WHY DO YOU CRY TO ME? BETTER SING! – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

WHY DO YOU CRY TO ME?  BETTER SING! – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         The 13ththru 17thchapters of Exodus tell some of the Bible’s most dramatic and significant episodes.  After unsuccessfully negotiating with Moses, Pharaoh and his people experienced the last three plagues, starting with Locusts, #8, then Darkness, #9, and finally #10, the most fearsome of all, Death of the Firstborn.  Again Pharaoh tries negotiating after 8 and 9, but fails.  When his own firstborn, the heir to the throne, is found dead – as well as every firstborn of humans and cattle in Egypt – he officially ejects the entire Hebrew nation, adults, children, livestock and all.  Off they go.

         But before they can reach the Red Sea, Pharaoh has another “change of heart.”   What was he thinking?  How could he send away all those slaves?  So he mobilizes 600 shock troops – chariots and horsemen – and gives chase.  Seeing the cloud of dust raised by the pursuing army, the Israelites turn on Moses: “Were there no graves in Egypt?  You had to bring us here to die in the desert?”  Moses assures them that G-d will fight for them, and they are to be silent.  And indeed the Divine pillar of cloud moves from in front of the Israelites to behind them and hovers between them and the Egyptian army.  

         Now they arrive at the sea shore.  What can they do?  Like his people, Moses sees a grim alternative: get slaughtered by the enemy or drown in the sea.  Moses cries to G-d for help, and gets the Divine retort: Mah titz’ak ey-lai?  (We can almost hear Jewish parents asking the same question in Yiddish: Vos shry’stu af mir?)   Moses hears:“Why do you cry to me?  Tell the Israelites to move forward.”  Here a famous midrash supplies the details.  Nothing happens until one man, Nachshon by name, steps into the water. He goes forward until the water reaches his neck, and then – the great miracle!  A powerful wind raises the water to a wall on his right and on his left, and the Israelites cross on dry land.  In his honor, the name Nachshon survives in modern Israel as the example of courageous action.  

The pursuing Egyptian chariots lose their wheels in the deep wet sand, and their riders die in the sea.  The lost wheels of the royal chariots were overlaid in gold.  Just recently archeologists found those gold wheel-covers at the bottom of the Red Sea.  The wooden wheels and the chariots themselves were long since decomposed, but the metal survived!   Yes, it really happened.         

         None of these episodes, spectacular as they are, give their name to this reading, however.   This Sabbath in synagogues throughout the world is not called the Sabbath of escape, or the Sabbath of freedom or the Sabbath of broken wheels. It is called Shabat Shira –the Sabbath of Song.  Arriving on the far side of the Red Sea and seeing their enemies sink behind them, Moses and his people sang an epic song of praise and triumph. This Song of the Sea is still chanted with its special melody in this week’s Sabbath morning services.  And this Sabbath provides an occasion to perform Jewish music old and new for many audiences.

Of course the story goes on, as the 40-year trek through the desert is just starting.  In fact, at the end of this section we see the cowardly tribe of Amalek – the jihadists of their day – attack Israel, striking from the rear. A fierce battle ensues. We will read how Moses climbs a hill and holds his sacred staff up high, with Aaron and Hur flanking him, while on the plain below Joshua leads the fight against Amalek.  As the day goes on, Moses’ arms tire and Aaron and Hur have to hold them up so the fighters can see the symbol.  As long as they can look up, they prevail.  Only when they look down do they risk losing.  Courage and confidence lead them to victory, A symbolic tale if there ever was one.

         Among the symbolic stories in this section, one word that gets very little mention – and even gets an inexact translation – appears in Chapter 14 verse 30.  The standard English translation reads: “The Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.”  But that’s not what the Hebrew text says. The word for Egyptians would be mitzrim, but the Hebrew says mitzra-yim, which would translate: “Israel saw EGYPT dead.” Not some soldiers floating in the water, but the death of the Egyptian empire.   After defying destiny and denying freedom, Pharoah succeeded only in leading his nation to defeat.  Indeed the ancient power of Egypt never recovered.  King Tut’s fame and the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam are all the work of foreigners.  Even the population changed when civilized Egyptians were overrun by Mohamed’s primitive tribesmen.  Truly Israel saw Egypt dead.  

         Another significant word-form starts the Song of the Sea.  The Hebrew does not say Az sharMosheh – “Then Moses and the Israelites sang,”but Az yashirMosheh – “Then Moses and the Israelites will sing,” a hint that our great song is yet to come, when we will all sing with the Moshiach – the Messiah, who will bring G-d’s kingdom to Earth.

         Many of us are still waiting.

