Three Grim Weeks by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

THREE GRIM WEEKS

This year it starts on Thursday July 9th and concludes on Thursday July 30th.  On both of those days, observant Jews fast.  And between those days tradition calls for abstinence from celebrations.  Why?  Because those days on history’s calendar saw destruction and misfortune strike the otherwise “Chosen People.”

The first day, 17th in the month of Tammuz, recalls the Biblical story of Moses breaking the Tablets of the Torah when he saw his people at the foot of the mountain worshiping the Golden Calf.  Centuries later, on the same day of the same month Roman invaders broke the walls of Jerusalem, and an invading general burned a Torah scroll and set up an idol to desecrate the Temple. 

Starting on the first day of the month of Av (called in Hebrew M’nakhem Av — “Comforting Father”) mourning practices are increased. No weddings, no listening to music, no laundering clothes, no planting of trees or flowers, etc.  All culminating in the Fast Day of Tish’a b’Av – the 9th day of the month of Av, a full day of mourning on the anniversary of the destruction of both the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE.  It was on this day of this month that Jews were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition.  On this day of this month all Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were transported to their death at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.  Remembering events like those, today’s Jews have every reason to mourn.  In the synagogue we can hear the sad chant of the Book of Lamentations – Eykha – as the prophet wails: “How does the city stand deserted that once was home to a populous nation?” 

Right there could very well be the clue to what one contemporary commentator called Tish’a b’Av: “a Guide to Jewish Survival.”  With our famous stubborn nature and some Divine help, our people survived the multiple destructions we recall during these 3 Weeks, to achieve both group and individual success in many parts of the world, quite remarkably in the reestablished homeland.

Yes, there are good reasons to mourn our past tragedies during these 3 weeks.  And equally good motivation to learn from them and build future delights.      

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HANG OUT THE FLAG by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HANG OUT THE FLAG

Whatever day of the week it is, July 4th is American Independence Day.  We all know that.  Past years’ celebrations have featured fireworks, military parades and lots of public figures making pompous political pronouncements.  What will July 4th, 2020 be like?

Among other conditions, the 4th occurs on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.  So if you are observant, should you show the flag? 

2020 is a year of racial and political unrest.  If you pulled down a statue of Washington or Jefferson, do you want to show the flag?

With your neighbors on lockdown, stores and restaurants closed and your city terrified of Covid-19, will anyone see your flag if you do show it?

Think a minute.  What does that flag mean anyway? Being so familiar, it could be taken for granted.  The three classic colors, for example: red, white and blue.  Fiery red for courage, pure white for truth, solid blue for justice – even-handed justice to all the 50 stars on that blue sky and to all those who live there. Do those colors truly symbolize our country’s qualities in 2020?  The 13 bright stripes still represent the original colonies that declared independence and defeated the most powerful of empires to achieve it. Can you relate to that struggle of 244 years ago? And those 50 tiny stars.  Which star is for your home state?

Does any of this mean anything to you?

Fellow citizen, it does.  Whether or not you realize it and admit it, that 3-colored piece of cloth is our message, yours and mine.  For all the many different backgrounds we bring with us, for all the competing causes we value, for all of our contrasting appearances and occupations and philosophies, we have a common message: Accept my freedom.  I treasure that freedom and I will keep it because I make my home in the United States of America.

If I must face danger, my courage has to be as blood-red as those stripes.  If my honesty is challenged, I hope to reach the level of colorless white.  And if a business or family problem tests my standards, even risking personal loss, let justice prevail.

It’s worth bearing witness this 4th of July.  Hang out a flag.

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WHAT’S YOUR GROUP ID? by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

WHAT’S YOUR GROUP ID?

Amid the conflicting charges we hear and see daily, pro and con about groups like Black Lives Matter, some writers accuse them of anti-American policies while others would write off the Founding Fathers as slave owners.  Taking down statues and revising history will not solve today’s social dilemma.

We in the Jewish community find some of our representative organizations sincerely committing themselves to join in accusing American law enforcement of deliberate crime, and promising to help our Black fellow citizens by backing Black Lives Matter.  Other Jewish spokesmen write of BLM’s alleged dependence on subsidies from anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sources like Farrakhan’s “Nation of Islam.” We all witnessed vandalism of synagogues and Jewish businesses during the recent protest marches. 

Is there any solution to these vexing conditions?

Maybe we could take a basic approach to solving them.  As citizens of this great country, most of us, if not all, belong to one group or another.  Every group has an identity.  How we analyze our group identity, individually as well as organizationally, can have a vital effect on how we all get along.  For example, are you an American Black or a Black American?  Am I a Jewish American or an American Jew?  Which describes our loyalties more accurately, the noun or the adjective?

Whichever word best describes your group identity, what might that be?  Maybe it is your family’s geographic origin.  Your group could be Nordic, Slavic, Latino, Asiatic, African or a Native American tribe.  Maybe your group is religious, so if it is Christian you could be Catholic, Mormon, Quaker, Evangelical, Seventh Day Adventist – or you could belong to other religions whether Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim – or maybe your group is Secular or Atheist. 

The important question is still the same.  Is your group identity primary?  Is it indeed the noun that defines the basic You?  Or is it the adjective?  Is your U.S. identity more important?  Is “American” the real You?  Or is that just your address?

