NOAH WHERE ARE YOU?  — Sedrah Noach –Gen. 6 – 11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

NOAH WHERE ARE YOU?  — Sedrah Noach —Gen. 6 – 11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

“The end of all flesh is come before Me.”  That is the Divine message Noah hears when he gets his mission to build an ark and save a future for selected living creatures. Severe climate change is coming. Why?  Because Earth’s population is bringing it on.  Evil is not limited to burning fossil fuel.  Evil is so rampant as to condemn all who roam the planet to a tragic death.  So someone needs to build an ark.  This week’s reading bears the name of the builder of that ark, our friend Noah.  He had to go way beyond finding different energy sources.  He had to prepare for a worldwide deluge that would destroy all life on Earth.  Only a gigantic lifeboat would do the job.  A teyva – an ark.

The lower decks of the ark will hold seven pairs of each of the “clean animals,” those suitable to offer on the altar.  Also a pair of each of the unclean animals who had no such qualifications.  But apparently neither the clean nor the unclean were responsible for the evil that would soon be punished in the Flood.  What about the humans on the top deck?   Only Noah and his family will be saved.  Noah was a “righteous and perfect man in his generation.”  His wife and sons and daughters-in-law learned enough of his ways to merit a place on the ark.  Everyone else will be drowned.

What was this evil that brought on universal destruction? Commentators like the Kli Yokor name three areas of human misconduct: idolatry, adultery and robbery.  Put them in modern terms.  Idolatry takes many forms.  Denying G-d and worshipping false deities, false values, or vanity itself – those negative choices characterized the generation of the Flood, and somehow didn’t get washed away.  Adultery, called gilui arroyos in Hebrew (literally “exposing nakedness”) gets expanded and remodeled in every generation, from infidelity to promiscuity to perversion, and curses and destroys social structures worldwide. And when it comes to robbery, that can be a streetcorner holdup or a mockery of justice.  In fact, the Kli Yokor cites examples of officials who sell favors for a minimum price, not enough to draw punishment for each case, but enough cases to build a pattern — and a fortune.  We call it corruption.

Do we have enough corruption in our world now to bring on the “end of all flesh?”  Maybe we need another Noah.  Maybe this time an ark will not be enough to rescue human and animal life.  We surely seem to have our up-to-date versions of the Kli Yokor’s three prime offenses.

Isn’t Islamist terrorism a violent distortion of their faith, and therefore an extreme form of idolatry?

Doesn’t the step-by-step destruction of the family – basic unit of every society – through official support of invalid matings, illegitimate offspring and same-sex unions qualify as adultery?

And as for robbery, the ancients were pikers.  Today, between excessive taxes and gouging prices, governments and corporations compete to milk our populations dry.

No, a supersized lifeboat won’t do.  Our Noah needs to build a moral and political ark, one that can navigate through the corruption and raise us above it, an ark that can rouse the people to change our direction, defeat our enemies and rescue our future.

Noah, where are you?

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DOCTRINE AND DISPUTE – B’reisheet – Genesis – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

DOCTRINE AND DISPUTE – B’reisheet – Genesis – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

What did Charles Darwin discover? The doctrine of evolution; everyone knows that. And who am I to dispute with him? Many educated modern people will tell me that the universe we live in was not created in a week. It evolved over eons of time. And they are probably right.

Do I therefore discard the Biblical account of the origins of our reality? Do I reject it as fiction?

To no one’s surprise, my answer is No. I accept the Divine origin of the universe and of life itself.

Does that mean that I reject Darwin’s theory of evolution as fiction?

Here’s the surprise. My answer to that is also No. I respect scientific evidence of evolution. Dinosaurs evolved into birds. Cavemen evolved into – well, something more familiar if not superior… And it all took many many centuries.

So what about the story we read in this week’s Torah portion, the opening lines of the Bible: “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth?” What about the account of darkness, then light, then “evening and morning, one day?” Did the planets materialize as they are now, in nearly the time it takes to tell it? One day? When the Hebrew calendar counts this as the year 5779 since Creation, can we moderns accept that number?