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MIDNIGHT AT NOON – Bo – Ex. 10-13 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Author Rabbi Baruch Cohon

MIDNIGHT AT NOON – Bo – Ex. 10-13 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         This week we will read about plagues #8, 9 and 10.  Of these, as well as the ones we read about last week, #9 has a unique quality.   It afflicts the mind rather than the body.  This time, no hailstones will pelt the Egyptians, no lice will bite them, no frogs will overrun their country.  This time they will get a blackout.  The Torah describes it as darkness so thick you could feel it.  For three days and nights, people could not see each other.  They were afraid to move.

         How did Moses manage this?  According to some historians, maybe he didn’t.  They tell us this was an actual total eclipse of the sun which took place on March 13, 1335 BCE.  Perhaps that’s why Moses didn’t warn Pharaoh in advance the way he did before some of the other plagues.  

         Our classic commentators offer other explanations.  The Klee Yokor (Vessel of Value) observes that the pattern of creation gives human beings both day and night.  So here the Creator borrowed night from the Israelite territory and added it to Egypt, turning the daytime into night.  Thus the Egyptians had double darkness – all night and all day.  Never saw the sun.  Remember, the sun was the Egyptian chief god.  No wonder they were scared.  But, we are told, “the Israelite people had light, where they lived.”  In fact, says Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim in Klee Yokor, they had light both by day and by night.  To prove it, he points out that the last letters of the words “all the people of Israel had – l’khoLb’neYyisroeLhayaH–“ spell “LY’LaH – Night!”

         The Or haHayyim (Light of Life) commentary takes a spiritual approach.  Suppose a word is missing from the sentence about the Israelites having light.   Just a little word, asher, translated “which, or who, or that,” as sometimes happens elsewhere in Scripture.  Then the sentence would read: “The Israelites who had light were in the dwellings.”  Meaning that those Israelites who went to Egyptian dwellings brought their light with them!  Evil people cover themselves in darkness, as did the wicked Egyptians.  But tzadikim —the righteous — experience Divine light “like the sun in all its power.”  G-d loans them some of that light, so they can have light in their dwellings.  And they can bring it with them to other dwellings.  They had no Harry James to play it or Kitty Kallen to sing it, but some of the Egyptians that the Israelites visited in those days surely found themselves Beginning to See the Light!  Had to.  A couple of chapters further in this week’s reading, we will find out about the “mixed multitude – eyrev rav” who left Egypt with the Israelites.  Who were they?  Presumably dissatisfied Egyptians, glad to leave Pharaoh’s tyranny.  No doubt some of them received light in their darkness from their slave neighbors, during the Blackout of the Ninth Plague.

         Like the scholars and scientists and entrepreneurs in modern Israel, those ancient tzadikim brought their light to their neighbors.  Even though they were working for the Egyptians – not providing jobs for today’s Arabs – the light of Truth was with them.

         All the Plague stories are symbolic, each in its own way, and the Plague of Darkness comes to remind us of all the varieties of light we can enjoy, and share, and use, to reveal the world’s blessings.  Throughout our history, Jews take leading roles in kindling and sharing the light of knowledge, the light of discovery, the light of justice, and above all the light of truth.  

         Let’s hope we always will.

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ARE THEY LISTENING? – Va-eyra – Ex. 6 – 9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ARE THEY LISTENING? – Va-eyra – Ex. 6 – 9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         This week we will follow Moses on his challenging mission, and witness seven of the ten Plagues of Egypt.  He does not seek this role, any more than he was seeking leadership in last week’s reading when he stood transfixed at the Burning Bush, heard the voice of G-d, and yet tried to decline the job, saying “Send any one You want to send.”  Obviously Not Me.  He even went so far as to question the Divine: “Lamah harey-ota —Why did You wrong this people?”  

Now he is still protesting.  Two sentences highlight the decision that Moses finds thrust on him.  First, he brings the message to the Israelite slaves, repeating G-d’s promise to make them His people, taking them out of slavery and bringing them to the Land of their fathers, our Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  But the people aren’t listening.  “Lo shom’u el Moshe – They did not listen to Moses.”  Why?  The Torah gives two very good reasons: “Because of kotzer ruakh –literally, shortness of breath; and avodah kashah – hard labor.”  Shortness of breath can be taken as a synonym for impatience.  They couldn’t accept such a dream.  It can also signify that they were so tired they were physically unable to speak, therefore they could not answer Moses.  And the hard labor they were subjected to is the cause of both these reactions.

