BEGINNING AGAIN – Simhat Torah – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BEGINNING AGAIN – Simhat Torah – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Monday night and Tuesday in traditional congregations outside Israel, or Sunday night and Monday in Israel and in Reform congregations, world Jewry will observe Simhat Torah of 5777. Once again we will march around the Synagogues carrying our Torah scrolls, singing and even dancing with them. Many services will provide an Aliya – an opportunity to bless the Torah – to every qualified male. And in some of those services each man so honored also gets a celebratory drink – a l’khyim – when he descends from the bema.

Larger congregations will conduct parallel Torah readings in different parts of the building in order to include all honorees. We should all have the opportunity to bless the Torah today. Even strict Orthodox shuls provide special alliyot for “all the women” and for “all the children.” And the Kohanim – Aaron’s descendants whose duty is to bless the people on all such holidays – usually do their dukhenen, pronouncing the blessings, during the Musaf ritual which follows Torah reading. But on this day they will do so during Shachrit which precedes that reading, for a very good reason. Jewish law requires that those who pronounce the blessing must be 100% sober! Better bless the people before you get that l’khyim.

What is the reason for all this elaborate festivity? This is the day we complete the annual reading of our Torah. Whether we combine it with the Eighth Day of Assembly – Shmini Atzeres which is the 8th day counting from the beginning of Succos – or observe it on the 9th day as yom tov sheyni shel galuyot (the “second-day holiday in exile,” to reconcile world calendars) – we will conclude the Book of Deuteronomy with its parting tribute to the one-and-only Moses, and the congregation will chant Khazak khazak v’nit’khazek – “Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen each other!”

So what makes this holiday different from all other holidays? The distinguishing feature of Simhat Torah is that we don’t stop there. We immediately open another Torah scroll and read the story of Creation: B’reysheet – “In the beginning…”

That’s the eternal message of the day. Torah never ends. It just begins again. We celebrate, and even over-celebrate, the ongoing treasure that is our Torah.

Enjoy this all-out festival, whichever day you celebrate, and let’s all join in the happy activity of Beginning Again! Khag sameyakh!


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OUR SEASON OF JOY – the Succot week – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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OUR SEASON OF JOY – the Succot week – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

As if we didn’t read enough contrasting Torah passages on the High Holidays, now comes Succot with daily readings, many of them detailing our complex calendar and its many different observances. We learn that this week we should “dwell in the Succah” to remind us that our ancestors used these humble huts for shelter on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. And if your succah is big enough and you’re somewhat adventurous, you bring in a couch and sleep there. In fact, one Torah commandment states that every Israelite native – kol ezrakh b’Yisroel – shall dwell in the succah.

But of all the varied readings of this week, it is not until next week on Shmini Atzeres, the separate holiday at the end of the Succah week, that we learn a basic theme of this festival. V’samakhta b’khagekha – Rejoice in your holiday, says the Torah, for you have harvested your crops and can revel in the bounty that Nature and some hard work can provide. Share the holiday with those around you including the widow, the orphan and the resident alien. V’hayeeta akh sameyakh – “and just be happy!” A rhythmic Hebrew folk song dramatizes those two thematic quotes. In fact, when we make Kiddush, sanctifying our festive days, we identify each holiday. Passover is z’man kheyruteynu – the time of our freedom, the anniversary of our liberation from Egyptian slavey. Shavuot is z’man matan torateynu – the time of receiving our Torah, the event that made us an eternal nation. Vital historic occasions, both of them. Succot is called simply z’man simkhateynu – the time of our joy.

So as we join in blessing the Mitzvah of Succah – in our back yard or at the Synagogue, at a friend’s home or wherever we find it – and as we join in blessing the lulav v’esrog – the 4 species of new crops that we wave as we march around the Shul in our celebration, we give thanks for the bounties of Nature. And we rejoice that G-d has permitted us to see another season.

Given this positive light-hearted festive atmosphere, we may well wonder about another traditional reading associated with Succot. On the Sabbath during the Succot week, we read Kohelet, the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. Rember that? “Vanity of vanities… etc.” Why?