All right, let’s explore the dispute. To begin with, how long is “one day?” We think of it as 24 hours, and we observe it from sunrise to sunrise. When there was no sun, how long was a day? How many eons in human time did the Creator spend producing stars and planets? Taking note of the Biblical order of things, we read first about our own planet: “Earth was chaos, and darkness over depth. The spirit of G-d hovered on the face of the water.” Never mind the printed translations. They can be misleading. The message is simple: Creation precedes Evolution.

But evolution happens. It happens in Genesis, in the same order as in Darwin. Believe it or not. Life starts with vegetation, grass, herbs, trees. Next comes life in the water, from tiny fish to seagoing giants, presumably leading to amphibians. Followed by land animals, first birds and insects and reptiles (dinosaurs maybe?) then wild beasts. And finally on the 6th “day” humans arrive, endowed, says our Torah, with the Divine image. It’s all right there in Chapter 1. Humans, male and female, are given power to dominate the other creatures.

Granted, Genesis does not go into what ancient human beings looked like or how they acted. No Neanderthals here. At this point, evolutionists tend to concentrate on the physical while creationists stress the spiritual elements in human history.

After those six super-days of Creation comes the Sabbath. Opening Chapter 2 is the Divine blessing on the 7th day, because “G-d rested” from the work of Creation. A new question: did the Creator put His image in us or are we putting our image on Him? Does G-d get tired and need a rest? No, says the Talmud. But the “Torah speaks in the language of people.” An achievement like Universal Creation calls for a Divine day of rest, just as surely as a week of tending crops, building homes, caring for children – or even writing blogs — calls for a human Sabbath. If you are observing the Jewish Sabbath this week, you will hear the Creation story. Again. Yes, we read it last year. And no, it didn’t change. But we did. These are not the eyes that read it before, or the ears that heard it. Maybe we can take a new look at this account of the birth of our universe and the beginning of its evolution. Maybe we can realize that they go together.

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A HOLY CONTRAST – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A HOLY CONTRAST – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

All of us who go through the various observances of the fall season are experiencing contrasting emotions.  Depending on the style of your congregation’s services, the emotions could be anywhere from calm to violent.  But the contrast is there.

Start with Rosh Hashanah, a time to spread friendly good wishes and offer some serious prayers for ourselves in the year ahead. Of course Rosh Hashanah begins the Ten Days of Return, adding petitions for life to the regular prayers, reminding us to inspect our lives with the purpose of making some positive changes. Those ten days culminate in Yom Kippur, with 25 hours of fasting.  Many of those hours are spent in the synagogue, hearing and repeating ritual confessions of our misdeeds – even those we don’t remember personally doing. As a united people, we share responsibility for communal mistakes, family mistakes, even national mistakes. We hope for the moral strength to turn evil into good.  As the long Day of Atonement begins to wind down, we enter N’ilah, the last of the day’s five services (the only day of the year that has that many) and the text of our prayers gives us confidence that if we were sincere today, if we observed this penitential season properly, then we have forgiven those who wronged us, and we can count on a measure of forgiveness from those we may have hurt, and a sense of release from our own errors, our misdeeds, our violations.

The sounds, the melodies of our Yom Kippur services should support the spiritual progress of that day.  In many congregations they do.  Some musical services tend to be more solemn than others, maintaining that feeling all the way to the last shofar call at the end of Yom Kippur. Other services sing their way from regret and confession to forgiveness and confidence.  This year I spent the Yamim Nora’im in a Chabad shul and felt the power of the community singing support the spiritual progress we were making.  By the end of Yom Kippur, with the rhythm of the “Napoleon march” around the Bema, the feeling of optimism and joy resounded.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe in fact named the day after Yom Kippur a day of joy.  We have every reason to be happy.  The Almighty is accepting us.

