence of individual towns whose citizens didn’t travel much, and where the visitor would do well to conform. 

All told, there is a lesson here that is hardly confined to the Talmud.  It’s close to “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  And it has some validity, even today.  “That’s how we do it where I come from” doesn’t make it in most places, does it?  Our rabbis knew what they were doing.

We must realize, of course, that they were not discussing international differences.  Rome doesn’t apply.  They were dealing with a primarily agricultural economy in a Jewish country.  Whatever work needed to be done, by the resident or the visitor, was done within a Jewish community by a Jewish individual whether resident or not. While the principle remains, honoring local custom, that custom is considered within that Jewish community.  To that extent, we can still learn from it.

Let’s learn.

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Joining in our backyard Purim celebration this year was an interesting guest, born Catholic but now identifying himself as Jewish, married to a Jewish wife and enjoying traditional observance.  After the Megillah reading, and a few Purim “l’chaims” he and I had quite a long conversation which started with his question, clearly prompted by the story of Esther, Haman, Mordechai & co.:  Why is it still happening?  After all these centuries!  Why is the Jewish people still a target that so many different enemies try to destroy?

I told him frankly that I have no answer.  Quoting Tevye, we can always ask the parallel question: “I know we’re the chosen people, but once in a while couldn’t you choose someone else?”  But obviously that is not an answer. 

What we definitely can realize, in today’s world, is the reason our current enemies – from Khamenei to Farrakhan – call for “DEATH TO ISRAEL!”  For them, the State of Israel is a symbol of the Jewish people.  Their hatred is not really political; it’s ethnic, it’s religious, it’s economic.  It’s just another expression of the bloodthirsty rage of Pharaoh, of Haman, of Nebuchadnezzar, of Caesar, Torquemada, Chmelnitzky, Hitler.

No, my friend, it’s not an answer to your question.  Truly, why IS it still happening?

One of these days, maybe, with G-d’s help a brilliant mind will find the answer.  And then we can expect a better future.


Rabbi Baruch Cohon 


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New Book “Learning Torah All Over Again” by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

We at Cohon Memorial Foundation are happy to announce the publication of a new book by our Vice President, Rabbi Baruch Cohon.  
Entitled “LEARNING TORAH – All over again?” and subtitled “The newest look at the oldest book,” it will be available, in either hard-cover, soft-cover or e-book, on Amazon, on Barnes & Noble, or you can order it on the publisher’s website xlibris-Learning Torah All Over Again, or xlibris Bookstore.
Why learn it “all over again?” Well, the daily prayers quote a reason from the Mishna, telling us that some things have no measure. Not in pounds, or feet, or dollars. Not even in pints or fifths. They are like tree branches. 
We taste their fruit in this world and the stalk survives in the world to come. And what are they? Things like honoring parents, acts of kindness, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, bringing home the bride, burying the dead, making peace between people. 
And equal to the sum of all these immeasurables is learning Torah. Give it a try?
     An absolute delight. Baruch Cohon, a rabbi and a Kohen, indeed delivers what his book promises: A new look at the oldest book. He lovingly serves up pithy, profound, relevant, historic, and humorous insights into each weekly portion of the Torah. Perfect reading for a Shabbat family dinner or for a millennial curious enough to ask – what’s all the fuss that’s been made over the Torah for 3 thousand years? My favorite entry: when the rabbi describes his feelings when he blessed 100,000 Jews at the Western Wall.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper
Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action for
the Simon Wiesenthal Center
     For millennia Jews have been faithful to keep the commitment of reading Torah portions year after year. Amazingly, however, with each annual reading, one may encounter yet another perspective…if you let it.
     I truly appreciate this quote from this book: “When two scholars listen to each other about Torah law, the Holy One hears them. When they agree about Torah law, the Holy One loves them.” –Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish.
      While opinions may vary, the truth remains. I am certain this dynamic work, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon, will be a valuable addition to your understanding of the roots of Judeo-Christian truth and faith. I eagerly recommend  “Learning Torah—all over again.
Bishop Robert Stearns    
Executive Director, Eagles’ Wings, NY
     Drawing upon classical and contemporary commentaries and a lifetime of experience and reflection, Rabbi Cohon shares significant insights into each week’s Torah portion. A teacher of generations of students of all ages, the author brings thoughtful and thought-provoking perspective to the study of Torah, in a concise and engaging volume accessible to a broad readership.
Gil Graff
Executive Director of Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles
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