Recent marches and riots illustrate the vital necessity for each of us to answer this question.  It’s not just coronavirus that threatens our country.  It is also a widespread and risky division among us.  Let’s take a deep breath, move away from political extremes, and look at our planet.  Where else would we find a comparable place to live, work and build families in freedom?  The noun is it, friends.  Whatever heritage or doctrine colors our lives, we are Americans.  Born here or naturalized, or even recent arrivals – not yet citizens but committed to making this country our home — we are Americans.  If we have any sense, we will work together for a better and better future.

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THE LATEST STYLE by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

THE LATEST STYLE

One result of current travel restrictions is spending more time watching television.  Interesting experience, isn’t it?  Among the changes we see, from baseball games that are historical instead of newsworthy, to old films remade by 21st century standards, we can find many new styles.  Watching them, you may find some of those new styles questionable. I did.

American movies that attracted 20th century audiences were frequently action-adventure stories or glamourized bios, and generally featured three C’s — cuties, cowboys, or comedians.  Dialogue was sometimes clever, always censored. 

Not now.  Remakes of some well-known films exhibit a definite change of style.  New releases tend to feature three V’s — vice, violence and vulgarity.  Past standards of story content and acceptable wording are replaced with principal characters whose immorality is totally acceptable.  And four-letter words never heard on screen before invade every character’s dialogue.

Is this how we view our life today?  We know all that stuff existed 50 years ago and exists equally now, but should we glorify it on screen?  That’s the new style, friends.  We need to consider how it can influence our children

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CHECK IT OUT Sh’lakh l’kha – Numbers 13-15 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

CHECK IT OUT Sh’lakh l’kha – Numbers 13-15

 

You get a call from your friend, or an employee, or a member of your family, advising you of an opportunity. A home for sale in a neighborhood you like. You are interested. So you suggest: check it out.

Depending on how that person goes about checking out the prospective purchase, you may or may not want to make an offer on it. For example, here’s one kind of report:

The house looks solid enough. Roomy, too. It has a big yard
with fruit trees. In fact, we picked a couple of lemons and this
avocado — not bad, eh? Can’t get in to see the inside because

the agent demands an accepted offer first. It’s been painted
recently, so the price is very firm. Questionable neighborhood.
Right down the street we saw some grafitti. Kids

wearing their hats backwards. May be gang infested.

And here’s another:

Got talking with the lady next door. Found out the owner is
very anxious to sell. Open to any offer. Just modernized the
kitchen and redecorated, and then got transferred to the east

coast. So he has no cash on hand to put down on a home there.
Anyone with a large down payment can write their own ticket.
Neighborhood Watch is very effective; no major problems.

Are these two people talking about the same house? Sure they are. Just as the two groups of spies we can read about in this Torah portion, and in its Haftorah, the corresponding prophetic reading in the book of Joshua. They were both talking about the same country.  An important difference is how they “checked it out.”

The 12 spies Moses sends out are princes.  Executives.  Commissioned officers.  They follow accepted procedures – sample the fruit, assess the strength of the fortifications, take note of the appearance of the local population.  If they only had video, maybe they could bring back picture and sound to back up their report of 50-foot-high walls and men of giant size.  By a vote of 10 to 2, they convince the people that Canaan can’t be conquered.

The 2 spies Joshua sends are different. One is 80-year-old Caleb – the only other surviving member of the original checker-outers and one of the dissenting minority (Joshua himself being the other dissenter). The second spy is a youth of 18. One chosen for courage, the other for wisdom. They don’t take notes and they don’t bring samples. They spend the night with Rahab, whom the Talmud identifies as one of the four most beautiful women in history. Her occupation is innkeeper, providing accommodations to travelers. From the Hebrew word zonah we gather that she provides other comforts too.

Either way, she has ample opportunity to gauge the spirit of the population. She trades her inside information for a guarantee of safety, and the two spies return with a message: Piece of cake. Chances are, neither report is 100% accurate. But the contrast is phenomenal. The negative report here brings on 40 years in the desert. The positive report in the Book of Joshua empowers the people. They proceed to take over Jericho in a week.

How do we go about checking out our opportunities? Do we suffocate them by overanalyzing the difficulties? And does that make them look insurmountable?

Am I too old to learn to use a computer? After all, I’m not even a good typist, and computer science is as foreign to me as Swahili. I don’t have money to spend on computer software that can become obsolete in half an hour — let alone all the furniture that goes under the equipment! I’d better stay in the lead pencil desert for another 40 years.

Do I have the discipline to change my health habits? After all, those exercise machines are really no better than a good walk around the block, are they? Didn’t you hear about the fellow that lost big pounds and built up his muscles – and died anyway? I don’t trust these diets either. I’d better stay in the Aspirin and Alka-Seltzer desert for another 40 years. 

Can I really patch things up with my sister? So much time went by. She’ll consider me stupid for trying. Whatever happened between us isn’t even the issue any more. We just have different lives now. We build 50-foot walls between us. Our antagonism is too gigantic. Better stay in the breygez (angry) desert for another 40 years.

Let’s take another look. Check it out again. Maybe we can turn part of our future around. Take a message from your friendly “innkeeper:” A computer is just a tool, and a few simple functions of it can make your life easier and more interesting. The first cream puff you forego, and the first stationary bike ride you take, can be the first step to feeling better. And as for your sister, maybe you and she can both conclude that time wounds all heels. Take the first step.

Like Joshua at Jericho, blow the shofar loud enough and the walls come tumbling down.



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