AMALEK RETURNS — a Purim Blog by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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AMALEK RETURNS — a Purim Blog by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Before we take that first Purim drink, let’s read the Torah. What passage do we read on Purim? Vayavo Amalek – the story of a battle our ancestors fought in the desert on the way out of Egypt, a battle against a hateful and cowardly enemy tribe called Amalek. Time and again they attacked from the rear, killing the stragglers, the weakest of the trekking Israelites. Finally at a place called Rephidim they got punished. Of course they did not quit harassing Israel. After our ancestors settled in the Land and Saul became king, there was more warfare with Amalek.

So what does all this have to do with Purim? The battles with Amalek predated the Purim story by a few centuries. But the connection is there. Haman, the Purim villain, is identified in the Megillah as the son of Hamdassa the Agagite. Agag was the king of Amalek, the defeated chieftain whom the prophet Samuel kills in last week’s special Haftorah for Shabat Zachor, the Sabbath of Memory which always precedes Purim. So the rabbis logically taught that Haman was descended from Amalek.

Indeed he was. Likewise Amalek’s spiritual descendants. Titus, Torquemada, Chmelnitzky, Hitler, Arafat – to name just a few. Destroying Israel was Amalek’s goal, a goal not limited to one locality or one kind of weapon. Haman brought it to Persia. And built a 75-foot gallows to hang Mordecai.

Now Amalek returns to Persia. The current descendants don’t use gallows – or crucifixes or gas chambers or UN committees. They plan to use atom bombs.

Could Queen Esther help her people now? Recently someone compared Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to Congress to Esther’s plea to King Ahasuerus, pointing out that both were technically violations of protocol. Esther’s maneuver, reluctant though she was to try it, worked. Will Bibi’s?

Check the Megillah. Even after condemning Haman to die on the gallows he built, Ahasuerus refuses to cancel his edict setting a date for mass murder of Jews. What he does, however, is arm the Jews and give them a chance to defend themselves. This they do with great success, once again defeating Amalek. Essentially, isn’t that what Bibi seeks?

No, Bibi is no Queen Esther. And the authority he faces, although historically an ally, is no King Ahasuerus. After all, the king loved Esther. He listened to her, protocol notwithstanding. Bibi deals with a chief executive who will not face him, let alone listen to him. All the protocol talk smacks of a political excuse to mask personal hatred. Amalek returns. And once again our people is in serious danger. But we will survive. No enemy can finally prevail. We believe in miracles.

More than ever, we should celebrate this Purim. Drown out Haman’s name with those groggers. Drown your worries with another L’hayyim – could be non-alcoholic if you prefer! And let our Purim performances show Amalek that nobody can destroy our sense of humor. That is definitely a Purim miracle.

As the old song goes, Haynt is Purim, brider, es is a yomtov grois! Today is Purim, brothers, a great big holiday! Enjoy it.

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CONSECRATING CLOTHES – “T’tzaveh”, Ex. 27:20–30:10, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CONSECRATING CLOTHES – “T’tzaveh”, Ex. 27:20–30:10, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Those who perform sacred rites, whether the High Priest in Jerusalem, the Dalai Lama in his Himalayan refuge, the Pope in Rome, or a Navajo Medicine Man, build their holy image by what they wear. In religious life ancient or modern, sophisticated or primitive, we recognize more readily a ritual leader who “looks the part.” Our reading for Shabat T’tzaveh provides an impressive pattern for that image.

Here we will read of priesthood. Aaron becomes the official High Priest of Israel in the desert, and his sons assist him in some serious duties. The first of his duties is to kindle the Eternal Light – ner tamid – which signified the sanctity of the Tabernacle, and still shines in our synagogues. While now it shines day and night, the Torah calls for it to be lit at night with enough pure olive oil to burn till morning. And we all remember the Hanukkah miracle, when the one-day jug of oil burned for 8 days.

