BE HOLY BECAUSE G-D IS HOLY? — “Ah’rey/K’doshim” Lev. 16-20 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BE HOLY BECAUSE G-D IS HOLY? — “Ah’rey/K’doshim” Lev. 16-20 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Coming right after Passover, this Torah portion challenges us. We just celebrated our freedom from ancient slavery, and welcomed Elijah’s promised heralding of a great time to come. Now we resume the narrative of Israel’s trek toward the Promised Land. Moses continues teaching the people all the laws based on the revelation at Sinai. And here comes something really basic. “Be holy.” What is holiness?

The Hebrew word “kadosh” signifies something reserved, set aside, special. If it is set aside for a sacred purpose, it is accurately translated “holy.” So how are we to become holy? The first sentence of this week’s reading says “be holy because G-d is holy.” So we should follow the Divine example. “Imitatio Dei” is the Latin term for the same idea. But now comes a problem. The second sentence goes Into detail: “Each of you, revere your mother and your father.” How’s that again? Does G-d have parents?

Next, “Keep the Sabbath.” And a number of negative commandments, starting with “Do not practice idolatry,” and later, significantly, “Do not completely harvest your field, but leave a corner for the poor and the stranger.” The qualities of holiness begin to add up. “Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t deceive each other. And don’t swear falsely, profaning G-d’s name.” Prime clues to our character concern how we treat each other. “Don’t curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Consideration of this kind, say our rabbis, also applies beyond physical misdeeds, and includes economic or intellectual “tripping” someone who is less savvy.

How we dispense justice is a measure of holiness, says the Torah. “Don’t favor the poor, and don’t honor the ‘gadol‘ — the Big Shot, the aristocrat, but judge your fellow ‘b’tzedek‘– fairly.” Notice that the description of fair judgment uses “tzedek” the word for “righteousness.” The same Hebrew root-word “tz’dakah” also means “charity.” Tying concepts like these together helps to approach holiness.

“Don’t oppress the stranger…treat him like one of your own…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “Keep honest weights and measures.” And one climactic sequence: “Do not be a talebearer among your people, and don’t stand idly by your neighbor’s blood. I am the L-rd. Don’t hate your brother in your heart; reprove your neighbor, but don’t bear sin because of him… Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The last of these principles gets quoted most often, and raises a question of its own. It seems to mandate equality. It assumes that you love yourself. Therefore if you lack self-respect, what value does your regard have for your neighbor?

Of course, the reading does not stop here. It goes on to define proper and invalid religious ceremonies. It also mandates penalties for violating Torah laws on family relations, dietary standards and sexual contacts.

We must conclude that this is not “imitatio Dei.” Whatever we may individually believe about G-d, we cannot imagine that He has any of these problems. So when the Torah says “be holy because G-d is holy,” what can we learn from it? Try this idea: G-d is described as “holy” in our tradition. G-d is beyond human understanding, but has revealed a way of life to Moses and our other teachers. To the extent that we can follow that way of life, we can attain some degree of that holiness. Not the kind of personality popularly derided as a “holy Joe,” (too often a synonym for hypocrite) but the upright, honest, fair, considerate and positive human being that we truly respect. We might not altogether reach that goal, but hey — isn’t it worth a try?

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CONTAMINATED! – Lev. 12-15 Tazria-Metzora – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CONTAMINATED! – Lev. 12-15 Tazria-Metzora – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Some tribal societies have medicine men who treat physical ailments with mystery cures. Ancient Israel left that function to the cohanim, the priests, Aaron and his descendants. The Book of Leviticus prescribes the treatments in three of the less pleasant chapters in the Torah. Most of these treatments involve declaring the patient to be taMEY – contaminated. That condition could last for a day, or could go on for months. Sometimes that condition just meant that the patient could not enter the sanctuary and was prevented from eating sacrificial meat. The most dreaded of diseases was leprosy, and its treatment is the most extreme. One device used is familiar to us today as quarantine. The leper had to pitch his tent outside the main camp, must wear torn clothes, let his hair hang loose, cover his upper lip and cry out taMEY taMEY – “Contaminated, contaminated!” — thus warning people to stay away from him.

Surprisingly enough, this entire section starts with a law that is not about disease, but about childbirth. When a woman conceives and bears a son, we are told, she is considered to be contaminated by the blood she has shed. This condition lasts one week, the same length as her menstruation. Then she takes a ritual bath, and by most rabbinical opinions she can and should resume relations with her husband. But she is not to enter the sanctuary for another 33 days, after which she brings an offering to the sanctuary and the cohen declares her pure. When the baby is a girl, the length of her contamination is doubled – 14 days before the bath and 66 days thereafter. Theories about this difference are varied, but it would seem to place special importance on the birth of a female who will grow up to experience the monthly cycle, and some day may also bear a new life.

