HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE?    By Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30

HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE?    By Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30

     The people are camped on the east bank of the Jordan, listening to a final message from Moshe Rabbeinu —.  Moses our Rav.  He knows he will not cross that river with them, and he wants them to know what to do when they enter the Promised Land.  The name of this reading is “Nitzavim” – literally “Standing.”  Not just “standing around,” however.  That would be om’dim. The very word Nitzavim indicates they were standing at attention.  The opening lines of Moses’ discourse set the scene:

     “You are standing today, all of you, before your G-d.  Your leaders, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel.  Your children, your women, the strangers in your midst, your woodcutters and your water-carriers.  [You are here] to form a covenant with G-d… all those who are here with us today, and those who are not here with us today.”

     Not here?  Did anyone not make that list?  That was a pretty complete list.  Who was not there?  All the unborn generations.  Including us. The covenant is a sacred commitment that involves us all.

     And what was the covenant?  Of course we know the Hebrew word for a covenant is “bris.”  That’s right.  Bris does not mean circumcision, it means covenant.  First came the covenant of Abraham which certainly includes circumcision.  That is still observed, even though lately some officials in some places consider it politically incorrect.  But the covenant of Moses goes far beyond a physical operation.  It extends to the responsibility for “mitzvot,” the commandments, the daily conduct that shapes our lives.  It’s what we do that makes us what we are.  Moses taught us standards for our conduct – like honest dealings, respect for the sacred, educating our children in Torah. Carrying out those standards of conduct can make us more than what we are; they can make us what we should be.

     Earlier in his speeches, Moses went into quite a bit of detail about those standards.  Here he refers to the rewards we can expect if we live by Torah teachings, and the penalties that go with their violation – 98 of them that we read last week. Then he anticipates the inevitable question, which does not appear in the Torah but resounds in each of our minds, the question we just have to ask: Isn’t this job too hard?  Do you really expect me to do all this?

     In Chapter 30 that we read this morning, Moses gives his answer: Hamitzva hazot lo nifleyt hee mim’kha v’lo r’khoka hee,which we can paraphrase this way:  This commandment is not beyond your ability, nor is it far away.  It is not in heaven, so you don’t need to say “who will go up in a space ship and get it for us and bring it down and tell it to us so we may do it?”  And it is not overseas, so don’t look for someone to cross the ocean and bring it back to you.  No, this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.  Kee karov elekha hadavar m’od, b’feekha uvil’vav’kha laasoto. 

     Karov m’od – very close.  Very close, eh?  How close is close?

     By attending this service and hearing the message of Nitzavim, you already come closer to fulfilling the commandment.

     How about those services you missed last year?  Those Shabat and festival occasions when you chose to be somewhere else?  Did the covenant desert you because you were somewhere else?  What commandment did you fulfill somewhere else?  Did you help someone who needed help because their car stalled?  Did you remind your kids to get advance homework because they will be absent from school on Rosh Hashana?  Did you write a letter to the editor of a newspaper that printed a slanderous anti-Israel column?

     By the way, if I can change the subject for a minute, we can all hold our own honest opinions pro or con about Israeli government policies, but some 7 million Jews in Israel are our people, and what affects them is bound to affect us.  We are, and we remain, “am segulah,” a chosen people. Divinely chosen for a certain lifestyle, and chosen all too often by human enemies as a victim.  Once in a while, like Tevye we might wish that the Almighty would choose someone else, but don’t hold your breath.  And besides, those 7 million are also Nitzavim today.  They stand with us.  One people.

     Now back to the contract.  Reform congregations will read “Nitzavim” again on Yom Kippur morning, as we come face to face with our spiritual day of reckoning.  For traditional Jews, this very Shabat sanctifies a week of prayers for forgiveness.  We said our midnight prayers at Slichot, we glory in the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana.  And ten days later, we will stand at attention, all of us.  More Jews in one place at one time than on any other day in the year.  Our leaders and our followers, wives and husbands and children, woodcutters and water department meter readers.  We stand together – Nitzavim – and we try to honor the covenant.

     This is the time, this is the season when we can remind ourselves that our commitment to our Torah, to our faith, to our people, is not beyond our reach.  It is not in heaven, but here on earth.  It is not exclusively overseas, because our forebears brought it to America.  It is indeed close to us.

     How close?  As close as the mezuzah on your doorpost.  As close as the candle on your table.  As close as the book on your shelf.  As close as your pride in your heritage.

     The covenant is as close to us today as the medal a decorated veteran wears. By wearing it, we evidence our pride. It is as close as the cup we lift to celebrate the Sabbath — and by drinking that wine we bring the sweet taste of heritage into our lives.  Truly it is in your mouth and in your heart.  It is as close as the tree limbs we will lift on top of our Succah, recalling our ancestors’ joy in the harvest.  It is as close as the hour we will spend helping a child do some homework.  It is as close as the jumper cables we will use to help our neighbor start that stalled car.

