Shimon Peres 1923-2016

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Will will remember Shimon Peres for his dedication, his optimism, and the magnitude of his service. May he rest in peace, and may his spirit rise on high.

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HIDDEN OR REVEALED – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HIDDEN OR REVEALED – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

We always read this section of Moses’ final discourse at the end of our calendar year. Approaching Rosh Hashana, our yom ha-din – Day of Judgment – we review the principles and the warnings Moses gave us.

At the end of Chapter 29, he says: “What is hidden belongs to G-d, and what is revealed belongs to us and our children.” Both good and evil can be either Hidden or Revealed.

Commenting on this line, the Klee Yokor brings it down to cases. Quoting an earlier passage, he asks: If an individual takes the self-centered attitude “I’ll be all right, I’ll just follow my own stubbornness,” who knows what that mind is hiding? Only G-d knows. And if that individual’s stubborn actions bring destruction on his community – as the Torah says “sweeping away the wet with the dry” or, as Maimonides interprets it, “adding drunkenness to thirst” – G-d will punish the perpetrator.

On the other hand, should a family or an entire tribe commit sin, it cannot be hidden. The entire nation must deal with the offenders, carrying out the principle that “what is revealed belongs to us and our children forever.” If the offenders are not expelled from the land, judgment will fall on the nation, and all will be scattered because of the sins of that tribe.

Sins bring consequences, whether those sins are hidden or revealed.

What sins incur exile? Clearly, idolatry is one of the primary sins. What about denial of G-d? Sexual perversion? Political treason? For that matter, what about murder? Theft? Bearing false witness? They are all prohibited in the Torah, just like idolatry. Are we to look at our tragic and heroic history and conclude that we brought all the calamity on ourselves?

Certainly we and our ancestors had plenty of enemies to help bring on the calamities of exile and persecution and massacre. What we lacked then, and still lack again today, is the unity of a nation. We cannot join hands and punish or banish those whose actions threaten our communities. Many times, we cannot even agree on the danger of those actions. Is it right or wrong to erect settlements on land that another group wants – even if that land was conquered in a fair fight? Is it right or wrong to stage Gay Pride parades in a country that grants marriage authority exclusively to Orthodox rabbis?

Those are just some Israeli questions. Living in many other parts of the world as we do, local Jewish communities face all kinds of questions about positive or destructive conduct that can range from political activity to dealing with official rulings affecting Jewish life – whether circumcision or kashrut or the basic freedom to attend synagogues safely.

Again, Nitzavim offers an answer. Not always an easy answer, but a guiding principle. It gives us Moses’ injunction to his people: “Not with you alone do I make this covenant, but with all who are here with us today, and with those who are not here with us today.” Who was not there? Future generations, including us. We all stand together before our tradition and our destiny. Destiny may be hidden. Tradition is revealed; all we need to do is learn it.

Approaching a New Year, we must consider how we can stand together. Like Moses’ audience, we do many different things. We are “your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers… your woodcutters and your water-drawers.” Your corporate executives, your scientists and technicians, your rabbis and teachers, your labor-union members and your journalists, your storekeepers and your artists. Your soldiers and your sailors, your intelligence officers and your students, your airline pilots and your taxi drivers, your shepherds and your entertainers. With all our differences, we share our Jewish identity, and we share something even more basic: we share our hope for the future. Tradition and destiny. Hidden and revealed.

Let’s stand together.

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GOING OUT AND COMING IN – Kee Tavo – Deut. 26-29:8, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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GOING OUT AND COMING IN – Kee Tavo – Deut. 26-29:8, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Frequently our tradition uses the opening words of a Torah reading as the name of the week’s section. Last week it was “Kee Teitzei” about going out – in that case, to war. This week it is “Kee Tavo” about coming in – entering the Land of Israel. Not just entering it, in fact, but possessing it and taking responsibility for it. Here Moses gives his people a definite pattern for establishing a nation of residents and natives, united in a way of life that remembers and reveres its past, and applies its religious principles to its daily life.

Tithing their crops expresses the appreciation of Israelite farmers for their land, and provides some support for the Levites and Cohanim in the Temple. It was also the same farmer’s duty to bring the first fruits of his land to Jerusalem, and to share them with the Levites, and with others who had no land – “strangers” (otherwise known as resident aliens), and widows and orphans. Building a nation was no easy task for 12 tribes whose parents were slaves. For the purpose of making this nation more just and more worthy than the Egypt they once fled, Moses predicts the results of bad conduct, of corruption and idolatry. The list of curses we will read here could be calculated to scare people into better action. “Betroth a woman, and another man will violate her… Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation; you will see it, and long for them, but you will have no power… The stranger among you will rise higher and higher, and you will come down lower and lower… A savage nation speaking a strange language will invade and conquer you…“ Some familiar events there. Commentators indeed observe that these threatened sufferings – called the tokhakha – were exceeded only by the actual sufferings of Jewish history.

By contrast, the blessings this Sedrah envisions certainly are worth reaching for. “Be blessed in the city and blessed in the field… Your enemies will attack you and they will fall before you; they will invade on one road and flee from you on seven roads… G-d will make you the head, and not the tail. You will only rise up and not fall down, if you will just listen to the Mitzvos… “ That’s the challenge. Just listen to the Mitzvos – and do them.

Worth considering is the fact that the blessings listed in Chapter 28 of our reading cover just the first 14 sentences.

The curses cover the next 54 sentences. Quite a challenge.

Looking back over these messages about going out and coming in, we need to remember that both messages are stated in the singular. Whether we live in Israel or another country, whether we live under a government that is honest or corrupt, each one of us must take whatever responsibility we can for our own lives and the lives of our children. Sometimes we must go out to war, and do our best to be noble winners. And coming into our residences, we must be equally determined to achieve both prosperity and justice.

Despite the tyranny of Czars and Sultans and dictators, our ancestors managed to pass some great life lessons on to us. Whatever questionable politics may do to our own situation in the coming days, let’s remain committed to living the life that earns some of our Sedrah’s short list of blessings. “All these blessings [can] come to you and overtake you, because you will listen to the voice of G-d.”

Hallevai amen.

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“KEE” IS THE KEY – Kee teitzei – Deut. 21:10-25:19, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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“KEE” IS THE KEY – Kee teitzei – Deut. 21:10-25:19, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Of all the laws stated in this week’s reading — from capital punishment for rape to compassionate treatment of farm animals, from the warning against making vows to the reminder of proper relations with neighboring tribes, with the periodic refrain “purge the evil from your midst” — perhaps the most significant lesson for our generation comes in the opening words of Kee teitzei. Like parallel passages in last week’s Sedrah, this sentence, Kee teitzei lamilkhama al oy’vekha, concerns conduct in warfare, and its translation raises a question.

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 how 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. On the other hand, “If” would indicate a choice. You go out to war only if you want to? Volunteers get sworn in; civilians are exempt?

On further examination, an ordinary Hebrew-English dictionary will offer several translations of the word Kee, including both “if” and “when.” Interestingly enough, the same dictionary will also translate Kee as “because.” And thereby we can learn something. Kee teitzei la-milkhama – 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 Sedrah illustrates a historical truth that gets ignored in our time: 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. Contemporary policies may imagine such a choice, but go find it. Cases in point: Gaza rockets, 9/11 attacks, Pearl Harbor.

Treatment of captive 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 messages sharpen this point. Later in the Sedrah we will 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.”

On the contrary, at the very end of the Sedrah we will read a section 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. Significantly, next Purim we will again hear the interpretation: Haman mi-zera Amalek – Haman the Purim villain is descended from Amalek! Evidently Israel went to war against Amalek, but 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 identify our enemies.

