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CLEAN OR CONTAMINATED – Sh’mini – Lev. 9—11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Our Torah reading this week brings us both drama and detail. After we
learn about the public pageant of dedicating the Tabernacle, and the
tragic death of Aaron’s two oldest sons, we then proceed to review all
the dietary laws, the Biblical basis of what constitutes Kosher food.
Here in Chapter 11 the Torah sets standards of acceptability for game
animals, cattle, sheep, goats, birds, fish and insects. In order to
qualify as food for Israelites, an animal, whether wild or domestic,
must have cloven hooves and must chew the cud. Those who show both of
these requirements are ta-hor – clean – and if slaughtered properly
they may be eaten. If they have only one of the requirements, — the
cloven hoof but not the cud chewing, or vice versa, they are rejected
as ta-mey – contaminated. Not only should they not be eaten, but
their carcasses should not be touched, otherwise the Israelite who
touches them is contaminated too. Those rejected include camels and
rabbits, and of course pigs.
Specific requirements for ocean-going prey are just as basic. Fish
must have both fins and scales. Any water-borne creature that lacks
one or both of these features is classified as ta-mey.
Here we will also read about contaminated birds and rodents and
reptiles that are not to be eaten. Insects we might expect to be on
the contaminated list, and many of them are. But the Torah permits
eating some insects that have 4 legs and knees that bend, one familiar
example being the grasshopper. It was several centuries later that
the rabbis removed grasshoppers from the menu, since most people were
not able to distinguish properly between different insect species.
The detailed standards laid out in this week’s Sedrah stimulated
volumes of discussion. Whole tractates of the Talmud define and
debate how those standards should be applied. As we review them this
week, we need to witness how our ancestors implemented the principle
of personal purity. How they undertook to be clean, and not
Our Torah reading implies that physical cleanliness leads to spiritual
purity. As we are reminded by our commentators, we therefore wash
our hands before pronouncing the blessing over bread to start our
dinner. Interestingly enough, the b’rakha we recite makes no mention
of our spiritual condition. It merely expresses our gratitude for a
Divinely created nature that “brings forth bread from the earth –
hamotzi lekhem min ha-aretz.” But stuffing your face without
acknowledging the source of life can work to contaminate your spirit.
The very last sentence of this week’s reading names its purpose:
L’havdil – “to make a difference between the clean and the
contaminated.” Making that difference in the food we eat can
stimulate a distinction in how we live our lives.
Hallevye omeyn – So may it be.
DO WE EXPECT HIM? — An end-of-Pesach message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Opening the door for Elijah was a highlight of our Seder evening, an experience we treasured ever since childhood. That full goblet waited for the prophet, and we couldn’t see him, but somehow the level of the wine seemed to drop. Just a little, didn’t it?
Eliyahu hanavi, we sang happily. We dramatized the tradition that told us he was here to announce that the Messiah, son of David, was coming.
Now we enter the closing days of Passover, when that same tradition predicts that when the long-awaited deliverer does arrive, it will be on one of these days.
And what will happen then? One old Yiddish l song gives some exciting answers. In a rollicking melody, it goes like this:
When the Moshiakh comes, do you know what will be? Ai, yai, yai
All those who hate us will sink into the ground, How can we last till then?
All our dead will rise at once and stand!
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah will do a dance.
How can we last till then?
But we, but we, we will dance like bears, like never heard of before,
With the Rebbe’s power we will dance on high,
And the Rebbetzin herself will do a little dance, (singing)
Yakh chidi-bidi-bidi- bim bom bom
Then it will be a lively world,
Life will be like new!
No need of money, for you or for me —
Everything will come to us for free!
Granted, most of the people who sang that song were Workmen’s Circle Socialists making fun of the whole Messianic idea. But the idea itself, the Messianic dream if you will, started l many centuries ago and became a powerful influence in the religious thought of Judaism first, and later of other cultures as well. One familiar statement, quoted from more than one sage, holds that the Messiah will come to a generation that is either all superbly righteous or abysmally evil. Since righteousness is so rare, many opinions are expressed in the Talmud about how long and how severely evil oppressors will rule in order for the redeemer to arrive.
The Jerusalem Talmud in the tractate Sanhedrin presents rabbinic teachings about the week when the Son of David will arrive, and what disaster will take place each day of that week. Deluge, earthquake, etc. Nature, too, will do its worst to bring the Messiah.
