THE ‘WOW’ OF RELIGION – Vayeytzey – Gen. 28:10-32:3 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

THE ‘WOW’ OF RELIGION – Vayeytzey – Gen. 28:10-32:3 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Jacob leaves home, ostensibly on his way to Haran to find a wife, but more importantly to get out of harm’s way in the person of his vengeful brother Esau.  He stops for the night in a place that is strange to him, and goes to sleep on a rock.  That place, that rock, that night become a life-changing experience for him. Because that is where he has his famous dream: a ladder reaching into heaven, with angels climbing both up it and down it.

Interesting that the story has the angels going up first and then coming down.  If angels are heavenly creatures, how did they get to the bottom of the ladder to climb up?  Didn’t they have to come down first?

Rashi explains that these angels were already with Jacob. They were the angels of the Land of Israel, and they could go no farther with him, because he chose to stop for the night just at the boundary line.  So these Israeli Guard angels were changing places with a second group of angels who would accompany him outside the Land.  Of course, Jacob was totally unaware of this whole Changing of the Guard – until his dream.

Waking from that dream, he has a striking reaction. Actually two reactions.  The first – awe.  “Certainly G-d is in this place and I did not know it.”  Then on further thought, he begins to digest the message he got in the dream – the message of Divine guidance on his journey and back home again.  And he offers a return commitment.  A contract, if you will.  “If G–d will be with me on the way that I go, and see that I have food to eat and clothes to wear, and if I can come home safely to my father’s house, then You [haShem] will be my G-d, and whatever You give me, I will return you a tenth.”

In other words, if this dream was a real flash of prophecy, and it comes true, I will believe.   And if I can go home safely, I’ll even make a contribution.  That is the awe-inspired reaction: gratitude calls for a contract.

Or:  Wow! What a dream!  I was talking to G-d!  It must be Divine inspiration.  That is the shock reaction: I was religious all the time and didn’t realize it!

Each of us in our attitude toward our faith takes one of these attitudes – awe, or shock.  At different times we may take both.

Something wonderful happens to us – the thrill of love, or winning the lottery, or getting safely discharged from the Armed Forces, or the birth of our first child, or maybe just climbing to the top of a major mountain and being alone with the universe.  And we suddenly discover the Master of that Universe.  We suddenly realize that we were really religious all the time and didn’t know it.  If that’s your experience, congratulations.  You can savor the wonder of life – the Wow!

Or… the daily grind becomes more complex.  More grinding.  And we wish for some childhood simplicity.  Let me go home safely and I’ll be glad to pray.  I’ll even make a contribution.  But don’t bother me now.  Not unless you can prove this idea is really prophetic and will come true.

Both of these reactions are legitimate, and neither is the whole story.  Which one applies to you?  Or are you an atheist?

Let me tell you about atheists.

Crossing the Gulf of Alaska in a 136-foot wooden minesweeper in the last year of World War II, we went through a typhoon.  Time after time, our little ship climbed trembling to the crest of 60-foot swells, shivered there for a long moment – both screws out of the water, completely at the ocean’s mercy.  Then she crashed down into the trough – breakers drenching the flying bridge, timbers creaking as if every nail would pop.  Of the thirty-four men on board – a few on watch, a few trying to sleep, and the rest?  I’ll tell you what they were doing: they were praying.  There were no atheists on that ship that day.

The Wow of religion frequently comes out of mortal danger. That’s the reverse of Jacob’s shock reaction to his dream.   It’s called foxhole religion.  It’s legitimate too.  It doesn’t happen to everyone.  Fortunately.

Even more fortunately, that sudden experience of wonder and excitement, that Wow, does happen to some of us.

And the conditioned commitment, the feeling of “Let’s go home again,” happens to large numbers of us.  It’s the hardest to deal with, because Tom Wolfe was right: you can’t go home again.  Not really. All you can do is reach back into your memory for the truths of home, the hope of home, the warmth of home. Try to recapture them where you are now.  And if you can’t recapture them, try to approximate them.

Bringing those qualities of your childhood home into your life today will probably require learning some things that may be new to you – even some things you made a point to forget.  Some Torah, some Minhagim – some ceremonies you sometimes laughed at, some of that old fashioned tradition that used to irritate you.  Maybe those things made home Home.

According to Rashi, Jacob spent 14 years in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever before he ever went to Haran.  What he learned there is hard to imagine, since the Torah would not be received for five more centuries.  But what Rashi is telling us is valuable.  He is telling us that learning and applying the tradition of our homes prepares us for life’s most climactic moments – the “Wow” – and for life’s trials and yearnings – the “Take me back home to my father’s house.”  Our tradition can even prepare us to face the reality of the foxhole and the typhoon.