Indeed only a few days later comes the Sukkot holiday – this week, in fact.  The third of our three Pilgrim Festivals, Sukkot is thoroughly upbeat.  While Passover is identified as “the time of our freedom,” and Shavuot as “the time of giving us our Torah,” Sukkot is called simply “the time of our joy.”   Check it, it’s right there in the text of the Kiddush.  As we bless the wine at our Yomtov dinner table in the leafy-roofed holiday booth, we repeat the happy nature of this week.

True, we have other happy holidays – like Purim and Hanukkah.  But somehow this week is particularly special.  At the end of Sukkot comes what might be called the happiest day of the year – Simkhat Torah, literally “Rejoicing in the Torah.”  Torah reading goes on all year round and it does not stop. Today we celebrate that practice by starting over: reading the last portion in Deuteronomy and immediately following with the first words in Genesis.  Aliyot –Torah honors – for all who qualify!  A crazy tie or a funny hat is a costume today. And a l’khyim for every Torah honoree if you want one.  Costumes, toasts, and dancing!  As the old Yiddish song goes:

Kinder mir hobm Simkhas Teyre,

Simkhas Teyre di gantze velt

(Children, we have Simchas Torah, all over the world)

Teyre is de beste s’kheyre,

azey hot der rebbe mit unz gekvelt

(Torah is the best business – that’s how the rebbe delighted in us!)

 Oy vey, oyoyoy, freylekh kinder ot a zoy,

Nissim gissen zekh fun de zek, freylekh freylekh on an ek!

(Wonders pour out of the sack, Happy, happy without end!)

Is this the same Jewish community that beat its chests through Al Khet (“For the sin we have sinned”)?  The same people who cried through Kol Nidrey?  Yes it is.  Our holy contrast fulfilled this season.  If our prayers are answered, this holy contrast strengthened our lives.

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LEND ME YOUR EARS – Haazinu – Deut. 32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

LEND ME YOUR EARS – Haazinu – Deut. 32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Our Torah reading this week starts with a call that can easily be translated “Lend me your ears!”  No, this is not Marc Antony haranguing the Romans, and it has nothing to do with burying Caesar.  This is Moses calling Heaven and Earth to attention.

This 41-line poem shows links with the entire subject matter of Torah and indeed it was reportedly sung throughout the year by the Levites in the Sanctuary when they prepared the Sabbath offering.  Two sages of a past century insisted that every Jew should memorize Haazinu with all its melodic cantillations, in preparation to greet the Messiah.   They also held that regular chanting of Hazing would help achieve success in business. That may be open to question, but this much is for sure.  Haazinu is the last song Moses will sing.  It resounds with power and protest and principle.

After the formalities of Rosh Hashanah and the stringency of Yom Kippur, we owe it to ourselves to take a fresh look at this, the last song of Moses.   As we go through the text, well-known lines stand out.

“Give ear, you heavens and I will speak; earth, hear my words!”

“Let my doctrine fall like rain, my speech distill like dew…”

“When I call the Name of the L-rd, give greatness to our G-d!”

And the words that begin every Jewish burial ceremony: HaTzur tamim po’alo –    “The Rock, His way is perfect…”

We sing our protest as did Moses: “Corruption in Him?  No! That defect is in His children, a generation crooked and perverse.”

We face history: “Remember the days of old; consider the years, generation after generation.  Ask your father, he will tell you; your elders will speak to you.”

We sing of Divine guidance of our ancestors: “Like an eagle waking the nest, and hovering over the young…, [G-d] rode him over the heights of Earth and he ate the fruit of the fields…’

Then comes bad news: “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked – fat and thick and gross – and he forsook his Creator, disgraced the Rock of his salvation.”

Moral corruption brings tragic defeats:  “They are a perverse generation, children with no loyalty.  They provoked Me with a non-god, angered Me with their vanities.  I will punish them with a non-nation, with vile aliens will I provoke them.”