In one of his books, “Judaism a Way of Life,” my father of blessed memory explores the idea of suffering in this connection: “The
tribulations of the Jewish people in the centuries following the fall of Jerusalem gave special prominence to suffering as a means of
expiating the guilt of the people preparatory to the advent of the Messiah. Accordingly, Rabbi Nehemiah considered suffering a more
effective means of atonement than sacrifice.” Clearly, we need to make up somehow for our misdeeds in order to bring the redeemer. It
is we, the Jews, who are responsible to bring him.
Since this is the season when we can hope to see the Son of David arrive, we will read Haftorot, prophetic messages, to prepare us for his presence. Particularly effective is the passage from Second Samuel that we will read on Friday, the Seventh Day of Passover. It
is David’s song that he sang when G-d rescued him from his enemies, including King Saul. This song also forms the Haftorah on the Shabat when Moses’ song, “Haazinu” will be read from the Torah, celebrating the successful Exodus. One classic commentator, the Tzemah Tzedek, was asked why David’s song is read on the Seventh day of Pesach, rather than the Song of Deborah, since the women rejoiced more than the men when the Red Sea split. He answered: “The Haftorah is the Song of David because on the final days of Pesach there is a revelation of Moshiach, who is a descendant of David. Thus, it is to honor Moshiach that we recite the Song of David.”
Over the centuries, Jewish thinkers who expected the Moshiach taught us that he would deal with the real world. What he would do, that no one else could do, would be to cure this planet of its trouble, its corruption and its wars.
As we experience gigantic evils, from the Holocaust in Europe to jihadi terror in the Middle East to mass killings in America, we can well hope for a heavenly deliverer. Do we expect him? Some of us do. Many of us don’t. Those of our Christian neighbors who believe that a Messiah did arrive once, now pray for a second coming. Certainly the “first coming” failed to cure humanity.
Maybe we all need to reconsider our ideas and the subject of our prayers. A long-ago lesson lives in my mind, from the day when I had
to discuss the idea of Moshiach with a Hebrew school class. It was a 12-year-old boy who said: “I think the Moshiach is all of us.”
Potentially, yes. Working together, we can turn evil to good, starvation to plenty, war to peace.
Let’s let his concept inspire our action.
PROPHETS OF HOPE AND WISDOM – Tzav/Shabat hagadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s Torah portion, like most of the readings in Leviticus,
details ancient ceremonial sacrifices. Every congregation will be
able to review the sacrificial process at the initiation of Aaron and
his sons into the priesthood in the Tabernacle. When that reading
concludes, and the Haftorah follows it, however, not all synagogue
attendees will hear the same message.
Chabad, and other Hassidic communities, will read Jeremiah’s stern
pronouncement against leaders who violate G-d’s commandments, and he
predicts dire results for them and those who follow them.
Many, if not most, congregations – the non-Hassidic ones — will read
a special pre-Passover message from Malachi, declaring that the people
have a chance for their hopes to be fulfilled – including the arrival
of Eliyohu haNovi – Elijah the prophet, whose wine cup graces our
Seder table. All this in observance of the “great Sabbath” (Shabat
hagadol) that anticipates our festival of freedom.
Why the difference? Very simple, really. Hassidic tradition is far
from being negative. It simply limits Shabat hagadol to those years
when this Sabbath coincides with Erev Pesach. Predict Elijah’s
arrival in the morning, and expect him that night. Other sacred
traditions seem to acknowledge that we anticipate Passover for many
days, not just one.
What distinguishes both of these Haftorah choices is the literary
structure the prophets used in communicating their messages.
Jeremiah starts by denouncing the leaders for stressing the offering
of sacrifices while they commit heinous sins in the name of the
Almighty – even to the extreme of sacrificing their own children. He
predicts Divine punishment for them, and destruction for those who
follow them, even indicating special guilt of the evil royal family –
“hamishpakhah hara-ah hazot!” And he leads into one of the prime
sermons of all time:
Thus says the L-rd: Let not the wise man glory in his brain; let notthe strong man glory in his brawn;Let not the rich man glory in his gain;Let anyone who glories, glory in the good sense to know Me, who makeskindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for those are what Idesire, says G-d.