Sentence #2 comes just three lines later.  When commanded to go to Pharaoh and tell him to send the Israelites out, Moses replies: “Here the people of Israel did not listen to me.  How will Pharaoh hear me?”  He even brings up his speech impediment to emphasize his point: “I have uncircumcised lips!”  We know Moses stuttered, and this is a picturesque description.  

Our commentators had a great deal to say about these two p’sukim.  Rashi cites a Midrash that states that all this dialogue is in fact punishing Moses for his complaint against G-d (Why did You wrong this people?).  And then Rashi rejects the Midrash analysis and writes that it should be considered alongside the literal text, rather than explaining it.  Taking both opinions together, we read that the Patriarchs never objected to Divine action.  Only Moses did.  And here Rashi cites a Midrashic quotation from Jeremiah where G-d says “Is not My word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock?  It spreads many sparks.”  Each spark contains light, and spreads that light in many directions.  So both interpretations are appropriate.  He also quotes a teaching of a certain Rabbi Baruch son of Eliezer, citing this passage as evidence of G-d’s power, and mourning the passing of the Patriarchs, who never asked for the Divine Name.  Moses did.  

The Klee Yokor commentary, by Rav Shlomo Ephraim of Lunchitz, treats Moses’ objection as one of the few Biblical instances of a technique called kal va-khomer, literally “light and heavy,” reasoning from the particular to the general, or from the simple to the powerful.  If the weak and downtrodden Israelites don’t listen, how can Moses expect an absolute monarch like Pharaoh to listen?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that the Patriarchs served G-d through emotion, while Moses served through intellect.   Therefore, this whole exchange is a Divine call for Moses to add some emotion to his service.

And former Chief Rabbi of England Hertz zeroes in on the phrase “uncircumcised lips.”  He points out that the same figure of speech is applied elsewhere to the ear and to the heart, and states that Moses had just one doubt, namely that he failed to convince his people because of his stuttering.

Let’s face facts.  We all feel that way sometimes, don’t we?  If my own family doesn’t listen to me, can I convince my boss?

Using both intellect and emotion, Moses expressed a universal frustration. Yet he succeeded in his mission.  Even if our stuttering is mental rather than physical, we can do our best to follow his example.  Accept the challenge!

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ENTRANCE OF A LEADER – Sh’mos –Exodus 1:1 –6.1, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ENTRANCE OF A LEADER – Sh’mos –Exodus 1:1 –6.1, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we begin reading Exodus, the second book of the Torah – or as we call our Torah, the Five Books of Moses.  Why do we call them all his books, even though Moses doesn’t even get born until Chapter 2 of this second book?

Traditionally, of course, Moses is credited with writing the entire Torah, all 5 books.  How could he do that?  Did he know Adam and Eve?  Or Abraham and Sarah?  Who told him about Esau’s plan to kill Jacob?  Where was he when Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egypt?

All those people definitely predated Moses by many years, some by centuries.  But Moses heard, and learned, and wrote.  The baby boy, whose sister Miriam watches over him this week as he floats in the Nile, will grow into a leader who will champion his people, will develop a unique contact with the Divine, and will set a pattern and blaze a career that no other human being could ever equal.

We will read the beginnings of that career this week. Fished out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter, little Moses grows, or as the Hebrew text phrases it Vayigdal – “he became big.”  The same word for “big” also means “great.”  Although his childhood is spent in the royal palace, he knows his origin and he chooses to assert it.  As a young man, venturing into the field where bricks are being made, he finds a taskmaster flogging a Hebrew slave, and he kills the taskmaster.  That sudden violence turns Pharaoh against him and he has to run for his life.  But his passionate devotion to his G-d and his people never falters.

Was he afraid of the taskmaster?  Obviously not, any more than he  would fear King Sihon of the Amorites, or Og the giant king of Bashan, in the years to come.  The only man Moses feared in his youth was Pharaoh.  Knowing what Pharaoh would do to him in punishment for killing the taskmaster, Moses leaves the country.

He will return, as we will also read in this Sedrah, but only after he meets the Almighty.  His revelation at the burning bush, his personal conversations, even arguments, with G-d, all prepare him to fill the role that only Moses ever filled throughout Jewish history.

In the coming chapters we will watch Moses develop the attributes of vision, inspiration, courage and leadership that he combined to bring his people – our ancestors – to their freedom in the desert, to their national identity at Mount Sinai, and to their view of their homeland at the Jordan River. There is the future of the 3-month-old boy we meet this week.

So are all 5 Torah books the “Books of Moses?”  Traditionally, the first 4 were dictated to him from Above, and the last one, Deuteronomy, is Moses’ own words, transcribed from his speech to his people, as indicated by the Hebrew name of that book D’varim – “Words,” his words, delivered on the east bank of the Jordan.