Moses names no names here.  He leaves that to us.   What is a non-god?  In those days it was an idol called Baal.  Later, that definition included mythic characters on Mount Olympus, or patron saints.   Or deified humans from Jesus to Mohammed to Buddha to Lenin.  And vanities?  Plenty of those, from Scientology to Political Correctness.   Valid objects of worship for some, perhaps, but not for Israelites.

Divine retribution is predicted through a non-nation. What is a non-nation? Let’s call it a tribe, whether political or ethnic. Like Nazis.  Or Palestinians.

Moses’ prediction of salvation seems more than possible to happen:“Nations, sing aloud of G-d’s people, for He avenged the blood of His servants, Returning vengeance to His enemies, and atoning for the land of His people.”

Today it takes some effort to recall the mid-60’s when it was “in” to be Jewish.  Not only was “Fiddler on the Roof” Broadway’s biggest hit, but the State of Israel was in high favor.  “Look what those Jews endured and look what they built!  What a plucky little country.”  Then came the Six-day War, more admiration for Jewish military success – but it didn’t last long.  Public opinion started turning.  Apparently the world could accept Jews as victims but not as victors.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps we missed something.  Haazinuhas it.  After “Jeshurun got fat and kicked,” the Creator lets the savage results take place:

“From outside, the sword bereaves, and in the chamber is terror… They are a nation void of counsel, they have no understanding… How can one man chase a thousand, or two put ten thousand to flight? Only if their Rock had given them over…”

Eichmann loaded freight cars and sent Jews to Auschwitz, much as Hungarian officials are doing with Syrian refugees today.   Why didn’t we fight back before losing 6 million?   Perhaps we can still learn from Haazinu:

“If only they would become wise, they would understand.                                They would discern the result.”  Lu khokhmu!

The comedian who said “Vy do ve get so soon old and so late shmart?”  got the message.  Violent action in a just cause is not wrong.  Torah wisdom can help us determine the justice of our cause. Let’s “become wise.”

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THE LAST KOL NIDREY by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

THE LAST KOL NIDREY by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This year, as every year, Jews all over the world will gather on Yom Kippur Eve for a type of religious experience that is unique.  Not just unique in Judaism but unique to Judaism.  Three elders will stand facing the congregation.  Each one holds a Torah scroll.  The people stand in silence.  And the Cantor chants a text which is not a prayer.  It is a legal formula.  And yet this chant brings tears to many eyes.  People listen with rapt attention.  In fact, we speak of going to services specifically to “hear Kol Nidrey.”  Not to say it.  To hear it.  And that is its unique quality.

The melody is what we long for, year after year.  With other sung texts, the music accompanies the lyrics.  Kol Nidrey is the opposite.  Here the words are an accompaniment to the melody.  It is the Cantor’s voice that prompts the emotion.

What’s he singing?  It may sound like the epic of Jewish suffering, but it is only a symbolic release from vows.  In fact, throughout history Jewish authorities – including revered Rabbinic scholars – tried to abolish Kol Nidrey in order to avoid the embarrassment it could bring their communities when renegades misused its text against them. “See?  Jews’ commitment is worthless, because on Yom Kippur they cancel it…”  But despite rabbinic concerns, the people wouldn’t give up Kol Nidrey.  They had to hear it.  They still do.  The Hazzonishe moil – literally “the Cantorial mouth” – sends those sounds ringing into the Jewish ear, bringing the sigh to the Jewish mouth, the tear to the Jewish eye.

It is a dramatic moment in our year, a stirring memory in our lives.  And it may soon become a thing of the past.  Without rabbinic prohibition.  Without treacherous misinterpretation.  We may soon hear our last Kol Nidrey.  This year there will already be services where someone will play a recording of Jan Peerce singing Kol Nidrey, because no available live voice is competent to do it. Cantorial art as we know it for the last several generations is in serious decline.