Of course, kindling the light is not a blue-jeans job. All the priests had to wear specific clothing and Aaron’s was to be particularly distinctive. So the bulk of this week’s reading will describe each of these consecrating clothes in detail. Breastplate, ephod, robe, checkered tunic, mitre and sash. Skilled craftsmen were called on to make these garments. Gold thread, turquoise and purple and scarlet wool, and fine linen fashioned by an expert weaver. The breastplate had 12 gems on it, 4 rows of 3 stones each, with the names of the tribes on them. And what is an ephod? It is described as a snug sleeveless short coat with shoulder straps, worn over the robe. Under the robe, the priest wore trousers – which most men of that era did not – to ensure modesty when he was offering sacrifices.

Sacrifice was the daily duty of the priests, the Cohanim. And after we read all the minute details of their wardrobe, we will find a description of the sacrificial ceremony that ordained the priests. Then comes the order of the daily meat and meal and wine sacrifices, and the design of the altar of incense. It seems that the Torah even anticipates the inevitable soiling of the consecrating clothes with sacrificial waste – blood, fat, etc. – because it requires that they be worn for just one week at a time. The original consecration ceremony was repeated daily for seven days. And what did they wear after that? We do not read about a change of robes, but maybe we need to take that for granted. Consecrating clothes should be clean.

The priest’s outfit was not all cloth, however. Besides the breastplate which symbolized the total nation he served, he wore a forehead plate (tzeetz) which fit around his head over his mitre or turban and bore the words “holy to G-d.” And attached to his robe were bells which he rang when he entered the sanctuary, alerting the people gathered there that the priest arrived and the ceremony could begin.

Religious regalia set its wearers apart from the populace they served. Perhaps it even gave them a questionable air of superiority. We know that in later times some priests misused their position with sometimes disastrous results. Both on individual and communal levels, the Tzidukim or Sadducees were known to exercise their authority in direct opposition to the rabbinical view of tradition. They wore their priestly robes with excess pride. No wonder that modern Jewish practice limits the elaborateness of consecrating clothing for officiants. Today’s cohanim, myself included, wear no special robes. In fact, when asking G-d’s blessing on the people, we just take off our shoes and pull the tallis over our heads.

It is we who consecrate our clothing, designating some of it for special occasions. Our clothes do not consecrate us. What we say outranks what we wear, and can symbolically make it sacred.

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RINGS ON THE ARK – Parsha T’rumah by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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RINGS ON THE ARK – Parsha T’rumah by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Chapters 25-27 of Exodus provide a description of the first Jewish sanctuary in complete detail. All it lacks is a blueprint, and succeeding generations of construction-minded scholars have supplied that. Some modern editions of the printed Torah actually include pictorial depictions of the Ark, the altars, the showbread table, the curtains – all the elements that made up the ancient Israelites’ religious center, the place where they offered prayers and sacrifices. Here is where the gold they borrowed in Egypt got put to use, as the wooden structures were decorated in the precious metal. Another use for the metal, however, was more practical. On each of the four corners of the Ark, and each of the four corners of each altar, they had to mount heavy gold rings.

Why did they need rings on the Holy Ark? To carry it. Long wooden poles went through each pair of rings, and men from the Tribe of Levi put their shoulders under those poles and transported the sacred structures as the people journeyed through the desert. Primitive transportation, to be sure. For all those 40 years, from the Red Sea by a tortured route to the east bank of the River Jordan, these people had no wheels. Egypt had wheels. Moab had camels. But Israel walked. Israel needed those rings on the Ark.

So Judaism started out as a portable religion. Only in Solomon’s Temple were there no rings on the ark. That would be a permanent House of G-d. And so it was for generations. Until disaster came. Enemies attacked and destroyed it. Twice. The first time, brave and dedicated leaders were able to go back and rebuild it. But the second time, no way of rebuilding. What would happen to Judaism? Where would a defeated nation find rings to carry the Ark of the Covenant?