Certainly a powerful message for any Sabbath. Weekdays too. Jeremiah
could stir his people, and his words still ring.
Now what about Malachi and the Shabat hagadol sermon? Malachi in fact
stresses Divine patience. We do wrong, yet we get another chance, and
another and another. He urges us to distinguish between tzadik and
rasha – between those who do right and those who do evil. After
predicting that a great fire will destroy the criminals, he recalls
Moses and the Torah and the laws and judgments commanded to all
Israel. Although Malachi does not mention the Exodus itself, the
rabbis who scheduled this reading clearly connected that event with
the trip to Sinai – here called Mr. Horeb – and our historical
acceptance of those laws and judgments. And he climaxes his message
with the famous promise:
Here I send you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and wonderful Day of G-d arrives. And he will return the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents. Lest I come and strike chaos on all the Earth.
After which we symbolically repeat: Here I send you Elijah the Prophet…
So on this Shabat Tzav, whichever Haftorah you listen to, you have
great words to hear. Words of hope and words of wisdom. And a
beautiful cup – Elijah’s cup — to sanctify your Seder table.
NISAN, MONTH OF FREEDOM – Vayikra 5778 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
On this coming Shabat morning, every traditional congregation will
bring out not one but three Torah scrolls. Truly a rare occasion.
This week we will begin reading the Book of Leviticus, with all its
detailed descriptions of sacrificial worship. That’s one scroll. We
will also be marking Rosh Chodesh — the first day of a new month with
its accompanying reading in another scroll. And we will observe the
“Sabbath of THE Month” – Shabat haChodesh—by reading from scroll #3
the special section added for this occasion, Exodus 12:1-20, a
particularly significant passage for a few reasons.
First, this section sets up the order of the Jewish calendar which we
still follow. “This month for you is the head of the months, the
first of the months of the year.” This month’s name is Nisan and we
will welcome its arrival this Shabat. Even though we count our years
as beginning in the fall, we start naming our months in spring, from
Second, this section alerts us to prepare for Passover, the holiday of
freedom. It recalls the physical and spiritual drama that our
ancestors experienced when leaving Egyptian slavery.
Third, this section instructs us in the process of perpetuating the
Exodus celebration in the present and the future.
Personally, I also find special significance in this section that a
son of mine chanted at his Bar Mitzvah.
Initially this section concerns the special sacrifice – the Paschal
lamb. “Take one lamb for each household. And if the household is too
small to consume the lamb [in one evening], join with your neighbor
[and share a lamb]…each according to what that person can eat.” We
might note that the Torah sets no minimum or maximum on individual
appetites. It’s neither “hold back!” nor “ess, ess, mine kind.”
Rashi quotes the Mechilta explaining that the ill, the infants and the
aged family members who cannot eat even as much as an olive (the
minimum size portion) cannot be counted when dividing the lamb’s meat.
When slaughtering the lamb, they were commanded to take some of its
blood and put it on the lintel and the doorposts of their house, to
alert the destroying angel that this was the home of Israelites. That
blood proclaimed that this was not an Egyptian house that was to be
visited with the fearful Tenth Plague – the death of the firstborn.
Some commentators develop a teaching about that blood. Later in the
chapter comes the commandment: “No uncircumcised male may eat of it.”
Since many Israelite slaves were not circumcised, that meant they
would have to have a quick Bris in order to partake of the Paschal
Lamb. And their blood could be combined with the lamb’s blood to form
the signal on the doorpost. Human and animal bloods join to herald
We continue to read the detailed rules of how to cook the lamb (or
goat, by the way, either was acceptable): roast it whole, don’t boil
it or eat any of it raw, and combine it with Matzoh and bitter herbs.
(All those processes we still follow at our Seder meals.) Also what
to wear at that feast? Travelling clothes – tie your belt, put your
shoes on, and keep your walking stick in your hand – because you must
be ready to go.
Indeed our people found themselves in that double situation many times
throughout history – celebrating the heritage, and ready to go.
Indeed many of us still do. What will empower Pesach for endangered
Jews this year – in France or Syria or Ukraine or Iran – should be the
hope that their desperate travel will take them to freedom.
Keyn y’hi ratzon – may this be G-d’s will.
