NOAH WHERE ARE YOU? — Sedrah Noach — Gen. 6 – 11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

NOAH WHERE ARE YOU? — Sedrah Noach — Gen. 6 – 11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

“The end of all flesh is come before Me.” That is the Divine message Noah hears when he gets his mission to build an ark and save a future for selected living creatures. Severe climate change is coming. Why? Because Earth’s population is bringing it on. Evil is not limited to burning fossil fuel. Evil is so rampant as to condemn all who roam the planet to a tragic death. So someone needs to build an ark. This week’s reading bears the name of the builder of that ark, our friend Noah. He had to go way beyond finding different energy sources. He had to prepare for a worldwide deluge that would destroy all life on Earth. Only a gigantic lifeboat would do the job. A teyva – an ark.

The lower decks of the ark will hold seven pairs of each of the “clean animals,” those suitable to offer on the altar. Also a pair of each of the unclean animals who had no such qualifications. But apparently neither the clean nor the unclean were responsible for the evil that would soon be punished in the Flood. What about the humans on the top deck? Only Noah and his family will be saved. Noah was a “righteous and perfect man in his generation.” His wife and sons and daughters-in-law learned enough of his ways to merit a place on the ark. Everyone else will be drowned.

What was this evil that brought on universal destruction? Commentators like the Kli Yokor name three areas of human misconduct: idolatry, adultery and robbery. Put them in modern terms. Idolatry takes many forms. Denying G-d and worshipping false deities, false values, or vanity itself – those negative choices characterized the generation of the Flood, and somehow didn’t get washed away. Adultery, called gilui arroyos in Hebrew (literally “exposing nakedness”) gets expanded and remodeled in every generation, from infidelity to promiscuity to perversion, and curses and destroys social structures worldwide. And when it comes to robbery, that can be a streetcorner holdup or a mockery of justice. In fact, the Kli Yokor cites examples of officials who sell favors for a minimum price, not enough to draw punishment for each case, but enough cases to build a pattern — and a fortune. We call it corruption.

Do we have enough corruption in our world now to bring on the “end of all flesh?” Maybe we need another Noah. Maybe this time an ark will not be enough to rescue human and animal life. We surely seem to have our up-to-date versions of the Kli Yokor’s three prime offenses.

Isn’t Islamist terrorism a violent distortion of their faith, and therefore an extreme form of idolatry?

Doesn’t the step-by-step destruction of the family – basic unit of every society – through official support of invalid matings, illegitimate offspring and same-sex unions qualify as adultery?

And as for robbery, the ancients were pikers. Today, between excessive taxes and gouging prices, governments and corporations compete to milk our populations dry.

No, a supersized lifeboat won’t do. Our Noah needs to build a moral and political ark, one that can navigate through the corruption and raise us above it, an ark that can rouse the people to change our direction, defeat our enemies and rescue our future.

Noah, where are you?

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FINISHING TO START OVER – a Simhat Torah message, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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FINISHING TO START OVER – a Simhat Torah message, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Winding up the holiday month with a bang, we relish the trappings of Simhat Torah. Singing and dancing with all the Torah scrolls, the endless processions around the synagogue, the equally endless honors to bless the Torah, and in many congregations the customary L’chaim – that little shot of Bourbon that follows each Aliya — all add up to a grand finale for this festive month.

Then of course comes the Torah reading itself. Every Jew in attendance gets an Aliya, an honor to bless the Torah. Larger congregations frequently conduct parallel Torah readings in different rooms to accommodate all the eligible honorees. At the end of all the Aliyot the “Chatan torah” and the “Chatan B’reysheet” (literally the bridegrooms of the Torah and of the Book of Genesis) get the two honors unique to this occasion. One blesses the section that finishes the annual Torah reading, the last chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy ending with the words “in the sight of all Israel,” and hears the congregational chant “Hazak hazak v’nitkhazek” – “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other!” Then the other “bridegroom” blesses the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning,” which is read from another scroll (no way do we keep a congregation waiting while we roll one scroll all the way back to the beginning!) We finish and within the hour we start over. A unique practice, isn’t it? Do we ever do this in any other area?

Not in agriculture. Harvest in the fall, plant in the spring.

Not in manufacturing. No waiting till the first car rolls off the assembly line to start building the second one. The process is continuous.

Not in education either. Immediately starting a class over? Only if you failed to learn it the first time.