So how do we move from the joy of new life to the plague of leprosy? Contamination – tum’ah — is the key word. It can affect the healthy mother, or the suffering patient. It can even afflict the house we live in and the clothes we wear. While the Torah’s remedies have no obvious connection to modern science, we get the definite message that sometimes we cause our own contamination. In fact, the rabbis note, the word for a leper – metzora – is a contraction of the words motzi shem ra, which means “bringing out a bad name,” that is, slander.

Whether it starts as thoughtless gossip or as deliberate character assassination, loshon hora – the evil tongue – contaminates our lives. No cohen and no medicine man can cure it. It was the great Maimonides who wrote that the evil tongue destroys three people: the one who spreads the bad report, the one who is the subject of it, and the one who listens to it. The only antidote is prevention. If we fail to prevent it, if we participate, we might do well to cover our upper lip and cry “Contaminated!”

Throughout this week’s reading we learn how the cohen must examine the patient, or the clothing or the house, and if he finds the plague cleaned up, he pronounces the verdict tahor – “pure.” So let it be said of us.

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STRANGE FIRE – “Shmini” – Lev. 9-11 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

STRANGE FIRE – “Shmini” – Lev. 9-11 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week, along with detailed instructions for offering sacrifices, we will read the story of the tragic and mystifying death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu. They were consumed by fire, we are told. But it was a fatal flash of fire from within, like a stroke of lightning. Their clothes were not burned. All this sudden shock took place because they brought to the Tabernacle a “strange fire,” rather than the holy flame they were expected to use. Why did this happen? And what lesson can we learn from the strange fire?

Our rabbis famously linked this episode to the very next message that Aaron receives from On High: “Drink no wine or liquor, neither you no your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting.” Did Nadab and Abihu dare to officiate while drunk? True, to this day, you might see Cohanim bless the people at a different time on Simhat Torah, doing so during the Shaharit morning service rather than during Musaf which comes after the Torah reading, since many congregations give a drink to each member who is called to the Torah to celebrate Simhat Torah. So perhaps Nadab and Abihu got careless because they were tipsy?

Another commentary charges them with insubordination. Looking at their father and their uncle as over-the-hill, they grumble “When will these old men die, so we can lead the people?” So perhaps their attitude prompted them to bring strange fire.

Variant opinions and questionable policies are sometimes cited as forms of Strange Fire. If officiants choose or change traditional standards of Jewish practice, are they jeopardizing themselves and their followers? Do they dilute religion with politics? Do they accept behavior prohibited by the Torah? Do they ask Divine blessing on interfaith ceremonies or on sexual perversion? Or do they condone breaking the Sabbath or eating pork? Some or all of these policies can be called Strange Fire.

While certainly such differences cause religious infighting among us, perhaps the bottom line is a matter of individual choice. But that choice must have a basis in knowledge, not what’s trendy but what’s true. What I know and believe is wrong, must be discarded as Strange Fire. What I know and believe is right, can be my way to true worship.

Nadab and Abihu still have a lot to teach us.

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IS G-D A MAN OF WAR? – “Song of the Sea” Ex.15 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

IS G-D A MAN OF WAR? – “Song of the Sea” Ex.15 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Of all the Torah portions assigned to Passover, perhaps the most dramatic is scheduled for the Seventh Day, this Friday. Also probably the most familiar, since it is part of every morning’s prayers, it is the Song at the Sea – Shirat ha-yam – intoned by Moses and the Israelites on the shore of the Red Sea. That’s the far shore, the free shore, after they reach safety, and the pursuing Egyptian army doesn’t. As the Torah recounts, Moses split the sea, giving his people a path they could walk on.

However, the sea did not split so easily. Facing the danger of drowning, the people yelled at Moses: “Were there no graves in Egypt that you had to bring us here to die?” Desperate, Moses calls on G-d to help. He gets a curious answer: “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the people to go on!” Nobody moves, says our Midrash, until one man – Nachshon by name – sets foot in the water. He walks in, deeper and deeper, until the water reaches his chin and even wets his lips. And then suddenly the sea divides. The message? Take the lead, and with G-d’s help you can make things happen!

Once the people walk to freedom between walls of water, those walls then fall onto Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen, submerging them. Impossible, you say? Just a few years ago, archeologists discovered something on the bottom of the Red Sea that added a new dimension to this miracle tale. They found the remains of gold covers from those ancient chariot wheels. The wooden wheels of the Egyptian chariots were long since decomposed, but the gold hubcaps survived!