I wish you the supreme high of the Wow.  And I wish you the fortitude to acquire the way home.

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A NOBODY?  — “Toldos” – Gen. 25:19-28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A NOBODY?  — “Toldos” – Gen. 25:19-28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon –

This week we will read a section called “Toldos Yitzhok” – literally, the history of Isaac.  Very quickly we see that Isaac, the second of our patriarchs, is described in terms of other people.  He is the son of Abraham, the husband of Rebecca, the father of Jacob and Esau.  And who is he?

To quote my uncle of blessed memory, Rabbi Beryl D. Cohon z”l of Boston, this history could be called the portrait of a Nobody.

A nobody?  Let’s see.  Does Isaac really have no importance?  Certainly he carries forward a spark of Abraham’s inspiration.  Just as certainly he finds love and fulfillment in his union with Rebecca.  Like his father before him, he has two sons who are quite different from each other, and he will have a crisis over which one to call his real heir.

Unlike his father, he gets a direct message from G-d only twice.  Once, he is told to stay in Canaan despite hard times, and not to go to Egypt, because this land of Canaan will belong to him and his descendants as G-d promised Abraham.  The second Divine vision comes in a dream and gives him a blessing, and when he gets up, excited and inspired, he builds an altar and has his men dig a well.   By contrast, Abraham had many one-on-ones with the Almighty.  Is Isaac less holy?

Morris Adler, a rabbinical scholar of the last century, asks “What did Isaac do?  He preserved a tradition; he held onto it; he received it and he was loyal to it.  In a world of constant change, in a world where new fashions are sought and new habits constantly arise, in a world that never stops for a moment in its fluctuations, Isaac is not simply a negative character.  He is the son of Abraham and the father of Jacob.  He kept the chain that was handed to him… In all of his actions a tradition was preserved.”

Without Isaac the Jewish people would not exist.  All through the centuries, individual Jews proudly bear his name.  You and I and many others can identify with him because we link generations.   To tend the flame of continuity is our mission.  Family traditions, religious traditions, national traditions all bring pride and meaning to our lives.  We who bear those traditions and add to them and pass them on are carrying on Isaac’s work.

Part of that work involves listening.   Maybe he only heard a Divine voice directly twice.  But there was another voice he heard quite often.   Rebecca.  She is the one who travelled many miles to marry a stranger – Isaac, a man of 40 still brooding over his mother’s loss.  Rebecca is the one whose love points him toward the future.  She is the one who selects which of her twin sons will actually be able to carry on the sacred family heritage.  Maybe Esau can supply his father with venison, but Jacob can build him a nation.  Rebecca sees that, so she connives with Jacob to get his father’s blessing, by pretending to be Esau who had prior rights to it being a few minutes older. And she is the one who saves Jacob from his brother’s murderous fury by sending him to her home town – meanwhile complaining to Isaac about the Canaanite girls Esau brings home, and convincing him to send Jacob on the trip she already prepared him for, to find a wife from among his mother’s clan.

Isaac listens to good advice.   No, don’t call him henpecked.  He knows when his wife is right!   Isaac builds his family, and establishes residence in the land that will be theirs.  I beg to differ with my uncle’s opinion.  Isaac is not a Nobody.  He is the indispensable link that joins the generations.

Considered that way, Isaac’s story is the portrait of a Somebody.

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MAKING A MATCH – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Hayyey Sarah, Gen.23-25:18

MAKING A MATCH – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Hayyey Sarah, Gen.23-25:18

This week brings us the story of Eliezer the matchmaker.   Abraham’s major domo, Eliezer of Damascus, gets the problematic honor of travelling to his master’s birthplace to find a wife for Isaac.  Aided by prayer and miracle, he arrives at a watering hole. And here comes a girl to draw water for the family’s evening meal.  He asks her for a drink from her pitcher.       “Drink, my lord,” she says, and even offers to draw water for his camels.  All 10 of them.  Eliezer is so impressed with this girl that he takes out a gold ring and two bracelets and puts them on her hands.  All this before he even asks her who she is.  Then when he learns she is in fact the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother he gives thanks to Abraham’s G-d.

So who is this girl?  The Torah identifies her as Rivkah – Rebecca – daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah by Nahor the brother of Abraham, a “damsel very fair to look upon, whom no man had known.”  In other words, a beautiful young virgin.