So why do we finish reading the entire Torah, a year-long schedule, and begin it again without a pause? Will we find something new in it this year that we missed last year? Something a thousand generations of ancestors, scholars, commentators never found? After all, not a word in this scroll changed during all those centuries. Every Sofer – scribe – who copies one of these Sifrey Torah must make sure that the paragraphing, the spacing, the spelling, in fact every detail remains identical. Therefore we will be reading the exact same words this year as we read last year. The words don’t change.

But we do. We will read those same words with new eyes. Eyes that saw different things, different people, read some different writings. How will we interpret the Torah’s words this year? Maybe we can still find something new there, just as our great commentators could differ with each other in their interpretations, and often learn a new truth from those old words?

We can. Because there is one parallel that fits Simhat Torah perfectly. One other activity we finish and start over right away, all the time. That activity is breathing. Exhale, then inhale immediately. Not once a year, but every few seconds, that activity keeps us alive. Our bodies live on air, so we always need to restart that breathing process.

Just as our bodies live on air, our Jewish spirits live on Torah. We need to restart that too. Take a new look at the Creation story, now that you know the Big Bang theory. Savor the Exodus from Egypt, as Martin Luther King’s followers did when they called him their Moses. Share the excitement of a unified people gathered at Mount Sinai – those present to receive the Torah, and those not present, namely us. We have great experiences to look forward to as we start reading our Torah again. And if you missed any of those experiences last year, here’s your chance to catch up.

Enjoy starting over this Simhat Torah. Rekindle your Jewish life!

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I’M OUTTA HERE! – a Yom Kippur message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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I’M OUTTA HERE! – a Yom Kippur message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Only a prophet can expect a direct communication from G-d. Right? And when he gets one, he needs to follow instructions. But what if he doesn’t?

A special privilege in our synagogues on Yom Kippur afternoon is the honor of reading Maftir Yonah, the famous story of Jonah. Not just Jonah and the Big Fish, maybe not a whale but certainly the best known contact Jonah had. We get to read the whole book. This is the story of a prophet who flees from his task. His own faith is tested four times in this short book, and he fails every time – until he finally succeeds. We hope.

Told to announce the imminent destruction of Nineveh, he takes fright and runs. Face it, Nineveh is the capital of an empire. What might happen to him if he brings them such bad news? So he finds a ship heading the other way and buys passage. No sooner underway, the ship is buffeted by a gale. The crew of that ship includes various types of pagans, all of whom are equally terrified of the storm. All the sailors pray for relief, each addressing his own deity, and the captain finds Jonah – fast asleep. Knowing that Jonah is fleeing from the Hebrew G-d, the crew proceeds to pray to the Hebrew G-d. And throw Jonah overboard. Immediately, the sea calms. So the ship’s crew accepts G-d. And the fish swallows Jonah. Still Jonah lives. He even prays to be saved and promises to fulfill his mission.

After the fish coughs up Jonah on the beach near Nineveh, Jonah continues to accept his mission and sets out on foot into the city. He makes his fearful announcement. The people believe him as delivering G-d’s message. The king proclaims a fast and puts on sackcloth. He decrees a Day of Atonement, and his people observe it, vowing to stop their violence and their evil. Their prayers are heard. Their city is saved.

Happy ending? Not for Jonah. His dire prediction did not happen. He is still fleeing. So in effect he tells Nineveh “I’m outta here” and goes out of town to die. The sun is hot enough to kill him, maybe, but G-d provides a gourd to give him shade. He enjoys the shade and seems to be changing his mind about death. Maybe even “choosing life” as we are all urged to do in our Torah. And then a worm eats the root of the gourd, the sun beats down, and Jonah gets angry and prays to die. The Divine answer he gets can be our message too: “Are you doing well to be angry about the gourd? You did not work for it; you did not raise it. It grew overnight, and it perished overnight. Should I not spare Nineveh, that great city of more than 120,000 people?”

Four tests: The ship’s crew turned to G-d, the fish transported Jonah safely, the people of Nineveh turned to G-d, and the gourd saved Jonah. Four failures for Jonah. And at the end of the book we still don’t know if Jonah learned his lesson.

But we can learn ours. Jonah is presented as a prophet who runs away from a mission. Jonah is each Jew who runs away from a Mitzvah.

This Yom Kippur, let’s learn from Nineveh.

G’mar tov!