Thrilled by their rescue, the men of Israel sang with Moses, and the women with Miriam: “I will sing to G-d for He triumphed gloriously!.. Horse and rider He threw in the sea… G-d is a man of war!”

Now wait a minute. We pray for peace in every service. The Priestly Benediction ends with the words “give you peace.” “Hello” in Hebrew is “shalom – peace.” How could Moses call G-d a man of war? Is that really what our faith is about?

Or do those words speak a warning? When a human force uses violence and perfidy to destroy selected victims, if that force cannot be contained or dealt with peacefully, will G-d inspire those potential victims to take action for themselves? Moses and Aaron tried negotiating with Pharaoh, time after time. Egypt had warnings, ten plagues in fact. But their policies did not change.

Why not? Maybe because Pharaoh saw how the Israelites multiplied. Arriving in Egypt with Jacob, they were 70 people. Over the course of 400 years of slavery, despite miserable living conditions, despite the royal order to the midwives to toss male Israelite babies in the Nile, by Moses’ time their birthrate produced 600,000 men of military age. Probably close to 2 million total population. Pharaoh’s answer? Genocide.

Facing genocide, whether from Pharaoh’s Egypt, Hitler’s Germany or – very possibly – Khamenei’s Iran, violent action may be a Divine imperative. Nachshon walked into the sea. Then G-d fought. Modern heroes dared danger to create the State of Israel which became a refuge for many Holocaust survivors. We needed more Nachshons then, and we need them now.

First comes victory. Then comes peace.

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YOUR CHILDREN WILL ASK – Passover questions – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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YOUR CHILDREN WILL ASK – Passover questions – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Questions and answers can lead to knowledge. On Passover, and particularly on Seder night and in the next morning’s Torah reading, they set the unique tone of our holiday of freedom.

Exodus 12:26, which we read on both occasions, predicts this pattern: “It will be, when your children will say to you ‘What does this service mean to you?’” The Torah does not identify the questioner. But the Hagadah does. It calls him rasha, the wicked son. He says lachem – “to you,” not to him. Therefore in the Hagadah we are told to “set his teeth on edge” by quoting a line from the next chapter of Exodus: “Because of what G-d did for me when I came out of Egypt” and stresses “for me and not for him, because if he was there he would not be redeemed.” Thus the father is expected to rebuke his rebellious son for excluding himself from the family observance. The original response in the Torah, however, is different. On Pesach morning we will read: “You will say ‘This is a Passover offering to G-d who passed over the Israelite houses when He smote the Egyptians and delivered our homes.’” Why the difference? Why two different answers to the same question?

In a discussion of this topic covering several pages, the great commentary called the K’li Yokor – the “Vessel of Value” – building on doubts raised by Abarbanel, offers three pathways to answer the Wicked Son. Pathway #1 defines the following Torah verse as a general statement, not directed at anyone in particular. It just identifies a Passover offering. Besides, it is phrased in the plural, and could be directed to a whole movement of denial, “many straying children who want to stop the people from serving G-d.” Today we don’t call them straying children; that would be politically incorrect. We call them humanists, atheists, secularists, Communists, etc. But the message is there.

Pathway #2 characterizes the answer as directed to misguided interpreters. They say this whole observance is not for G-d, it’s for you! You are the ones who are eating and drinking. Therefore the Hagadah stresses the answer with the words “set his teeth on edge.” A quiet answer is easily digested, but a harsh answer is like tough sinews in the meat and sets the teeth on edge. The verse “Say that this is G-d’s Passover offering” would mean to the wicked son that only because of the offering was Israel redeemed. The Egyptians who did not bring the offering were struck with the plague of the firstborn. Now the wicked son admits that if he was there he would not participate in the offering. So he gets the harsh answer, his teeth are on edge, and his father follows with the message “for me and not for him.”

Pathway #3 points out that the same answer is given to both the wicked son and the infant who does not know how to ask. Only the added words “for me and not for him” are reserved for the wicked son. Therefore it would be proper to give the wicked son both answers. The quiet quote: “This is G-d’s offering” in the attempt to draw him in to the observance, and the harsh “what G-d did for me – not for him” to set his teeth on edge.

Like the K’li Yokor, we look for pathways to answer the challenges of our generation. One prominent rabbi caused a furor some years ago when he proposed the view that the Exodus story as we know it is fiction. Many people left his congregation in anger. What they missed was his message that if you went through the whole Seder and shared a sacred joy with your family, then “it happened for you.” In other words, our children all deserve both answers to their Passover questions, the soft and the harsh. Think about it. If you were there, would you be redeemed?

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