Having spent the greater part of my life as a professional Hazzan, I am not just nostalgic for the “good old days” or for what is called the Golden Age of Cantorial art.  The conditions that produced a Yossele Rosenblatt or a Moshe Kusevitsky are not the conditions of today.  But the conditions that produce some of the less qualified solists who function as cantors now, do not give us a Kol Nidrey experience.  That’s not a complaint.  That’s a fact.  Young people trained in summer camps and music schools may have fine talents, but expressing the spirit of a Jewish community at prayer is not necessarily one of those talents.  You can sing Kol Nidrey to the plunking of a guitar, but why?

The economics of Jewish life being what it is, we have to expect to make sacrifices.  People who do not daven (pray the traditional way) require no traditionally skilled leader.  Except on Erev Yom Kippur.  Therefore there is less and less opportunity for a cantor with traditional skills to find a job.  On the other hand, there is considerable demand for songleaders to work in Jewish schools and camps.  So – music is music.  If Susie can sing camp songs, let her sing Kol Nidrey.

Gresham’s Law thus begins to apply to Jewish Music. Remember that from high school Economics?  Simply paraphrased, it goes like this: the cheap stuff drives the good stuff off the market.

Is there a constructive solution to this problem? Is there a way to provide songs for our children and also a religious musical experience for adults?  As I see it, there is only one solution.  It’s unlikely to happen in any widespread way. But there is no alternative: Basic knowledge.

That’s the magic formula.  Not knowledge for the professionals.  Knowledge for the members.  Vocal music occupies a vital position in Jewish life, from King David to the Levites on the steps of the Sanctuary to today’s Alberto Mizrahi and Shuli Natan – just as instrumental music expresses our emotions from the Shofar to the Klezmer band.  We need to get familiar with it.

What is a Cantor?  A Cantor is defined as Shliakh Tsibur –representative of the community. The Cantor has a duty to represent his people in prayer, to sense their feelings, to stimulate those feelings, and to express them aloud through the text and melody of the prayers. Qualifying for such a task means, first, that the Cantor as Representative must be responsible for the Mitzvos as the constituents.  In traditional Judaism men are responsible for some Mitzvos that women are not, so women are not qualified as cantors in Orthodox synagogues.  Some men are not either.  Not because they are not technically responsible for the Mitzvos, but because they habitually fail to do them.  As famous a voice as Moishe Oysher was once denied the opportunity to officiate for the High Holidays because he was known as an actor who habitually violated the Shabos.

Other Mitzvos get violated too, of course, by the Cantor and the Rabbi and the congregants. That’s why we have Yom Kippur.  But in another Cantorial highspot of the season, the Hin’ni, he prays: “Do not hold them (the congregants) guilty for my errors, and do not make them responsible for my faults.”  To say that prayer and mean it, you need to know what mitzvos you may have violated.  That counts at least as much as the quality of a voice.

Fortunately for our generation, some knowledgeable and qualified leaders are still around to represent our communities in prayer. Most congregations this year will be able to “hear Kol Nidrey.”  And there are cantorial schools and private instructors trying sincerely to train sincere leaders for the future.  And, yes, some of them are women.  Whether they succeed or fail depends largely on you.  You, the Jew in the pew.

A classic old Yiddish comedy song called Hazzonim af Probbe (Cantors at an Audition) satirizes typical 1920’s candidates for a High Holiday position.  The auditioning committee first hears an old shtetl-type Hazzan and rejects him. “That’s not what the public wants.” Then they hear a German Oberkantor, and come to the same conclusion.  They guy who gets the job is the one who sings Yismach Moshe to the tune of “Yes, sir, that’s my baby!”

Less and less is this a satire.  More and more is it an accurate description of our taste level. This year, 5779, will you make it your business to find out what you should require of a ritual representative?

Will you hear another Kol Nidrey?

I hope, deeply and passionately, that you will.  And I wish you and yours a year of health, fulfillment and increased knowledge.

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