Rebecca finds the gifts pretty exciting and runs home to show her mother.  She also has a brother named Lavan, a fellow with as much greed as he has chutzpah.  He sees the jewelry and runs to the well.

Lavan shows up at the well and invites Eliezer to their home.  “Come to us,” he urges.  “I already cleaned the house and made room for the camels.”  So Eliezer accepts the invitation.  Once in their house, he asks them to send Rebecca back with him to marry Isaac.  Answering ahead of his parents, Lavan asserts that this event came from the Almighty and they cannot refuse.  So Eliezer gives him and his mother more gifts.  A sizeable bride-price, in fact.  Bethuel, the father, says nothing.  For him this is a deal.  A party follows, and a night’s lodging for Eliezer and his camels.

The next morning when Eliezer wants to take Rebecca and go, Lavan again speaks first.  “How about leaving her with us for a year – 10 months anyway—and then she can go.”  Our commentators point out that ancient custom called for a prospective bride to spend a year collecting jewelry to wear at her wedding.  But Eliezer objects.  “Don’t delay me.  I must return to my master.”

What can Lavan do?  Maybe he can sense his father looking at him, silently warning him not to blow the deal.

“We will call the girl in and ask her.”  And they do.

Rebecca agrees to go.  It is her decision.  So her family, including her brother, must take leave of her with a blessing: “Our sister, may you become thousands of myriads (10,000s) [of descendants]!”  In this scene, Rebecca sets a precedent for Jewish life to this day.  Two precedents, in fact.

First is the principle of permission.  “Call the girl in and ask her.”  No Jewish woman is to be given in marriage without her permission.  In times when women in other cultures were property to be bought and sold, Jewish women had rights.  Talmudic law recognizes a father’s right to betroth his daughter who is under age 12 years and 6 months, the legal age for female maturity.  Parenthetically, we may notice that our tradition acknowledges the fact that girls become adults before boys do.  12 and ½, — even just 12 is accepted — not 13!

But when she reaches that “maturity” she can refuse to continue in the marriage.   Marital commitment is certainly a basic right.

Second precedent concerns the veil, and hope for a fruitful future.  We read here that when Rebecca first sees Isaac, she jumps down off the camel and asks Eliezer who that man is.  Learning that it is her husband to be, she covers herself with a veil.  Ever since then, a Jewish bride wears a veil.  Today when she dons the veil before the wedding, it is done in a little ceremony called badek’n, and we bless her with the very words Rebecca’s family spoke: Akhoseynu aht ha-yee l’alfey r’vovoh – “Our sister, may you become thousands of myriads!”

Thousands? Myriads?  How about millions?  Well, Rebecca did, didn’t she?      Aren’t we all Rebecca’s children?

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SOME GREAT EXAMPLES – Vayera –Gen.18-22, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

SOME GREAT EXAMPLES – Vayera –Gen.18-22, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Laughter and lies, hospitality and holy terror – all these themes figure in this week’s Torah reading.  And all of them combine in the character of our father Abraham and in his influence on his family. Our family.

First comes hospitality.  Abraham is seated outside his tent in the heat of the day, and he gets a visit from three strangers – three Divine messengers.  Why this surprise visit?  It provided the example of doing the right thing: carrying out the responsibility to visit the sick.  And why was Abraham sick?  Rashi quotes the Talmudic sage Rabbi Hama bar Hanina: “It was just three days after experiencing the world’s first bris –first ritual circumcision – and he was still in pain.  So the Holy [messengers] came to express concern about his health.”  Bikkur kholim – visiting the sick – is indeed a sacred responsibility, a mitvah,in Jewish life to this day.  In fact we have whole societies and institutions by that name.  When someone is ailing, the least we can do is show our concern.

And where does the hospitality come in?  Abraham sat outside his tent in the hot sun because he was looking for weary travelers, to offer them shelter.  Hospitality ranks with care for the sick as a mitzvah.  The Mishna Peyah  tells us that these actions – hospitality for wayfarers and visiting the sick – are two of the ten things we can do that bear fruit in this world, while their principal value extends to the next world as well. They are not just two of the 613 commandments received on Mount Sinai, but long before that, home hospitality and visiting the sick formed part of Abraham’s personality.

Now stand by for some laughter.  After dignifying Abraham by accepting his hospitality, the head messenger asks:

“Where is Sarah your wife?”

“She is here in the tent.”

“I will return at the proper time (literally “the time of life” – that is, 9 months) and Sarah will have a son.”