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TEST ME – Questioning the Akedah – a Rosh Hashana message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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TEST ME – Questioning the Akedah – a Rosh Hashana message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Another New Year calls on us to repeat the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac. Traditionally read on the Second Day, or in Reform congregations on the First and only day of Rosh Hashana, this section tells of the narrow escape of young Isaac from becoming a human sacrifice. No matter how many times we retell this story, it still shocks us. And indeed it should.

The Akedah – literally the Binding of Isaac – even shocked the rabbis of the Midrash. One text tells of G-d asking Abraham: “Did I tell you to slaughter him? I told you to bring him up!” (Using the word “ha-a-leyhu”in the sense of elevating him, not in its other meaning of offering him.) “You brought him up and bound him on the altar. Now take him down again!”

So Abraham misunderstood the Divine commandment. That error nearly cost him his and Sarah’s only son. And presumably all that son’s descendants, namely us. Not that many of those descendants did not actually become human sacrifices – victims of violent hatred, not sacred offerings. But their death was no Divine commandment. And, says the Midrash, neither was the near death of Isaac.

The Torah describes the Akedah as a test. G-d was testing Abraham’s loyalty. What would he withhold from G-d? That theme gets played out beautifully in the last-minute message from the angel: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, nor do anything to him! For now I know that you fear G-d and would not withhold your only son.” And lo and behold, here is a ram caught by his horns in a thicket, just in time to replace Isaac on the altar. So we sound the ram’s horn to celebrate Isaac’s rescue – and our new year. And if we go along with the Midrash, none of this would happen if Abraham understood the commandment.

Human error has its value.

Another question to the Akedah story concerns the behavior of Isaac. According to Biblical chronology, Isaac was not a child at this time. He was over 30. Does a 30-year-old man walk placidly to his own death at the hands of his father? Does he submissively carry the firewood for the altar, and only innocently ask“where is the lamb?” Granted, Isaac’s personality as described in the Torah was less forceful than that of his father Abraham or his son Jacob; he served as a positive link between great generations. But did he effectively cooperate in becoming a human sacrifice? The command did not come to him, only to his father. Nowhere does anyone tell Isaac what to expect. In fact, throughout his life Isaac almost never hears from G-d directly. Yet he cooperates in the act of risking – and nearly losing – his life for G-d.

The real answers to these questions lie within each of us. We need to make a major effort to understand the requirements of our religion. Back at the dawn of our history father Abraham just might have barely missed making a fatal error for his son. And no matter how good our intentions may be, let us not follow blind custom or misguided leaders. We could lose it all. Thank G-d Isaac survived. We should hope to do as well.

Shana Tova!

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ARE YOU LISTENING? – “Haazinu”Deut.32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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ARE YOU LISTENING? – “Haazinu”Deut.32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Two songs are credited to Moses. First is the Song of the Sea, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt. The other one is this week’s reading, Moses’ farewell song and charge to his people before he takes his final climb up Mt. Nebo. A total contrast. The first song is addressed to G-d and dramatizes the people’s faith and joy in the miraculous deliverance they just experienced. “Israel saw Egypt dead on the sea shore, and the people believed in G-d and in Moses His servant!” The second song, here in Deuteronomy, is addressed to the universe, and recounts G-d’s faithfulness and Israel’s folly.

In a line that still forms part of every traditional Jewish funeral, Moses stresses his message: “Ha-tzur tamim po-o-lo,” he says: “The Rock, His work is perfect.” Then he asks: “Is corruption His? No, his children have the blemish that raised a crooked and perverse generation!” Yet, he reminds us of G-d’s care for Israel: “Ask you father and he will tell you; your elders will say it to you… Jacob is G-d’s inheritance. He found him in a desert land, an empty howling waste… He kept them as the apple of His eye.” And then Moses goes into what we might call a prediction of Jewish history: “Jeshurun (another name for Israel) got fat and kicked.. He deserted G-d who created him.” Turning to his people, the dying leader shouts out his message: “You forgot the G-d who begot you!” Now Moses speaks in G-d’s name: “I will hide My face from them.. They provoked Me with a non-god; I will provoke them with a non-nation!” A non-nation – not only evil empires like Babylonia or Rome or Germany, but NGOs. The Cossacks, the KKK, Hamas.

As Moses finishes his message, he urges us to take our strength from our own heritage, and rely on our own faith. He is also telling us to believe in ourselves. The last verse addresses the world at large: “Nations, acclaim G-d’s people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants, and take vengeance on His foes; and He will cleanse His people’s land.”

Today, as our people work to cleanse the land of Israel, we can hope to join them in taking courage from Moses’stirring song.

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