Tradition tells us that King Solomon wrote three of the Biblical books contained in the third section of the Hebrew Bible called K’tuvim – Writings. They are Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. We are told that he wrote Song of Songs as a young man, Proverbs in middle age, and Ecclesiastes when he got old. Comparing their subjects and their attitudes, that tradition certainly makes sense. Song of Songs is love poetry as only young lovers can express it. Proverbs reads like the voice of experience. Then comes Ecclesiastes. Facing an inevitable end, Kohelet describes one human activity after another, and concludes that each one is hevel – “vanity” – basically worthless. Along the way, of course, the royal writer recommends that we should “eat, drink and be merry,” having already established that tomorrow we might not be here. But he never gives up, and neither should we. His next-to-last sentence, traditionally repeated at the end of reading the book, expresses his real message: “The end of the matter, after all is heard, is to revere G-d and keep His commandments, for that completes humanity.” One of those commandments, the one we observe now, is “Rejoice in your festival….and just be happy!”

Enjoying our succah, parading with our lulav and esrog, sharing our celebration – we are observing a Mitzvah. Never mind the vanities around us. It’s our season of joy. Hag sameyakh! Good Yontof! Happy Holidays!


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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. Those Torah scrolls, standing silent in every synagogue ark, are still bearing 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. Back home. Back to the Torah. 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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Shimon Peres 1923-2016


Will will remember Shimon Peres for his dedication, his optimism, and the magnitude of his service. May he rest in peace, and may his spirit rise on high.

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HIDDEN OR REVEALED – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HIDDEN OR REVEALED – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

We always read this section of Moses’ final discourse at the end of our calendar year. Approaching Rosh Hashana, our yom ha-din – Day of Judgment – we review the principles and the warnings Moses gave us.

At the end of Chapter 29, he says: “What is hidden belongs to G-d, and what is revealed belongs to us and our children.” Both good and evil can be either Hidden or Revealed.

Commenting on this line, the Klee Yokor brings it down to cases. Quoting an earlier passage, he asks: If an individual takes the self-centered attitude “I’ll be all right, I’ll just follow my own stubbornness,” who knows what that mind is hiding? Only G-d knows. And if that individual’s stubborn actions bring destruction on his community – as the Torah says “sweeping away the wet with the dry” or, as Maimonides interprets it, “adding drunkenness to thirst” – G-d will punish the perpetrator.

On the other hand, should a family or an entire tribe commit sin, it cannot be hidden. The entire nation must deal with the offenders, carrying out the principle that “what is revealed belongs to us and our children forever.” If the offenders are not expelled from the land, judgment will fall on the nation, and all will be scattered because of the sins of that tribe.

Sins bring consequences, whether those sins are hidden or revealed.

What sins incur exile? Clearly, idolatry is one of the primary sins. What about denial of G-d? Sexual perversion? Political treason? For that matter, what about murder? Theft? Bearing false witness? They are all prohibited in the Torah, just like idolatry. Are we to look at our tragic and heroic history and conclude that we brought all the calamity on ourselves?

Certainly we and our ancestors had plenty of enemies to help bring on the calamities of exile and persecution and massacre. What we lacked then, and still lack again today, is the unity of a nation. We cannot join hands and punish or banish those whose actions threaten our communities. Many times, we cannot even agree on the danger of those actions. Is it right or wrong to erect settlements on land that another group wants – even if that land was conquered in a fair fight? Is it right or wrong to stage Gay Pride parades in a country that grants marriage authority exclusively to Orthodox rabbis?

Those are just some Israeli questions. Living in many other parts of the world as we do, local Jewish communities face all kinds of questions about positive or destructive conduct that can range from political activity to dealing with official rulings affecting Jewish life – whether circumcision or kashrut or the basic freedom to attend synagogues safely.

Again, Nitzavim offers an answer. Not always an easy answer, but a guiding principle. It gives us Moses’ injunction to his people: “Not with you alone do I make this covenant, but with all who are here with us today, and with those who are not here with us today.” Who was not there? Future generations, including us. We all stand together before our tradition and our destiny. Destiny may be hidden. Tradition is revealed; all we need to do is learn it.

Approaching a New Year, we must consider how we can stand together. Like Moses’ audience, we do many different things. We are “your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers… your woodcutters and your water-drawers.” Your corporate executives, your scientists and technicians, your rabbis and teachers, your labor-union members and your journalists, your storekeepers and your artists. Your soldiers and your sailors, your intelligence officers and your students, your airline pilots and your taxi drivers, your shepherds and your entertainers. With all our differences, we share our Jewish identity, and we share something even more basic: we share our hope for the future. Tradition and destiny. Hidden and revealed.

Let’s stand together.


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