PASSOVER PORTIONS – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 11.26.08 AM

PASSOVER PORTIONS – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          Biblical portions we read during the week of Pesach are every bit as tasty as the edible portions on our Seder plates.  And they offer real variety.

The first day, of course, we review the story of the original Exodus – starting with the plague of the first-born, during which the Egyptian public saw that no Hebrew children died.  In fact, here we see the origin of this holiday’s very name.  By putting blood on the doorpost – the mezuzah – our ancestors signaled the Destroyer (call him an Angel of Death) that this was a Jewish house, and he would pass over – pasach – that house and hit the Egyptians.  So they were ready to give the slaves all kinds of things to encourage them to leave the country, and a whole crowd of Egyptians even followed the Hebrews out. 

On the Intermediate Sabbath, Shabat Khol haMo-ed, we read Moses’ prayer and G-d’s answer.  Key words here dramatize conditions and attitudes that mark our history.  What Moses asks for his people is v’nifleenu – “let us be distinguished from all the other nations.”  In return, he gets the message: “you have found favor in My eyes… I will show you my goodness, and will call the Divine name before you; and I will favor those whom I will favor, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.”   But somehow politics enters even such a lofty scene, as the Divine voice warns Moses: “Watch yourself, lest you make a treaty with those who inhabit the land I am giving you, for [the treaty] can become a trap in your midst.”

In the Haftorah, the prophetic reading for that day, Ezekiel proclaims his vision of the dry bones, brought back to life by Divine power and destined to be returned to “the soil of your land.”  Reading this vision today, we cannot help thinking of Holocaust survivors rebuilding modern Israel.

The Seventh Day finds us singing the Song of the Sea, Shirat haYam, celebrating our ancestors crossing the Red Sea “on dry land” and turning to see the pursuing Egyptian chariots sink in the churning waves.  Is that miracle hard to believe?  Consider that just a few years ago some archeologists found a raised sandbar under the Red Sea, and what did they discover there but the gold covers of Pharaoh’s chariot wheels.   The wooden wheels themselves were long since decomposed, but the gold “hubcaps” survived! 

Perhaps the most beautiful of all these famous and dramatic readings is in neither the Torah nor the Prophets.  Each festival has a megillah – a scroll – from the third part of the Bible called K’tuvim – the writings.  Most familiar of these scrolls, of course, is Megillat Esther that we read just a few weeks ago for Purim.  But the one chosen for Pesach, traditionally read in most congregations on the Intermediate Sabbath, is Shir haShirim – the Song of Songs, credited to King Solomon.  Most emotional of all love songs, with female lines and male lines, romantic and graphic and idyllic, the verses of this Megillah truly belong in the spring, the season of Pesach, when “the rains are over and done, flowers appear on the earth and the time of singing has come.”  After all, the Torah calls this month not Nisan, the name we use, but Aviv – Spring.  So our rabbis adjusted our lunar calendar to make sure Pesach always occurs in the spring.  Some commentators interpret the love expressed in Shir haShirim as representing both the passion of man and woman, and the devotion of G-d and Israel.  Certainly this song, its ancient poetry and gentle melody, should be a major highlight of the Pesach week.  In the spring the synagogue, like a young man’s fancy, turns to thoughts of love.

So you have a few days to recover from Seder.  Enjoy King Solomon’s love song this Shabat!

Posted in Passover, Pesach, Torah | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A GREAT SABBATH – Shabat hagadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 11.26.08 AM

A GREAT SABBATH – Shabat hagadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          The Sabbath just before Passover is traditionally called shabat hagadol – the Great Sabbath.  Why is this Sabbath greater than any other?  Same length, same rituals.  What’s different?

          Historically, of course, we could look back to Biblical times and observe that this was the last Sabbath our ancestors spent in slavery.  By next week they would be out of Egypt.  Free.  Likewise for us this Sabbath could be a day to anticipate the future freedom, when the Messiah will arrive to make the whole human race free.  So, appropriately, in the special Haftorah scheduled for this week, the last prophet, Malachi, speaks of the great prophet Elijah who will come to announce the Messianic age when the hearts of parents will turn to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.  Only a few thousand years we are waiting for Elijah to arrive and lead us to that future.  No wonder we open the door for him every Seder night.