       Every service we attend, every ritual we observe, brings it closer.

     All of these actions are part of our covenant.  They are as close to us as we will get to them.  The closer we bring our covenant to our lives, the better prepared we can be to face a new year.

Have a great one!

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98 WORDS TO THE WISE – Kee tavo, Deut. 26-29:8 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

98 WORDS TO THE WISE – Kee tavo, Deut. 26-29:8 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         This section includes Moses’ Third Discourse, and its famous lists of blessings and curses – blessings earned by carrying out the Divine commandments, and curses incurred by violating them.  When this passage is read in traditional Sabbath services, either the rabbi or the Torah Reader himself is called to recite the blessings before and after the reading.  In effect, this individual thus represents the entire congregation.

         The reader starts chanting the words in full voice, detailing the blessings we can expect from right conduct.  For example: “G-d will make you the head and not the tail. You will always be above and never below, when you listen to G-d’s commandments that I give you today.”

         And then the reader drops his pitch and his volume, and launches into a list of warnings – disasters we can bring on ourselves.  A hush falls on the congregation.  Quiet though the reader’s voice is, this grim warning – the Tokhakha –rings out:

“You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the field… cursed in the fruit of your body and in the fruit of your land… G-d will cause you to be struck by your enemies.  You will go out against them on one road, and flee from them by seven roads.  You will become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth…  You will betroth a woman and another man will violate her.  You will build a house and you will not dwell there, plant a vineyard and not use its fruit… Your sons and daughters will be given to another people and your eyes will see and you will ache from losing them but will have no power in your hand… You will become insane from what your eyes will see…”

On and on it goes.  Diseases will be brought on by perversion; defeat will result from false pride.  The last verses sum up the sufferer’s feeling:

You will not believe in your life.  In the morning you will say “if night will only come” and in the evening you will say “when will it be morning?”   You will offer yourselves for sale as slaves and maidservants, and no one will buy.

       As many commentators observe, the only worse predictions possible would be to describe what really happened in Jewish history.

         Truly, this is not the only list of warnings in the Torah.   The first one comes at the end of the Book of Leviticus in the section called B’khukotai.  Also quite dramatic, it is expressed differently.  The very last sentence in Leviticus reminds the people that these were the laws they accepted on Mount Sinai – back in Exodus – or should have accepted.  Maybe they fell short, and needed an urgent reminder?  This one is super urgent.

        The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that here in Deuteronomy we have twice as many warnings as in Leviticus.  There we had 49.  Here are 98. Why is this text double length? His answer is fascinating.   He says that since B’khukotai is read before the holiday of Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost) it commemorates receiving the Torah, when the Jewish People occupied the spiritual level of tzadikim – the righteous.  Here in Kee tavo, read in the fall, we are preparing for the High Holidays when the goal is t’shuvah –return, or repentance.  The Talmud teaches that the true returnee, the baal t’shuvah, occupies a moral position higher even than one who is completely righteous, a real tzadik.  Therefore, when preparing for that kind of return, we need more warnings.

     And we need to listen. As if welcoming all of us potential returnees, this week’s Haftorah, from Chapter 60 of the prophet Isaiah, starts with the great words:“Kumi ori – Rise and shine for your light has arrived, and G-d’s glory shines on you!”  So may it be this year.

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‘KEE’ IS THE KEY – Kee teytzey – Deut. 21:10-25:19, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

‘KEE’ IS THE KEY – Kee teytzey – Deut. 21:10-25:19, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         This section opens with a paragraph about proper conduct in war, but the following chapters are not about war.  They continue building the Torah’s structure of acceptable human conduct in all the conditions of life.  And yet, perhaps the most significant lesson comes in the section’s opening words:  Like parallel passages in previous chapters, this sentence challenges translators:

         Kee teytzey  lamilkhama al oy’vekha.  One English version starts this way: “When you go out to war against your enemies…”   Another one says: “If you go out to war against your enemies…”

         Then they both continue with a detailed message about now to treat a female captive.

         The question raised concerns the translation of the word Kee.  Does it mean “When?”  Or “If?” “When” would accept the reality that wars happen, and there are rules – or there should be rules – governing the soldier’s conduct in war, as in peace.  On the other hand, “If” would indicate a choice.  You go out to war only if you want to?  Volunteers get sworn in, while civilians are exempt?

         Not a chance.  We are all charged with the basic goal of uviarta ha-ra –“Purge the evil.”

         On further examination, an ordinary Hebrew-English dictionary will offer several translations of the word Kee, including both “if” and “when.”  Of course both English words have other Hebrew equivalents, like “Im” for “If” and “Ka-asher” for “When.”  But let’s stick with “Kee” since it can apply to both interpretations. Interestingly enough, the same dictionary will also translate Kee as “because.”  Thereby we can learn something: you go to war because– because you have enemies and they attack you, because you have to fight them off before they destroy you, or maybe because you want to make peace and they won’t negotiate with you.

         With one little word, our reading illustrates a historical truth that frequently gets ignored: it takes two to make peace, but only one to make war.  If you go out to war, and when you go out to war, it’s because you have no choice.  Remember, the Torah is not talking about some adventurous emperor that goes out to conquer territory.  It is talking about action against a violent threat.  No choice.  Some political theorists may imagine such a choice, but go find it.  Cases in point: Gaza rockets, 9/11 attacks, Pearl Harbor.

         Among the captives, in Torah times and even more so today, there are women.  The compassionate treatment of those women as outlined in the Torah for victorious Israelite soldiers differed entirely, of course, from the treatment Israelite women could expect under the reverse conditions.

         Several connected passages sharpen this point. Enemies though they may be, defeated and defenseless though they become, they are human.  In a later passage we read: “Do not despise an Edomite; he is your brother.”  And even this one: “Do not despise an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his country.”  Yes, his ancestors enslaved your ancestors, but he wasn’t there.  And neither were you.

         On the contrary, at the very end of this reading we find a command that will be repeated on Purim: “Destroy the memory of Amalek!”  Not just the fighting forces of Amalek but his evil plan.  The very memory of Amalek must be destroyed.  Not an easy task.  Significantly, next Purim we will again hear this interpretation: Haman mi-zera Amalek – Haman, the Purim villain described in the Book of Esther, was descended from Amalek!  Evidently Israel went to war against Amalek but did not finish the job.  Did not purge the evil.  Besides Haman, the descendants of Amalek – whether physical or spiritual – include Torquemada, Khmelnitsky, Hitler, Arafat, Khamenei – and the list goes on, demanding our attention, calling for action.  Not if, not when.  Because.  Because we must purge the evil.

         In order to purge the evil, we must be sure to identify our enemies.


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JUDGE – AND BE JUDGED – Shoftim –Deut. 16:18 – 21:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

JUDGE – AND BE JUDGED – Shoftim –Deut. 16:18 – 21:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         Appropriately named Shoftim – Judges, this reading deals with principles and practices Moses teaches, about what is justice and how to enforce it.

         One theme that gets repeated here says: “Expunge the evil from your midst – uviarta haRa  mi-kirbekha.” That is not just the theme of Moses’ teaching, it is the motivation behind all of it.  If someone is convicted of a capital offense – whether murder, rape, leading others into idolatry, or presenting false evidence to get someone else punished – and the offender is found guilty, then that offender, whether male or female, must be executed.

         Why? Doesn’t every human being contain the Divine image?  How does a violent death cancel out an offense, even if that offense was equally violent?

         True, killing the criminal make it impossible for the same criminal to repeat the crime.  But that’s not enough.  Not for Moses, and not for Judaism.

         If Hatfield kills McCoy, and McCoy Jr. kills Hatfield in return, that’s not justice. That’s revenge.  In recent chapters, Torah law went into considerable detail to limit the power of revenge.  In Moses’ time, the next-of-kin had the right and the duty to hunt down his kinsman’s killer and take his life. That was the accepted practice: revenge killing.  But Torah law limited that right to very specific circumstances.  Above all, it limits the valid motivation for the return killing. Not revenge, now.  But “expunging the evil.”

         Take the case of a criminal who does not commit murder, he just plotted to get his neighbor in trouble. 

“As he plotted to have done to his brother, so let it be done to him,” says Moses.

“On the word of two witnesses or three witnesses shall the condemned be executed. He shall not die on the word of one witness.”

“And all the people shall see, and they will not presume [to violate] again.”

         Never mind the fact that we all have sacred souls.  By our own violations, and by credible eye-witness testimony of our fellows, we can desecrate those souls, and bring on the violent punishments described in this reading.  Not because society is taking revenge on us, but in order to expunge the evil.

         Evil is there.  It is our job – all of us – to get rid of it.


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AN INDIVIDUAL MATTER? – R’ey,  Deut. 11:26-16:17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

AN INDIVIDUAL MATTER? – R’ey,  Deut. 11:26-16:17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

       In this section, during Moses’ second discourse to the people on the bank of the Jordan, he reviews the laws of religious observance.  One sentence stands out as particularly significant.  “Do not do as we do here today, each man whatever is right in his own eyes.”   [Deut. 12:8]  Once they enter the Holy Land, religious observance would become a national activity with uniform rules and regulations.  It would take considerable time to establish those rules and achieve any national conformity.  Only by the time of King Solomon and the building of the First Temple did a national ritual actually prevail.  But Moses set the goal.