Then came a dedicated teacher and visionary named Yohanan ben Zakkai. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, when no Jews were permitted to leave the city except to bury the dead, the Talmud recounts that he lay down in a coffin and had his students carry him out. Reaching the Roman camp, Yohanan proceeded to stand up out of the coffin and tell the officer “Take me to your leader.” That leader was a general named Vespasian, whom Yohanan greeted as Emperor. Vespasian corrected him, but Yohanan predicted that he would become emperor, as indeed he did. Whether Vespasian believed him or was just flattered, he asked Yohanan: “What do you want? You risked your life to come to me. What are you seeking?” Then Yohanan asked for the right to take his students to a town called Yavneh and teach them there. Vespasian agreed. The school they started was called Kerem b’Yavneh – the vineyard in Yavneh – because the students lined up like the rows of vines in a vineyard. There they kept Torah alive.

When Rosh Hashanah came, they hesitated to blow the Shofar. A new problem, since in their memory the shofar was never blown outside of the Temple in Jerusalem. But here it was, the morning of Rosh Hashanah, which is defined in the Torah as Yom t’ruah – the day of sounding the horn. They had to discuss the law on this topic. Yohanan told them: “Sound the Shofar. We will discuss it later.” Once it was sounded, they realized that discussion was unnecessary. The Shofar call in Yavneh replaced the rings on the Ark.

Again, Judaism was portable. It remained portable, journeying to every continent on the globe. It remains portable now, whether moving from any city’s downtown to uptown, or returning to Jerusalem. And I daresay it will remain portable even if alien shrines get removed from the Temple Mount some day and a new Sanctuary is built there. B’chol ha-aretz k’vodo – “Throughout Earth is G-d’s glory.”

Indeed the one commandment in this section that became a rabbinical favorite is this one: “They should make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell b’tokham — among them.” Not b’tokho – inside of IT, but b’tokham – among THEM. G-d would not dwell in the building, but in the people. Wherever they were, wherever they built their house of worship, the Divine presence would join them. Spectacular or humble, the sanctuary stands to help the people rise to a feeling of holiness. Its very name, mikdash, comes from the root word kodesh – holy. Gathering in that building prompts us to call G-d’s name in prayer. If we succeed in that effort, the holy thoughts come home with us.

Do you need rings on your ark? Or do you already have them? Let your prayers in your synagogue carry the holy thoughts through your life, like the gold rings on the ark in the desert.

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A MAJORITY OF ONE – “Mishpatim” – Ex. 21-24 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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A MAJORITY OF ONE – “Mishpatim” – Ex. 21-24 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Following last week’s spectacle of receiving the Torah, with the people hearing the great principles of the Ten Commandments resounding from Mt. Sinai amid sacred smoke, this reading brings us many details on how to implement those principles. Truly brings us down to cases.

From the laws on dealing with indentured servants to how to observe the occasions of the Jewish calendar, from administering justice in lawsuits to avoiding prejudice, from legal responsibilities between individuals to instructions for conquering the Promised Land – a lifetime of learning in one week’s reading. And it ends with Moses and Joshua climbing the mountain together to seal the holy Covenant.

Of all the details covered in this all-important section, perhaps one of the most significant comes in verses 2 and 3 of Chapter 23. Here we will read about the process of making legal decisions. The classic translation goes like this:

Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice; neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause.

Clear enough? Not quite. Our commentators identify the “multitude” here – rabim in Hebrew – as the majority. Since a Jewish court consists of 3 judges, a majority would be 2. Not exactly a multitude, nor even a deciding quorum, says the Talmud. In capital cases, the tractate Sanhedrin insists that where the court does not unanimously condemn the defendant to death, one judge can acquit. The word translated “cause” in verse 2 is riv, usually spelled alef, yud, vet. But in our verse 2, the yud is missing, so Sanhedrin calls the word rav, making the translation “do not answer the majority to turn [justice] aside.” Thus by voting to acquit a defendant of a capital offense, a single judge can save a life. A majority of one. In civil cases, however, that does not work. 2 judges can convict. Based on this ruling, Ibn Ezra observes that this one verse contains both a negative and a positive Mitzvah. The negative, as we just saw, is “do not follow the majority to do evil.” And the positive comes in the last 3 words of the sentence: aharey rabim l’hatos: “it is a Mitzvah to follow the majority” [if the majority is right].