          Very possibly this year we could learn something more from Malachi.   Reading his message on Shabat hagadol, think of the times he lived in.  Judging from his other preachings, we gather that many of his contemporaries rejected his message.  In fact they increasingly rejected G-d and the whole religious approach to life.  If they had a Pew report, it would probably show a majority of non-practicing Jews.  As Malachi quotes them, “it is vain to serve G-d!”  True, the Second Temple was standing and would stand for some five more centuries, but things happened slowly back then.  The people of Israel were losing interest in what it meant to be the people of Israel.    Malachi saw this and tried to wake their spirits.

          Gathering with our families this Seder night, can we fulfill his dream?  Can we turn generations to each other and to G-d, for family unity and Divine inspiration?  It’s worth a try.  Hag Sameach!

Posted in Passover, Shabat hagadol | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

BY A POWER OF FOUR – a Pesach power – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

BY A POWER OF FOUR – a Pesach power – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          It’s getting close to time for the Freedom Festival.   Pesach – Passover – is a favorite family gathering time for many Jews.  Statistically, we are told that more people observe Passover than any other Jewish holiday.  How thoroughly?  That’s a different question.  Do you clean the house, get rid of all khometz, change the dishes and pots, burn the leavened leftovers, and “sell” your khometz through a rabbi to a Gentile?  Do you invite respected guests to your Seder and read the entire Haggadah together, with its history of slavery and redemption, its songs and games and rituals as developed over 3,000+ years?   Do you give a prize for finding the Afikoman?   Do you open your door for Elijah the Prophet?

          Or do you just have a family meal?

          Whatever you choose from the full supply of traditional practices for this evening, chances are your choice will include some numbers.   One Seder song, saved till after dinner to keep the kids awake, starts with the question “Who knows One?”—Ehad mee yodeya?  Each number has a special significance.  One G-d, two tablets of the Covenant, three Patriarchs, etc.  But on Seder night, one number seems to dominate.  Four.  Throughout the evening, we express our celebration in fours:  4 Questions, 4 Cups of wine symbolizing the 4 promises of freedom, 4 Sons representing 4 varieties of Jewish characters, and 4 Mothers of Israel mentioned in the song.  The number itself acquires a special power.  Indeed Seder would seem to be the night of 4’s.

          Other numbers associate themselves with other occasions.   When we think of Hanukkah, the number 8 comes to mind—8 candles, 8 nights.  And of course every Bris takes place on the 8th day of a boy’s life.  Every week has 7 days.  And so do holidays like Passover and Succoth – although an 8th day is added to Passover outside of Israel, and the Succoth seven lead into Shmini Atzeret, the 8th day of Assembly.  13 is the age of majority for Jewish boys, but many families observe the age of 12 for their daughters.  Even at Seder we have other numbers: 15 steps in the ceremony; 10 plagues; 7 edible symbols on the Seder plate; Rabban Gamaliel’s 3 requirements – Pesach, Matzoh and Moror.  But all these numbers get mentioned just once.  That special number 4 comes up how many times?  That’s right, 4.   All things considered, the relation between Seder and the number 4 stands out as unique.

          What we can take with us after Seder is the power of 4 in our daily lives.  The rabbis in Pirkey Avot use that number to classify different kinds of human behavior. 

#1: Someone who says “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” they say typifies a beynuni – a neutral personality.   The beynuni compares to the character of residents of Sodom the evil city, in other words one who does not care about other people.

#2: One who says “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine” they call a boor –am ha-aretz.  In modern terms, a Communist. 

#3:“What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours” they praise as pious — a  Hasid, because he is willing to give what he owns to help others. 

But #4: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” they condemn as wicked – a rasha. 

Yes, that special number is with us every day.  4 seasons of the year…4 points of the compass…4 equal sides to a square…4 years of college…and particularly on Seder night, 4 promises of freedom:   G-d said “I will rescue you, I will bring you out, I will redeem you, I will take you to be My people.”  Each in our own way, we live with the power of Four. Have a happy and kosher Pesach!

Posted in Baruch Cohon, Four, Jewish, Jewish Blogs, Jewish Festivals, Passover, Pesach, Seder, Torah, Torah Study | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SOCIAL QUARANTINE – Tazria – Lev. 12-13 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 11.26.08 AM

SOCIAL QUARANTINE – Tazria – Lev. 12-13 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon 

          Torah readings this week and next week rank among the least attractive passages in all the Five Books.  Of course if your field is medical history, you might find them fascinating.  For most of us, however, details about how to identify symptoms of leprosy don’t inspire us.  Our rabbis, with blessed ingenuity, did manage to discover a significant symbolism here, even in an otherwise repugnant subject.