       What happened after the Temple was destroyed, of course, Moses could not envision.  Exiled to Babylonia or conquered by Rome, the Talmudic sages saw that without the Temple, without that national center of religious practice, it was as if the Divine spirit had no home in Jewish life except for the “four cubits of Halacha (Jewish law).”  Portable Judaism found its expression in legal learning and the consequently legislated prayers and other practices that took the place of the sacrificial cult set forth in the Torah.  But still, the laissez-faire religious life of the desert was not acceptable.

       Moving into modern times, we can certainly observe a revival of “each man doing whatever is right in his own eyes.”  Some Jews group together in organizations and movements to form some kind of sub-national religious life.  Others reject organized religion altogether.   Disunity and conflict result.  In the spirit of freedom and democracy, one Jew will ask another: How can you tell me what to believe or what to observe?  After all, isn’t religion an individual matter?

       Not for Moses.  And in fact not for many non-observant Jews of our time either.  Time and again, I’ve had the experience of dealing with families who face the loss of a loved one and look for the comfort of our tradition.  “We want to do what Mom would want,” they say.  Or, “What is the right way to honor our father?”  Maybe their parent was observant and maybe not.  But at times of grief they find solace in time-honored practices.  A Jewish funeral.  A sincere memorial service.

       Danger and emergency can always send humans to G-d for help.  The old saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” was dramatized for me during WW2 when the Navy minesweeper I served on went through a typhoon.  The whole ship was 136 feet long, and we were tossed by 60-foot swells.  Our little ship would shudder at the top of one of those waves, both screws out of the water, vibrating as if every nail would pop out of her wooden hull.  Then she would crash down into the trough between the swells, with water breaking over the flying bridge – and every crewman praying to his own god in whatever words he knew. 

       Is religion an individual matter?  Yes it was, on that ship that night.  What about at times of joy, of celebration?   Bringing a new life into the world and into the family calls for more than a handshake of congratulations.  A feeling deep inside calls for a type of expression of gratitude, something sacred, something moving – a ceremony.  And so we have baby-namings, at home or in the synagogue, and we invite our relatives and friends. 

       Is each of us just doing “whatever is right in our own eyes?”  In a way, yes.  And in another very important way, no.  Because we are drawing on the experience and heritage of our people over many centuries.

       That heritage includes Biblical commands of violence to punish violators.  False prophets, family members who leave the faith and try to take you with them, or even an entire city that decides to practice idolatry.  The Torah condemns them all to death.

       Commentators dealt carefully with these commands to violence, as when Moses says “Your hand shall be first against him (the apostate) and finally the hand of all the people.”  Rashi and others insist that the violator first had to stand trial, and only if found guilty would be killed.  Rabbi J. H. Hertz (former Chief Rabbi of England) points out that “Jewish history does not record a single instance of punishment for religious seduction by a false prophet or a member of one’s family .”

       Another case of Biblical justice applied – or not applied – concerns the pursuer.  If you see an armed man chasing another man who is unarmed, and you assume the pursuer has murder in mind, it is your duty to stop him.  But if the unarmed man runs inside a building and the pursuer follows him, and then the pursuer comes out the other side without his weapon, and you go in and find the fugitive dead and the weapon by his side?  You have no case.  It takes two eye witnesses to convict a murderer.  You don’t know if the dead man wrestled the sword away from his attacker and then fell on it.  You don’t know, so you cannot testify.  And without an eye witness, there is no execution.

       This type of case occurred in modern Israel with the death of General Motta Gur, who was assumed to be a suicide.  He died of a gunshot in his own back yard and was found with a pistol in his hand.  Yet he received a funeral with all military honors.  Some people asked how that could happen, when suicide is after all a terrible sin in Judaism.  One answer detailed the law of two eye witnesses.  Maybe someone jumped the fence, killed Gur and placed the gun in his hand before escaping?  Another answer, less legalistic, concerned his national value as an important leader in the Six Day War.  No witnesses, so give him the benefit of the doubt.

       In this Second Discourse, Moses appears to leave no stone unturned.  He describes right and wrong in one situation after another.  The community gains people and loses people, and he teaches methods to deal with those changes.  In our own time, we hear over and again about the 6 million lives lost in the Holocaust through mass murder, and we also hear that more people were lost to a Jewish future since then, by assimilation and conversion.  Indeed, in some parts of the world, only DNA can prove any connection to the Jewish people.  Maybe those that Moses called the “idolaters” are the real sufferers.  They don’t even know what they are missing – all the wonderful color and flavor of Jewish life.  They deprived themselves of what Moses told us is “the blessing…if you follow the mitzvos – the way of life – that I command you today.”

       It’s the positive choice each of us can take, and survive by taking.  Ever since Moses.

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