Yes, the majority rules – with a big IF. A vote, whether of a judicial court or an electorate, does not replace principles of right and wrong.

Among those same principles, in the very next verse we encounter the Torah’s way of dealing with one of our current bugaboos, Economic Inequality: “Do not favor a poor man in his case.” If he is wrong, justice must still be done despite the fact that he is poor and we would like to forgive him. That decision no judge and no court should make. Any more than a big shot can be allowed to win a case based on his power, as we will read in Leviticus: “Do not glorify an important man.”

Dominant in our religious law is the maxim: Tzedek tzedek tirdof – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Why repeat the word? Because, our sages point out, rather than commit crimes to even a score, it is our duty to achieve justice by just means. Not easy, but we have to keep trying.


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ONE on One – “Yitro” – Ex. 18-20 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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ONE on One – “Yitro” – Ex. 18-20 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Just 50 days after crossing the Red Sea, our ancestors receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. One event gave them physical freedom. The second made them a nation. The Torah is sometimes described as our Constitution – not a document debated and decided by a select group of leaders and then presented to the people, but a Divinely dictated Code revealed to the entire nation, some 2 million strong, all at the same time.

Our sages always insisted that the entire Torah was revealed at Sinai, all 613 commandments. But it’s the Big Ten – the headliners — that appear in this week’s reading, and Sabbath congregations all over the world will stand once again to hear them read, just as we learn our ancestors stood to receive them at the foot of the mountain. They prepared for this experience for three days, washing their bodies and their clothes and refraining from sex. Maybe we don’t take such measures, but we might well consider some mental preparations.

Certainly we have no lack of commentary about the Ten Commandments. Enough has been written about them to fill many libraries. Let’s take note of just a few points regarding these famous words.

When Moses takes his preliminary climb up the mountain, he brings down the challenge: Will you, the Israelite people, accept G-d’s will? And the Torah tells us that the people answer “as one” saying “all that G-d tells us we will do.” So all those 2 million ex-slaves are ready to unite. The Jewish nation is one, and its G-d is One. Receiving the commandments is a One-on-one experience.

So the commandments are spoken to all the people. Yet they are phrased in the singular. Because they apply to each of us individually. In the classic translation, it is not “Ye shall not murder.” It is “Thou shalt not murder.” And a special note on that one: the word is tirtzakh – murder. It is not taharog – kill. From the very beginning, Jewish law recognized that killing is not always murder. Self-defense, capital punishment and war all involve violent death, in fact we have the principle “he who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Historic methods of execution were far harsher than some modern ones, but the principle did not change. The Commandment never said “thou shalt not kill.”

By the same token we can well ask whether any of the principles of Sinai ever changed. True, in recent years the Ten Commandments became Politically Incorrect to some people. Those who would like to banish G-d from our lives like to quote the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” They cite church-state separation as a reason to remove the Big Ten from public buildings. This despite the fact that these commandments mention no “establishment of religion,” but constitute an eternal statement of right and wrong. Even the first commandment says simply “I am the L-rd your G-d.” It does not say “the L-rd your Jewish G-d…. or your Catholic G-d… . or your Hindu G-d.. etc.” And of course a plaque on a wall, or a monument outside a courthouse, does not involve an act of Congress. Chances are, we can still expect to see the great text in many American places reminding us of the principles we share with our fellow citizens.

These principles form the entry to a life strengthened by Torah and Mitzvos, a character marked with what my father z”l called “ethical consciousness.” One particularly telling comment in this connection appears in the Mishna Kidushin: “One who is at home with Scripture, and Mishna, and honest dealings with fellow creatures, will not readily sin. As it is written (Eccl.4:12): ‘the triple cord will not soon be broken.’”

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