          An individual who suffers from leprosy is called in Hebrew metzora, a leper. And this week’s reading, in Lev.13:45, mandates a procedure the leper must go through.  He must tear his clothes, as if in mourning, let his hair go wild, cover his upper lip (which the Talmud in tractate Moed Katan explains as having his cloth hood hang down to his mouth) and call out the words ta-MEY ta-MEY (Contaminated, contaminated!) warning others to stay away.  As long as the infection continues, he must pitch his tent outside the camp.  The net effect of all these requirements constitutes an ancient form of quarantine.  Recognizing a possibility of contagion, the Torah mandates a method to minimize the plague.

          But what causes someone to become a metzora?  Rabbinical interpreters take the word apart, and find offensive behavior: metzo ra = motzi shem ra – literally, bringing out a bad name.  In other words, slander.  Gossip leads to slander.  The slanderer becomes a moral leper, whether or not he is a physical leper.   Maimonides, being both a physician and a commentator, points out that this quarantine not only places the leper outside the camp to protect healthy people, but mandates that he must live alone, thus separating him from other lepers – or other gossips.  With no one to talk to, he cannot spread slander.  Gossip dies.  Infection is cured.

          We don’t know how well that system worked in Torah times.  But couldn’t we use it now?

Posted in Baruch Cohon, Book of Leviticus, Jewish Blogs, Tazria Metzora, Torah, Torah Study | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

ALCOHOL AND TORAH – Sh’mini – Lev. 10 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 11.26.08 AM

ALCOHOL AND TORAH – Sh’mini – Lev. 10 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          This week’s Torah reading includes the story of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, and their tragic mistake.  The words of the Torah tell a strange and supernatural story.  On the eighth day (sh’mini) of the new Tabernacle, after a solid week of sanctifying Aaron and his sons as priests to conduct the sacrificial worship, the first two of those sons take their fire-pans, put fire and incense in them, and ”bring them before G-d.”  But the fire they delivered was “strange fire,” not the consecrated fire from the altar.  As a result, a punishing flame “came out from before G-d and consumed them, and they died.”

          A challenging narrative, to say the least.  Were Nadav and Avihu experimenting with explosives?   Did the fire in their pans come from some polluted fuel?  Indeed, taken literally, does this mean that changing any detail of the religious ritual is a capital offense?

          Commentators faced this challenge in several ways.  The most accepted interpretation is based on the very next message Aaron gets from On High.   “Drink no wine or strong drink when you are coming into the Sanctuary, you or your sons.” This timing would indicate that Nadav and Avihu made their fatal mistake because they were DUI – delivering under the influence.  Aaron and his remaining sons have to take this as a grim warning against drinking before officiating.

          Do we learn from this story that the Torah is anti-alcohol?  Should we only make Kiddush over grape juice?  Not true.  Wine and liquor are often mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, sometimes positively and sometimes conscious of their danger.  In the Psalms, King David sings “wine makes a man’s heart glad.”  On the other hand, when a Biblical man wanted to rise on the scale of holiness he took the Nazirite vow – no wine, no strong drinks.  Being prized for its pleasure, alcohol is also plagued by its power.

          How appropriate this subject is for this week.  Just a few days ago we celebrated Purim, the one holiday when a famous Talmudic statement tells us to drink until we can’t tell the difference between “blessed is Mordecai” and “cursed is Haman!”  And the next day our Irish neighbors toasted St. Patrick.   Is it the season?

          Of course not.  The bottom line in using alcohol, like the bottom line in other human activity, is balance.  Know your limit.  Know your body’s strengths and weaknesses.  And use discretion.  It’s pretty safe to say that most people can bring in the Sabbath or a holiday safely with a blessing over a cup of wine.  One cup.  But if you have any problem stopping at one, grape juice is just fine.  Just don’t forget thebracha – the blessing of the day.   No strange fire for us!

Posted in Aaron, Book of Leviticus, Shmini Atzeret, Tabernacle, Torah, Torah Study | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment