WHO WANTS WAR? by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

WHO WANTS WAR? By Baruch Cohon  

This is always a fair question.  A population that enjoys reasonable degrees of freedom and prosperity can be expected to reject any prospect of war.  But a violent threat from a possible invader changes everything.

Israel faces such threats over and again.  Its classic victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 defeated that year’s threat.  Since that time, it has faced varying dangers and responded as it deemed necessary.  A well-remembered crisis, recently documented on film, was the long and frustrating negotiation with the PLO led by Yasser Arafat. 

A bit of background on that:

The initials PLO stand for “Palestine Liberation Organization.”  Its members were not in slavery, however, and the very name Arafat gave them –“Palestine” – the name he sold to the UN and world media, was a historical fiction. “Palestine” was – and still is – a Latinized version of “Philistine,” the name of a long-extinct tribe that was Israel’s enemy back in Biblical times.  First the Roman Empire adapted the name and applied it to one of their conquered provinces, which was of course the Jewish country, Israel.  Later the British Empire did likewise.  In the 20thcentury Arafat chose that name to identify a fictitious nation, namely his Arab followers.

Golda Meir, Israel’s one-and-only female prime minister, made a historic statement: “There are no Palestinians.”  She was right.  Those who use that name today are no different from Arab residents of Lebanon or Jordan or Egypt.  There are also of course Israeli Arabs who hold jobs in Israel, vote in Israeli elections and even serve in the Knesset.  How do they feel about the so-called “Palestinians?”  Good question.

An equally good question is: What did Arafat achieve in his negotiations with the Israeli government?  He was offered a state made of Israeli territory, to be called “Palestine.”  He proceeded to turn it down and start a violent terrorist campaign called an Intifada, killing many on both sides, thus preventing the formation of any such state at that time. Since his death in 2004, the people he led went through up-and-down political and economic conditions, with problematic officials and varying degrees of violence with Israel.

Moving into the 21st century, we see more endless negotiations.  Judea and Samaria, sections of the Jewish homeland since the days of King Solomon, get renamed “West Bank” and large numbers of Arabs settle there.  Long forgotten is Balfour’s definition: “East of the Jordan for the Arabs, West of the Jordan for the Jews.”  Rejected by the Jordanian monarchy, and subsidized by the Iranian terror government, lacking even the failed leadership of Arafat, the “Palestinians” pursue phony negotiations and questionable UN backing in their effort to win a war they’d rather not fight.  Arafat had no real successor.  But even without his leadership, there are many among his people who want a war, to kill the Jews and occupy their country. 

On the positive side, Israel’s new treaties with four Arab countries, agreements named after the ancestor Abraham whom we all share, offer some hope.  The Middle East, the Jewish people and the world cherish that hope, despite Iran’s terrorist dictatorship, and the Tehran crowds yelling “Death to America” and “Death to Israel!”

Some of us remember 1945 when the US had the only atom bomb, and used it to finally win World War II, the last war we truly won.  In more recent times, nuclear power spread, and dangers threaten.  Those dangers raise a dismal question: “Must we nuke Iran before Iran nukes us?”    Dealing with these dangers calls for leaders who have both wisdom and courage.

No, we don’t want war.  With some Divine guidance we hope to prevent it.

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By Baruch Cohon

As engraved on the Liberty Bell, the 11 famous words “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” are a translation of 5 Hebrew words in one of the final chapters of the Book of Leviticus:  וקראתם  דרור  בארץ  לכל־ישביה  We’ll read those words in synagogues this week.

The Torah presents three views of liberty.

We strive for liberty of action: we want to be able to do our work well enough to enjoy the fruit of our labor, and to help others if they are in need.

We also seek liberty from evil: no brutal government should be able to persecute us for the group we belong to, or crush us with extreme taxation, squelching our efforts for success.

Finally, and vitally important, there is one liberty we can have now.  We just need to claim it.  It’s called Unity.  Just as our Biblical ancestors all could serve G-d together, we can join with those who share our citizenship or our heritage – or both.  We have the liberty to be one with our fellow Americans.  We may agree or disagree politically, but we are one nation.  Also we have the liberty to be one with our fellow Jews, those who share our American liberty, those in danger in Europe, or defending Israel, or isolated in other continents.  We are one.  Unity brings strength.

Let’s proclaim liberty.  Now.

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SPECIAL DAY – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

SPECIAL DAY – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

“No, not today.  Today is a special day in our family, it’s the anniversary of ….“  How many times did you hear that?  Family histories give us various kinds of annual occasions.  Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, graduations, dates of military enlistment or discharge, the day you moved into your new house…   Each of us might come up with many more special days.  Some recall happy events, others bring a well worn tear to our eyes.

In Judaism every day is special, as we repeat in daily prayers:
“ברוך ה׳ יום יום — Bless G-d day by day.” That’s for all of us. Individually we add anniversaries.  

One familiar special day in Jewish families is the Yortzite – the anniversary of death of a parent or other family member.  Like other days on the Hebrew calendar, the Yortzite begins on the evening before.  So this year I’ll be trying to honor my mother’s memory on the last night of April and the first day of May, a Shabat.  My mother, Irma Cohon, was blessed with a long life and she succeeded in influencing people of all ages along the way.  

Just 30 years ago she left us, at the age of a little over 100.  Her century mark came in September of 1990.  Born in Portland, Oregon, the first of seven children of the Reinhart family, her given name was Angie Irma, but she was always called Irma, and she discouraged the use of her first name by always signing with an initial.  She told me that some of her classmates liked to follow her home from school chanting “A. Irma Reinhart, B. Irma Reinhart, C. Irma Reinhart – that’s all!”  I’m sure she never let them bother her.

At age 18 she graduated high school and got her first job, teaching in a one-room country schoolhouse in the Oregon mountains.  The farmers who sent their children to that school held a meeting to welcome their new teacher, and they warned her: “Now schoolmarm, if they don’t behave, you know what to do.  Lick ‘em, schoolmarm, lick ‘em!”  Luckily for the kids, she had better ideas.  Not that the mountain students were easy to deal with.  After all, she was not only the first Jewish girl they ever met, she was the first city girl they ever met.  But somehow she found a way to teach them all. Multiple classes, pupils age 5-16 (though some left school at 14 to help on the farm), some from illiterate households.

She developed her talent there, and put it to work in several other situations, long after her year in the mountains.

When she returned from that year in the mountains at age 19, she resumed her own education, including some serious Jewish study.  In that effort, she got some practical help from a tutor.  Just two years older than herself, but far ahead of her in traditional knowledge, this tutor was an advanced student with a Russian accent.  In fact he came out of a prominent Yeshiva in Minsk, and his name was Samuel.  They were drawn to each other.  In 1912 Samuel was ordained, and went to Portland where Irma became his wife. His Rebbetzin.  Still an expert teacher, she served with my father in Springfield, Ohio, and then for some ten years in Chicago, running his congregational schools – and lending her personal wisdom to many adult members.  When I came along, my mother didn’t quit teaching.  She home-schooled me, at a time when that involved a special permission by the Board of Education.  I probably wasn’t her best student but I thank G-d for her loving instruction.

Irma Cohon’s memory is truly a blessing. Next Shabos I give special thanks for her.


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You had a Question?          By Rabbi Baruch Cohon

You had a Question?          By Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Many doctrines don’t want to be challenged.  Whether religious, political or psychological, their protagonists fully expect to proclaim these doctrines – to teach them – without ever having to defend them.

A reminiscence of my father’s illustrates that fact on a quite elementary level. In his youth in Czarist Russia, my father of blessed memory learned Torah in a Yeshiva.  When an idea in the lesson challenged him, he asked the teacher about it.  The teacher, thoroughly grounded in tradition, had a habit of answering with a quick reprimand: Sheygetz, freg keyn kashes nit! – “Little Gentile, don’t ask questions!”  Developing into a rabbi and teacher of rabbis in the United States, the former yeshiva boy welcomed questions, from his students and from the lay people he led.

Indeed he impressed on me, and hopefully on many of them, the blessed fact that Judaism draws wisdom – even inspiration – from the research and discussion that a constructive question stimulates.  Just consider the questions raised by scholars in the Talmud.  Find a Biblical quote to answer a question by Hillel – and you can fully expect Shammai to find a corresponding possuk to contradict it!  And maybe the Halacha (the rabbinic ruling) follows still another answer. Debates like these fill many pages of the Gemara text, and explain all kinds of Jewish practice.

No doubt about it.  Questions asked in search of truth have built a way of life that can, and should, motivate us all in a positive, even a sacred, direction.

Ask your way to truth, little Sheygetz!       

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The Freedom Miracle – by Baruch Cohon

The Freedom Miracle – by Baruch Cohon

Every year the festival of Passover reminds us Jews that our ancestors were once slaves in Egypt.  And every year the anniversary of the Emancipation proclamation reminds Black Americans that some of their ancestors were once slaves in the United States.   Many centuries separate the two liberations.  Circumstances were quite different.  Yet a parallel miracle distinguished both events. What were those miracles?

One possible miracle of the Exodus was when the Red Sea was split and the fugitive slaves crossed on dry land.

That’s not the one.

A possible miracle of Emancipation was when Lincoln and the North won the Civil War.  That’s not it either.

The freedom miracle that stands out for me was illustrated dramatically right here in the USA during the movement against Jim Crow laws.  An activist in that cause indicated Martin Luther King and said: “We’ve got our Moses.”

The Divine inspiration that impelled Moshe Rabbeynu – Moses our Teacher – to lead his people to freedom at the Red Sea and to accept their Constitution at Mount Sinai was the same miracle as the one that motivated Dr. King.  That is the freedom miracle.  It implies responsibility.

We have enemies, now just like in Moses’ time.  Human beings can be right and good, or wrong and evil, at any time.  Yesterday they shook our hands.  Tomorrow they might stab us in the back.  How do we defeat them?  Can we ever expect a new miracle?  Maybe we can.

By working with our positive neighbors, we can seek the freedom miracle now, just as our ancestors sought it in their day.  Just by reaching for a hint of that Divine inspiration,  we can still hope to improve the world and find future blessing.  You are not Moses and neither am I.  Not Dr. King either.  But we can learn from them and never give up on the freedom miracle.

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