Other nations have heroic leaders whose memories they treasure.  We are fortunate indeed to look up to the man who led us out of slavery, encouraged us to victory over primitive enemies, and taught us Eternal Truth – symbolized in the Five Books of Moses.

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WHEN LIFE ENDS – Sedrah Va-y’khee –by Rabbi Baruch Cohon  

WHEN LIFE ENDS – Sedrah Va-y’khee –by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The last reading in the Book of Genesis starts with Jacob’s farewell message to his sons, describes his death, and concludes with the death of one of those sons, Joseph who survived his brothers’ hostile treatment to become the deliverer of the family.

Generally, the Torah recounts the end of life in proportion to the importance of the individual. Many of the early figures in Genesis are described at their end quite tersely: “He expired,” “He was gathered to his people,” or just plain “He died.”   As the last of the Patriarchs, Jacob can be expected to command ample treatment, and he gets it in this passage.  He first swears Joseph not to bury him in Egypt but to take his body to the Cave of Machpelah – the place Abraham bought to bury Sarah, the place where Isaac and Rebekah lie, the place where he buried Leah – the same cave in Hebron where Jews still visit to honor our ancient history, the same cave that our enemies try to steal in order to deny our connection to the Land of Israel. Jacob continues by blessing Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, even reversing their order over their father’s protest.  As they approach their dim-eyed grandfather seated on his bed, Joseph guides Menasseh to Jacob’s right, Ephraim to the left.  But Jacob can see well enough to recognize the boys, and he crosses his hands to place his right hand on Ephraim’s head.

“No,” says Joseph, “this one (Menasseh) is the firstborn. Place your right hand on his head.”

“I know, my son, I know,” Jacob replies.  “He will also become a people and will grow.  But his younger brother will outgrow him, and will become m’lo hagoyim” – (literally “the fullness of nations”) which Rashi interprets as a prophecy that Ephraim’s descendants will include Joshua the conqueror of Canaan.

Then Jacob proceeds to give his last message to the rest of his sons.  Not really a blessing, this message is more of a judgment on their characters, based on their behavior.  Some show promise, some are plodders, others get specific charges. Reuben loses the privilege of the firstborn because he once bedded his father’s wife.  Judah, by contrast, proved himself a leader and gets acknowledged as such.  No mention of his little intrigue with Tamar.  Again, the commentators link this praise of Judah to the future: he will be the ancestor of King David.

So Jacob completes his message to all his sons before putting his legs back in bed and breathing his last.  It is Joseph who weeps over him, kisses him, and then orders his body embalmed.  Commentators point out that this process will take 40 days, to prepare for the journey to Hebron.  And we are told that the Egyptians added another 30 days to the public mourning period for Jacob, whom they credited with bringing on the end of the famine.  That gave him almost the same importance, in death at least, as the Pharaohs – 70 days of mourning.  Royalty received just 72.

After the sad journey and the burial, Jacob’s sons again voice their concern about how Joseph will treat them now.  While their father lived, they enjoyed peaceful relations with their now-powerful brother.  Now will he at last take revenge for their cruelty to him when he was young?  They quote their father as sending a message to Joseph through them: “Forgive the sin of your brothers.”  Joseph reassures them, telling them “You thought you were doing me wrong, but G-d intended it for good.”  And he continues to provide for them until he reaches the age of 110, witnessing the birth of his great-grandchildren.

Feeling the end coming, he charges his brothers and family: “G-d will remember you, and you must bring my bones out of here.”  And the last sentence in Genesis tells us simply: “Joseph died at 110 years of age, and they embalmed him and put him in a coffin in Egypt.”

Just one sentence.  Not two chapters like Jacob.  No extended messages.  Not even a spot in the Cave of Machpelah, just a roadside tomb that modern enemies virtually destroyed.  Was Joseph not important?

Quite the contrary. While this obituary stands out as among the briefest in the Torah, its subject dominates the last 13 chapters of Genesis.  What Joseph experienced and accomplished in his life hardly needed review.  Like all others in the Hebrew Bible, Joseph gets no promises of a heavenly future, but neither we nor his surviving brothers need any reminder that he alone made the rest of Jewish history possible.  What more could be said?

The old “March of Time” radio show had a formula for reporting someone’s death: “This week, as it must to all men, death came to …..”  Indeed every life comes to an end.  And we know about death and taxes. We remember people for their lives, not for their deaths.  Perhaps that is why Torah sections that describe the death of important people have titles like Hayey Sarah – The Life of Sarah, and here Va-y’khee Yaakov – Jacob Lived.

So may it be said of us all.

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