Well, Sarah doesn’t miss a word.  She is right behind them in the entrance to the tent. Hearing the prediction, she laughs silently.  After all, she is pushing 90, and as the Torah tells us “Sarah no longer had the way of women,” in other words, no period for a long time now.  Already in last week’s reading Abraham also got the promise of a son by Sarah and it struck some laughter out loud from him, since he was 99 and recovering from his self-inflicted circumcision, and could hardly accept the idea of becoming a new father.

The Heavenly guest doesn’t bring up the subject directly with Sarah, but he asks Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh? … Is anything too hard for G-d?”  At which Sarah speaks up – with a deliberate lie, because she is afraid:

“I didn’t laugh!”

“Lo, kee tzakhakt – No, you did laugh.”

The word for laughter is unmistakable.  Like other Hebrew words it is based on a 3-letter root: tzadik, khet, kuf – pronounced tzakhak.  It becomes part of the name of the son neither parent expects, Isaac – Yitzkhak.  Literally, “he will laugh.”  We will learn more about this long-awaited son in future chapters. His name, ever since then a name borne by countless Jewish men, still echoes his parents’ laughter. Throughout our long history it has been well observed that our sense of humor helped us survive.  Ever since Abraham.

But this reading doesn’t stop with laughter.  Here we will read of holy terror, in two different stories.  First comes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  When Abraham gets the Divine message that these evil cities will be wiped out, he resorts to a skill that some of his descendants became noted for: BARGAINING.

Yes, bargaining.  We know about that.  Sometimes we buy an article and then we wonder if we paid too much.  Maybe we hear from friends about how they made a better deal for the same thing.  The American one-price store isn’t always really one price.  And when it comes to buying a house or a car, bargaining is built into the process.  Then we elevate it.  We don’t call it bargaining any more.  We call it negotiating.

The original negotiator was none other than our father Abraham.  Several times in his career we find him striking a deal with one neighbor or another. Last week he and his nephew Lot had to divide grazing lands.  And this week his negotiating partner is none other than the Ribbono shel Olom – the Master of the Universe.  What monumental Hutzpah!  Abraham bargains with G-d.

First, Abraham listens to the Divine plan: Sodom and Gomorrah are cities filled with evil.  “The men of Sodom were evil and shameful,” which Rashi explains refers to two things: they were evil with their bodies, and sinful with their money. Specifically, their physical behavior was perverted – after all, where does the word Sodomy come from? – and they supported economic corruption: they punished acts of charity and they rewarded cheaters.  Physical depravity and economic venality.  Totally rotten, they deserved to be destroyed.

Now Abraham replies with all the deep respect of a believer, coupled with the calm skill of a seasoned business man.  He asks: “Will the Judge of all the world not do justly?” You really mean to destroy the whole city – even if there are righteous people there?  And “righteous” is a relative term.  If someone lives in Sodom whose physical behavior is clean and normal, and whose business practices are honest, that qualifies him as righteous. Not a scholar, not a philanthropist, not a leader.  Just a decent human being.  Are there really no decent human beings in Sodom?

Abraham starts out humbly.  Suppose You find 50 such citizens in Sodom?  Will You spare the city for their sake?  And he wins a concession on that point.   So he bargains on, slowly and gently, down to the irreducible minimum of 10.  Ten tzadikim– a minyanof decent people – the basic saving quorum. If ten can be found, the city is saved.

But there was no saving minyan.   The sins of Sodom are punished with sulfur and lightning, and a green fertile valley is turned into a scorched dry barren desert.

This time – and only this time – Abraham loses his bargain. He is unable to save Sodom.  Next week we will read a very different bargaining story that Abraham engages in, resulting in a noble heritage for all of us.

But the other holy terror tale that concludes our reading is a totally different experience.  It is the Akeyda, the binding of Isaac.  Abraham receives a Divine command to sacrifice his beloved son, to execute him with a knife and burn his body on a mountain that will become sacred.  We always read this story again on Rosh Hashanah.  It signals the end of human sacrifice in Jewish history, and hopefully for all the world.  It also describes the ram that took Isaac’s  place on the altar – a male caught in the bushes on his horn.  That horn became the Shofar that signals in the New Year.  And of course, even animal sacrifice got discontinued when the Temple was destroyed. T’filah bim’kom korban– Prayer replaces sacrifice – ever since.  What the Mashiakhmay decide when he arrives and rebuilds the Temple, of course, remains to be seen.

But most significantly, in the story of the Akeyda, Abraham does no bargaining at all.  He is prepared to carry out Divine commands, no matter how bitter they may be.