A DO-IT-YOURSELF SHRINE – Sedrot Vayak’hel & Pikudey Ex.35-40 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This is a special week in the cycle of the Jewish year. All right, so every week is special. So what’s so special this week?
For one thing, this Saturday will be Shabat M’vorkhim – the Sabbath when we bless the month of Nisan, the month of freedom, which begins in just one more week. We look forward to the month that includes Passover and celebrates Israel’s freedom from Egyptian slavery. Also we will have a double Torah reading, to complete the Book of Exodus which tells the story of that liberation and of Israel’s hard won nationhood. As at the end of every book of the Torah, we will repeat the call: Khazak khazak v’nit-khazek – Be strong, be strong and let’s strengthen each other!
An added special reading distinguishes this week as Shabat Parah, literally “the Sabbath of the cow.” What’s that about? It identifies an additional reading which describes a particularly mysterious ceremony. Ritual purity is a condition that our Torah requires of every Jew. Normal living can preserve that condition, but tum’ah – contamination – can result from unplanned events, like contact with a snake, or touching a dead body. How to remove this contamination? The additional reading for this week tells us about the ceremony of the Red Heifer, where this select breed of cattle was slaughtered and burned to ashes, while cedar branches and hyssop and scarlet were thrown on the fire. Then the aromatic ashes were soaked in fresh water and the elders sprinkled the wet ashes on the contaminated Jew. What makes this strange ceremony particularly mystifying is the ruling that says the elders who do the sprinkling become contaminated! So the net result is that this process “purifies the contaminated, and contaminates the pure.”
The Hertz commentary draws a parallel between this physical impurity and the effect on the personality of those “who help others to self-sacrifice and holiness, and not infrequently themselves become hard and self-centered.”
Maimonides notes that tradition calls for the repetition of this reading on the Sabbath just before the special reading for next week, Hakhodesh hazeh lakhem rosh khadashim – “This month shall be the beginning of months for you”, announcing the Jewish people’s redemption and freedom. So the themes of purity and redemption are linked. In the special Haftorah for this week, the prophet Ezekiel reminds his people of their bloodshed and idolatry that defiled the Land of Israel and led to their exile. Then he predicts their redemption and return. Other nations will see what with G-d’s help the returnees will do to their country, and they will say: “This desolate land has become like the Garden of Eden!”
Today’s returnees can rightly boast of scientific redemption. What they might need to do is acknowledge some Divine inspiration. This week’s regular reading calls on us to honor the spiritual “purification” that brought us out of ancient trials, from slavery and suffering to an independent homeland.
In these, its last chapters, the book of Exodus describes a real artistic explosion, as all the talents of these ex-slaves get mobilized to build the first Jewish house of prayer, the Tabernacle in the desert. First Moses calls on one man he knows can design and build such a portable structure, Betzalel of the tribe of Judah. Besides being a skilled craftsman who understands construction using precious metals, wood, stone and cloth, Betzalel and his assistant, Oholiav of the tribe of Dan, have a talent for teaching. So they can guide others to execute what they design.
Then Moses calls for contributions. Pass the word through the camp that everyone should bring whatever they can donate of those construction materials, plus oil for the lamps, to prepare for this sacred task. And he reminds them that no work, even for this holy purpose, is to be done on the Sabbath.
So we find out that people responded with spirit and ability – an ability that is called khokhmat lev – “the wisdom of the heart.” Men carved, women sewed. The princes among them brought gems for the high priest’s vestments. Organized under Betzalel’s leadership, the contributions poured in.
In fact, they got more than they needed. Moses had to send cryers through the camp, proclaiming: “Let no man or woman do any more work on the holy offerings.” Rabbis and synagogue presidents always shake their heads over that line. One time in history a building campaign was oversubscribed!
Really, why could they do it? Why can’t we? The Torah goes into great detail about all that Betzalel and his men did with the contributions for the Tabernacle. All the beautiful furnishings they built, the ark and the altars and the ten curtains with the poles that held them as this portable shrine got carried through the desert – all constructed from the donations of common people.
Maybe there is a message in that experience that makes this reading even more special. They could oversubscribe because they were doing it themselves. This was not Betzalel’s tabernacle. Not even Moses’ tabernacle. This was ours. This belonged to the entire community. Maybe we can still accomplish such an outpouring of shared work. All we need is a little khokhmat lev. Just some “wisdom of the heart.”