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JUSTICE, JUSTICE – Shoftim – Deut. 16:18 – 21:9 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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JUSTICE, JUSTICE – Shoftim – Deut. 16:18 – 21:9 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read about the community structure Moses outlines for his people to establish in the Promised Land. He starts with law courts and judges and magistrates, then proceeds to religious practice, to crime and punishment, to the monarchy, and to the laws of warfare. Throughout, he delivers the message that Israel is to be ruled by law, not by the whims of human officers. And he enunciates some great principles. Sample a few:

“Tzedek tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue.” The very third sentence of this section sets a standard.

Uviarta ha-ra mikirbekhaExcise the evil from your midst.” No. not exercise. Excise – get rid of it! This line gets repeated, as it applies to more than one situation.

Lo yumas al pee aid ekhad – The condemned shall not die on the testimony of one witness.” Any capital crime required two eye witnesses for a conviction. No circumstantial evidence allowed. Even the accused got the benefit of the doubt.

Kee ha-adam aitz hasadeh? – Is the tree in the field a man?” When besieging an enemy city, don’t cut down fruit trees to build scaffolds over the city’s walls. The tree is not your enemy.

And of course, the most famous one: “A-yin takhas a-yin – An eye for an eye.” Particularly applied to a false witness, Moses specifies: “As he plotted to have done to his brother, so shall you do to him.”

The first of these quotes is unquestionably the dominant one. “Justice, justice…” Significantly, our commentators question the repetition. Certainly repetition is a familiar feature of human speech. Speakers – including rabbis and candidates – employ repetition for dramatic effect. Teachers use it to stress importance. When did Columbus discover America? 1492, 1492, say it again 1492 – and you never forgot it. It helped you remember when the Jews were expelled from Spain, too.

Cantors frequently used it for musical effect. I remember being quite surprised when the rabbi of one synagogue invited me to chant Musaf and added: “We don’t repeat words here.” Of course, Chabad congregations don’t let that interfere with the melody – when words run out, just sing Dy-de-dy-dy-dy!

Agitators and other politicians like to get demonstrators to echo their repeated slogans. Nothing new there either. One of them likely prompted Jeremiah to denounce those who shout “Shalom, shalom” and then he added, v’ain shalom – “Peace, peace” and there is no peace!

Repetitions enforce the meaning of the word. Sometimes they add new meaning.

In our Sedrah, why does Moses say “Justice, justice?” Isn’t one justice enough? The commentators conclude that justice is not open to any magistrate’s interpretation. Justice for the rich must be justice for the poor. Do not favor the poor out of sympathy, or pervert justice to honor the rich. (Or to reward campaign contributors.) Bachya ben Asher goes so far as to comment that this prohibits us from using unjust means to secure justice.

What we think of as “poetic justice” is strictly limited here. We are cautioned to apply the law strongly enough to “excise the evil.” Even though later generations took “an eye for eye” to mean the value of an eye, the principle remained. After all, putting out the guilty man’s eye is only an act of revenge; it really would not benefit his victim the way a sizeable payment would.

We might also take issue with those who talk about justice when their aims are questionable. Pursue justice, not advantage. Don’t manipulate the laws for your own benefit. Pursue justice, not convenience. Sure, the police would be more comfortable if they were the only ones armed. But owning a weapon is still legal. Pursue justice, not discrimination. An immigrant committed murder? Punish the killer, not all immigrants. We have a Divine command to pursue justice. In all its forms.

Justice, justice, and where is justice? Just like Peace, peace and there is no peace. They go together. That is what we must have, what we must insist on. Even fight for.

Justice in war is justice in peace.

And without justice, can we really have peace? In the Jewish vision of the Messianic future, they are inseparable. And now, as far as we may find ourselves from that future, we can still work to bring true justice into our lives, our communities, and hopefully our world. To the extent that we succeed in our pursuit of justice, we can build our prospects for lasting peace.

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

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