HEEL AND TOE – “Eykev” – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HEEL AND TOE – “Eykev” – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The name of this week’s reading is EYKEV – meaning a result. “Eykev tishm’oon” it says – As a result of listening to the commandments and following them, you can expect to accomplish good things in your life. And if we don’t listen, and we don’t carry out the Divine will, we will suffer the consequences. Cause and effect. Interestingly enough, EYKEV also means Heel. The imagery is unique: just as surely as the heel follows the toe, so follow the results of our actions.

This is the message Moses gives the people during his farewell speeches at the end of his life. Every year we read it. And every year we wonder if it makes any impression.

Of course Moses was not the only leader who gave the people such messages. Just a few weeks ago we read in the Haftorah of Balak a message from the prophet Micah: “higid l’kha adam ma tov – He told you, man, what is good and what is required of you: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your G-d.”

Down through the ages, lawgiver, prophet and sage keep trying to teach us basic values. Personally, this Shabos is very special for me, since I observe my father’s 57th Yortzite this week. My father z”l was a rabbi and a teacher of rabbis. The last sermon I ever heard him deliver was based on both of these texts. In fact, he contrasted them. Here, in effect, was his message:

Micah stresses three ideals: justice, mercy, humility. These make the character of a religious human being.

Moses also stresses three ideals. In Chapter 10 verse 12, he asks: “Now, Israel, what does G-d expect from you? To fear the L-rd your G-d, to love Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and soul.”

The parallels are not hard to draw. The Biblical concept of “fear of G-d” implies reverence. Not fright, but supreme respect. If we truly revere G-d we want to pattern our lives after the qualities we associate with Him. And justice is one primary attribute of Divinity, the MIDAS haDIN, the “quality of justice” that we recall with such drama on Yom Kippur. So, reverence for G-d – Moses’ first ideal – leads to doing justice – Micah’s first ideal.

“Love of G-d” is actualized by love of our fellow creatures. We believe that we all carry the Divine image in us. That image includes the MIDAS haRAKHAMIM, the quality of mercy. Even Shakespeare said it is “not strained.” Judaism teaches us to treat each other with kindness, to carry over some of the respect we feel for G-d into a mutual respect in dealing with people. Micah’s second ideal – loving mercy – is the clear result.

And serving G-d with total respect implies a type of attitude and a type of conduct: AVODAH is one of those Hebrew words that has two meanings – Work, and Worship. To worship G-d with sincerity requires an attitude of humility. You can’t pray honestly unless you feel a good deal less important than the Divinity you pray to. And you can’t strive to do better and better work unless you realize that you yourself are less than perfect. Unless you have some humility. When Micah said “walk humbly with G-d” he meant exactly that.

So Moses and Micah struck three parallel alerts.

Then my father went on to point out the difference between these two prophetic messages.

The difference comes in the very next sentence. Here Moses says “Lishmor es mitzvos HaShem – Keep G-d’s commandments!” That is the tool he gave us at Mount Sinai – the tool to carry out and accomplish these ideals.

Micah said nothing about Mitzvos. For a very good reason too. Micah was addressing the whole human race: Adam – Mankind. Moses was addressing Yisroel – The Jewish people. For us, Mitzva is the key that unlocks the door of a better life.

All this, of course, is on the individual level. EYKEV covers the national level too. Moses reminds them of the chosenness of Israel: “Rak ba-avosekha — Only your ancestors did G-d desire to be His beloved people” – and then he follows this section with a discussion of the land they are about to enter, and tells them that HaShem watches the land of Israel all year round.

Today we see our people in Israel dealing with attacks both violent and verbal. We pray for their survival, their success, their safety. We hear controversy about whether Mitzva-observant Jews should leave yeshiva training to serve in the army, and we also hear about military arrangements developed to facilitate that service. And we recall Moses’ promise to the IDF of his day, that they will triumph “Im shomor tishm’roon – If indeed you will guard the Mitzvos” by learning and doing them, and guard again by reviewing them to prevent forgetting.

Does this mean that only observant Jews should fight for their country? Hardly. Certainly they are not the only ones who live there. So, try this basic interpretation. The policies of a nation produce some logical results. If Israel is a Jewish nation, we should expect it to follow Torah values, and indeed it does even in warfare, always striving to avoid civilian casualties, fighting clean. Essentially Israel follows the vision of EYKEV for Eretz Yisrael. We need to implement it for Klal Yisrael– for global Jewry. We have the tools to achieve it: Lishmor es haMitzvos – Keep the Mitzvos, as Rashi points out “Lo l’khinnom ella l’tov lokh – Not for nothing, but for your own good.”

Micah gave a message to humanity. Moses gave a message to the Jews. We ignore both at our peril. We can accept both for our own good. It follows as the heel follows the toe.


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FAMOUS WORDS – Va-et-khanan—Deut. 3:23–7:11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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FAMOUS WORDS – Va-et-khanan—Deut. 3:23–7:11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will observe Shabat Nakh’mu, the Sabbath of Comfort, taking its name from our Haftorah, to help us recover from the tragedies that marked Tisha B’Av. This week’s Torah reading, however, is not about comfort. In fact, Moses is reviewing our people’s experiences and charging us with loyalty, responsibility, courage, and principles of conduct – none of which promise great comfort, but all direct his listeners on the path he lays out. In the opening lines of our Sedrah, he recalls his prayer that G-d should let him lead his people into the Promised Land. At age 120, he is not ready to quit. But he is denied. He tells the people: “I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan. But you will go over and possess that good land.” No comfort for Moses, except the loyal and brave service of Joshua who will be his successor.

What we also get in this Torah reading are some words that are famous in other connections too. As one young student observed, Shakespeare is full of quotations – and so is the Torah, particularly here. A few examples:

In our Sedrah, Chapter 4 verse 4 is traditionally sung every Shabat when the scroll is brought to the reading desk: V’atem ha-d’veykim – “You who attach yourselves to the L-rd your G-d, all of you are alive today!”

Verse 35 appears in the prayerbook too, most impressively as it opens the Simchas Torah parade, when all the scrolls are carried around the synagogue: Atoh horeyso lo-daas – “You were shown, in order to know, that the L-rd is G-d and there is none else beside Him.”

Verse 44 is sung whenever the Torah reading finishes with the act of lifting the scroll high so everyone can see the writing in it: V’zos haTorah asher sam Moshe – “This is the Torah that Moses placed before the people of Israel,” and then of course the prayerbook adds further famous words.

Most famous of the passages we quote from this Sedrah include Chapter 5, verses 6-18. This is a repetition of the Ten Commandments, not quite verbatim from the Book of Exodus, but almost. Whether full text or abbreviated or symbolized by the two tablets, these words preach their message of right and wrong in houses of worship and in courthouses far and wide.

And Chapter 6 verse 4 is what every observant Jew is taught to repeat morning and night – the Sh’ma—“Hear, Israel. The L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd alone.” Followed immediately in 5-9 with the first paragraph of that basic principle of Judaism: V’ahavta –“Love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”

Verse 21 of this chapter includes a line that appears in every Passover Haggadah: Avadim hayeenu – “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” In fact our Sedrah sets out the whole theme of the Pesach Seder, when it says in verse 20: “when your son will ask you…” again repeating the family conversation from Exodus. There the kid just asks “What’s this?” Here he goes into detail: “What are the testimonies, the ordinances, the judgments…” prompting the rabbis to define the Exodus youngster as the simple son, and this one as the wise son. Be ready to answer both!

Many famous words here, no question about that. For this year’s reading, however, let’s look at another passage.

Towards the end of the reading, in Chapter 7, Moses calls us Am Kadosh – a holy nation. And he says: “[Only} you did G-d choose from all the nations of the earth to be His special people.” On what basis does Moses conclude this Divine choice was made? “Not because you were more numerous than all the other nations, did G-d desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the nations. But G-d loved you and kept the oath He swore to your ancestors to bring you out and redeem you with a mighty hand. He redeemed you from the home of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.”

Moses holds history to witness how the Almighty took one nation out of the midst of another nation – to choose it and make it holy. Looking at our history from Moses’ time until now, we must face the fact that individually and collectively our people repeatedly proves its Divine choice. Despite our tragic losses as the “fewest,” we survive and we progress. Our current enemies may want to wipe us out, but they won’t. Nobel prizes, startup industries, topflight arts and literature, or sacred truths – you name it, we are there. No, being chosen does not mean others are doomed, or even inferior. It means we have an identity to give thanks for.

Pride in that identity is in its own way a Mitzvah. Let’s observe it.


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ELEVEN DAYS, FORTY YEARS – D’varim – Deut. 1-3:22, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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ELEVEN DAYS, FORTY YEARS – D’varim – Deut. 1-3:22, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we start reading the Book of Deuteronomy, known in Hebrew as simply D’varim – words. “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel,” it begins, and then lists locations where the leader delivered his discourses. Three long lectures plus a farewell song. What does he do? Reviews their travels; Rebukes them for their misconduct; and Reminds them of the Law – the Torah – that they accepted from on High.

Opening with a geographical comment, our Sedrah notes that the distance from Mount Sinai (here called Horeb) via Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea amounts to eleven days travel. Modern camel riders confirm that as accurate. Rashi’s commentary, however, calculates that during the Exodus the people made that trip in just three days. They spent a total of 39 days from the 20th of Iyyar when they left Horeb, to the 29th of Sivan when they sent out the spies from Kadesh Barnea; but they spent 30 of those days at Kivrot haTaavah eating meat, and 7 more days to heal Miriam from her contamination. So it was just the third day of actual travel that brought them to Kadesh Barnea. The reason for this speed, says Rashi, is that the Almighty wanted to bring them to the Promised Land as soon as possible.

So what took 40 years? That’s what Moses will tell us with the 3 R’s of his discourses – Review, Rebuke, Reminder.

Accompanying this beginning of Moses’ message we will read Isaiah’s vision – Khazon Y’shayahu — in our Haftorah. This, the last of three Haftorahs of Rebuke, immediately precedes the fast of Tisha B’Av which this year coincides with our Shabat so is postponed a day, to be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, in mourning for the Holy Temple which was destroyed on that day – twice, in fact – once by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and once by the Romans in 70 CE. Isaiah proclaims his vision in dramatic terms, comparing the rulers of his day to those of Sodom and Gemorrah, the evil cities destroyed in the Book of Genesis. The Hertz commentary describes Isaiah as “an implacable enemy of shallow ‘patriots’ and opportunist politicians.” And our tradition names this Sabbath after the opening word of this Haftorah: Shabat Khazon – “the Sabbath of Vision.” Isaiah’s vision picks up on Moses’ Review, Rebuke and Reminders. We need both.

In keeping with the mournful season, the bulk of this Haftorah is traditionally chanted in the melody of Lamentations – Eykha. But not the last line, where Isaiah declares: “Zion will be redeemed with justice, and those who return to her with righteousness.” We end with the positive, cheerful sound of the Shabat Haftorah, the melody many of us learned for our own Bar Mitzvah service. We have confidence in future opportunities, and with G-d’s help we will survive, just as Moses tells Joshua in our Sedrah: “Do not be afraid of [these enemies] because G-d is fighting for you.” Wars happen, and appeasement will not prevent them. One lesson from the Sabbath of Vision is Be Prepared. As individuals, as communities and hopefully as nations, let’s take it to heart.

No matter how dreadful the dangers we face, we have faith and we have weapons. What are they? Courage and confidence, yes. Plus justice and righteousness. An unbeatable combination.

On to victory. And then to peace. Ken y’hee ratzon.

ElevenDays Dvarim

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CONTAMINATED VETERANS – Mattos, Num.30-32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CONTAMINATED VETERANS – Mattos, Num.30-32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Sedrah tells us of various subjects, including responsibility for vows made by men and by women, a military draft and the brutal war against the Midianites, and finally the agreement for two and a half tribes to settle east of the Jordan. What we should not overlook is the specific command to the soldiers who conquered Midian.

Moses addresses the returning soldiers, after they divide the spoils and execute all prisoners of war who presumably took part in the religious seduction at Baal Peor, and Moses tells them: “All female children who never lay with a man, you may keep alive for yourselves. But you must stay outside the camp for 7 days. Whoever killed, or touched a dead body, purify yourselves for 7 days, and decontaminate all clothing, and anything made of leather, goat’s hair or wood.”

War contaminates the fighters, whether they win or lose. Back in Chapter 19, we learned about the 7-day quarantine for anyone touching a dead body. Here, as Rashi points out, quoting Rabbi Meir, contamination is not limited to touching. “Whoever killed or touched,” said Moses. The law includes killing with an arrow shot from a bow, because just as the weapon becomes contaminated, so does the shooter.

Does that contamination extend to killing with a gun, a torpedo – or a truck? Our soldiers, whether American or Israeli, do not get quarantined after every battle these days. But apparently, the soldiers who conquered Midian didn’t either. Only after the fighting was over. How does that apply to situations that go on for months? Clearly, it would be more than difficult to invoke Biblical law in modern warfare.

What does seem applicable, however, is the principle behind this law. Unlike some of our enemies, we do not celebrate mass murderers or promise them all those virgins in heaven. Fighting a war requires killing enemies. Life is a gift from G-d, even if that life threatens our own. When we are the killers, we are necessarily contaminated, whether physically or psychologically. That condition can show in post-traumatic afflictions, nervous disorders, and types of contamination that no 7-day treatment can cure. Violent conflicts produce human effects that challenge our best minds, and we still cannot come up with a way to prevent violence.

One definite lesson the Torah can teach us is simply that war always contaminates. Understanding and compassion for returning fighters is at least a basic duty. Until the human race can find a way to real peace, we can start by housing and healing those who fought. Those of us who can still remember our World War II service can testify that when we came home we were welcomed, honored, given a GI Bill and mustering out pay. It was a time of victory and pride – pride in our country and pride of our troops. Since then, every armed campaign became a political controversy. Results impact the volunteers who served. Today too many returning veterans are treated as if they truly have a contagious disease. To our shame, we pass them begging on streetcorners, or sleeping under bridges. By ignoring their plight, we contaminate ourselves.

Let’s take them off the street. Relieve their war-induced victimhood. They fought our battle. Yes, war contaminated them. Their contamination is our contamination!

Mattos Numbers30-32

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LEADERS WANTED – Numbers 27 – Pinchas – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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LEADERS WANTED – Numbers 27 – Pinchas – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

After taking a census of his people, Moses gets a look at the Promised Land, although only from Mount Abarim, one of the peaks of the mountain called Nebo. He hears the Divine warning that, since he will not enter the Land himself, he can expect to die as his brother Aaron died, in solitude on a mountain top. But while Aaron had his son Elazar with him to anoint as High Priest to succeed him, his brother Moses to transfer his clothes to his son, and both of them to bury him, we will see at the end of Deuteronomy that Moses will die in total solitude and G-d will bury him. Moses will have plenty to do from now till then. This “mountain view” is therefore nothing but a preview. And an opportunity to speak with G-d.

How does Moses use this opportunity? Does he beg the Almighty to reconsider, to let him lead his people across the Jordan? Does he pray for immortality? Maybe he would like to, but he knows better. He asks the Eternal One for a successor, a leader “who will go before the people to take them out and bring them in,” one who will galvanize them to win wars, and inspire them to build their future in peace. Like the American vice-president, this successor takes over only after the death of the current leader. After witnessing the process of choosing such a potential successor for both of this year’s candidates, we can relate to Moses’ prayer.

The answer Moses gets can teach us lasting principles about choosing leaders. He is told to take Joshua, his lieutenant who grew into maturity as Moses’ devoted helper, one of only two spies who brought back a positive report about the Land, who in his youth was described in the Torah as a “boy who did not move out of the Tent of Meeting.” “Take Joshua,” says G-d, ”a man who has spirit… Place some of your glory on him… Let him stand before Elazar the Priest to hear the word of G-d.” Then Joshua and the people will take action.

Elazar, son of Aaron, will supply the law, but he will not be the leader. By now, he and his brother Itamar learned from their father and from their uncle Moses what their role should be. High Priest is not head of state. Ayatollahs are notably missing from Jewish history. The notable exception is the family we recall every Hanukkah – the Maccabees. Matisyohu – Mattathias, the senior head of the Hasmonean clan, is identified in our prayers as kohen gadol – the High Priest. He and his soldier sons freed the people from the Syrian Greeks who tried to eradicate their faith and their culture. And then they set up a theocratic dynasty which became corrupt and earned the disapproval of the rabbis of the Talmud, who played down Hanukkah rather than glorify that dynasty.

Speaking of dynasties, of course, we note that Moses also had two sons. Why are they ignored?

Rashi and other commentators ask why this story immediately follows the case of the daughters of Zelophehad who had no brothers and therefore needed a special ruling in order to inherit their father’s property. The ruling they get specifies “if a man dies and has no sons.” The Klee Yokor commentary adds the condition that maybe he had sons who were not deserving to inherit, who lacked knowledge, wisdom and leadership qualities that their father did not give them. They should not inherit his position. As we read Moses’ career, we must admit that he did not raise his sons. He was facing continuous crises in leading the People of Israel.

Where were his sons? Certainly they were elsewhere during most of their father’s years of leadership. Neither Gershom nor Eliezer shows up in the Torah narrative much after their birth in the desert, well before the Exodus.

Clearly, selecting a leader is no easy job. Not even for Moses. As our history progressed, from tribal chiefs to judges to kings, it didn’t get easier. And when David had to deal with his various sons, bloodshed and revolt scarred the country until Solomon, the wise one, secured the throne.

Democracy complicates the process still further. Whether in Israel or the United States, in Germany or Russia, in Cuba or Egypt or any other country officially using the election process, brilliant and successful leaders are rare. Chosen successors might or might not extend their achievements. Too often momentous mistakes can produce inept or misguided leaders. Results for the people can be disastrous.

No inherited authority in the U.S., for sure. Even John Quincy and George W had to be elected independently. Our foreseeable heir to the White House will not be Ivanka Trump or Chelsea Clinton (Jewish connections notwithstanding). So good luck to Messrs. Kaine and Pence.

Over and again, Moses’ prayer rings in our ears: “Let the G-d of the spirits of all flesh set a man over the people, who will bring them out and bring them in, so the nation will not be like a flock without a shepherd.”


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