If Abraham’s experiences in this week’s reading can teach us anything, let them teach us how to act on principal.  Welcome the stranger and help those who need help. Do your duty even if it hurts. And negotiate the best outcome you can for your loved ones and neighbors.

What about us?  Can we drive the bargain we need, to find a “righteous minyan?”  We need to dare. We need to bargain with our Jewish people.  Not the leaders who have their own agendas.  But you and I – the rank and file of today’s Jews.  The fathers and mothers of a Jewish tomorrow.  If we succeed, if we find our saving Minyan, it won’t necessarily be ten Jews who look like us.  It could be one Hasid and one secular Russian…and one Ethiopian and one German Reformer…one American rabbi and one Communist Kibbutznik…one Moroccan mystic and one South African diamond investor…a Mohel from Melbourne, and a Cantor from California.  Tzadikim? Not really.  Just a saving Minyan.  We need to find that Minyan.  We need to join that Minyan.  The ethical minyan of Abraham’s descendants.

If we do, we can win the bargain.  We can truly be the Eternal People.

Ken y’hee ratzon.  May this be G-d’s will.

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I RAISED MY HAND – Gen.12-17 – Lekh l’kha – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

I RAISED MY HAND – Gen.12-17 – Lekh l’kha – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Last week’s reading identified Noah as the progenitor of the surviving human race after the Flood, and stated that Noah was selected to survive because he was “righteous in his generation.”  Compared to his contemporaries, that is.  As Rashi points out, in Noah’s generation he could be considered righteous, but if he lived in Abraham’s generation he would amount to nothing.

This week we will read some of the story of Abraham, the first Jew.  One member of his family who caused him serious problems was his nephew Lot. Both of them bred cattle and sheep, and lived on adjacent land.  A fight broke out between Lot’s shepherds and Abraham’s shepherds, so Abraham has to convince Lot that they should both move far enough to leave a safe distance between them.  Abraham settles in Canaan and Lot goes south to an area around the city of Sodom.

Although Sodom was already known for its evil ways, Lot settles there.  More about that next week.

In the population around there, after living under one local king for some 12 years, a rebellion breaks out.  Other local potentates get into the war, four kings against five. One force invades Sodom, where they take prisoners and spoils – including Lot and his family.  A refugee – whom the Midrash identifies as none other than Og, later the giant king of Bashan – comes to Abraham with the bad news: his kinsman is captured!  Abraham proceeds to arm 318 men, his own employees “born in his house”, and they join the battle.   They pursue the enemy north, “to the left of Damascus,” and rescue Lot, his family and the other captive women, and retake the spoils.

The king of Sodom comes out to greet Abraham’s victorious army. Along with him is the king of Shalem, whom our text calls Malkitzedek. The Talmud identifies him as none other than Noah’s son Shem, who would be quite an old man by now, but still able to bring out bread and wine, and to function as a priest to the Almighty.   He blesses Abraham, and Abraham gives him a donation of a tithe – 10% of the spoils.

Now comes the king of Sodom with his magnanimous offer. “Give me the people, and you take the spoils.” (The other 90%!)  All he wants, he says, is the prisoners.  Without Abraham’s fighters, they would be dead.  Will Abraham take this offer?  Here is Abraham’s answer:

“I raised my hand [in a sacred oath] to G-d Almighty, that not even a thread or a shoestring will I take from whatever is yours.  You will not say ‘I made Abram rich.’ [Your expense will be] Only what my boys ate, and the portion of those who came with me.”

From this story we can learn a vital fact about our heritage.  Our heroes may be admired for many reasons, including courage, wisdom, and strong faith.  Primarily they are praised for their character.  Our biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our leaders Joseph, Moses, David and Solomon, retain their status – and give us their names – not because they won wars, or amassed fortunes, or got murdered by a foreign government.  They earn our devoted respect by their character.

The qualities that we revere in our ancient forebears are sometimes reflected in more recent biographies.  Or are they?  Which prominent modern Jews learned from Abraham?  Theodor Herzl? David Ben-Gurion?  Golda Meir?  Isaac M. Wise?  Stephen Wise? Solomon Schechter?  The Lubavitcher Rebbe?  Think about it.  Maybe a less famous figure qualifies, someone like Elie Wiesel, or Marvin Hier or Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center?  It could even be someone virtually unknown, like your parent or grandparent, your employer, your friend.  Whoever sets the example gives us a clue.  Whom do you admire?  As we learn from them, we learn from Abraham.

Character counts.

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