JUST DO IT – Khukas – Num. 19-22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

JUST DO IT – Khukas – Num. 19-22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read a section that starts with what has been called the most mysterious of all Mitzvos.  It is the law of the Red Heifer, a special ceremony to remove the contamination of touching a dead body.  It defies human logic, as the rabbis discussing it protested: “It cleans up the contaminated and contaminates the clean ones!”  Historically we are told that this rite was performed just 9 times in all the centuries, and it is predicted to take place a 10thtime only when the Messiah will arrive.  Reading the account of this strange ceremony, we may well ask why we were commanded to do it.

The answer to that question gives this Torah reading its name: Khukas, from the word Khok,a statute.  We learn there are three basic kinds of Mitzvah in the Torah.  One is called Mishpatim – judgements. These are laws people could figure out for themselves, even if they were not written.  For example, prohibition of murder, or robbery, or theft.  Then we have Eydot – ordinances.  These are rules of human conduct that might irk us, but are perfectly logical.  They would include daily duties, from treatment of animals to observing the Sabbath to honoring people’s memories. In a modern society those ordinances would include traffic laws.  It’s that third category of Khukim – statutes – that we cannot explain. Like the Red Heifer.

Studying Torah equips us to do the Mitzvos, and it should help us understand them.  For many of our righteous forebears, it was enough.  For us, maybe we need a little help.  Today I’ll quote a lady named Chana Weisberg, editor of the TheJewishWoman.org.  (And I know my wife will appreciate my quoting a female writer!)   Chana Weisberg tells an entertaining story, and builds on it:

She calls her couple Sara and Barry, comfortably married, and facing a task that has to be done.  It could be “a repair project, a special favor or a purchase for their home.” And they disagreed on how it should be done.  With the result that usually Barry retired grumpily and the job was not done at all. “Then one day,” says Chana Weisberg, “Sara tried a different approach.”  Instead of debating the alternatives, she smiled and said: “Honey, I know this isn’t the way you see it, but please, just do it for me!”  To her surprise, Barry smiled and did it.

That was a khok– a statute of love.  Some mitzvos fill that same spot.  Maybe in our time not the Red Heifer, but maybe other Mitzvos don’t quite make sense to some of us, like keeping Kosher, or saying Kaddish, or, yes,  monogamy in marriage.  We can fulfill those Mitzvos, and bless the Divine in each of us, if we forego debate and – just do it!

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WE RESERVE THE RIGHT by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          Remember the sign that once appeared in stores, restaurants, bakeries,
etc…the one that read “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to
Anyone”?  Maybe that became illegal before you were born.  But maybe
it’s worth analyzing.  What that sign meant depended largely on the
boss’s attitudes.
          Someone who showed contempt for the merchandise, or suspicions about
the dealer, could very well get ignored if it came to trying on any
          If a customer — at a bar, for example — had one too many and started a
fight?  Out you go, fella.  Many bar owners exercise that right today.
At least they should.
          But also, if a white customer insisted on pushing himself ahead of a
black customer, the boss or an employee had to enforce a standard:
equality, or discrimination.  And discrimination could go either way —
depending whether the store was in Harlem or Atlanta.
          And what about baking wedding cakes?  Did the baker need to inquire
about the identity of the couple?  Or their sexual  preference?
          The recent Colorado case and its Supreme Court sequel might make us
wonder if it could happen back in the days of “We Reserve the Right…”
          An old gag about rights said that “when I walk down the street, I have
a right to swing my arms as much as I want to, but my right to swing
my arms ends where your nose begins.”  The Colorado case brings that
to mind.  If Mr. Philips just bit his lip and baked the cake, no court
case — he just has a banged-up nose.  If he reserved the right and
refused service, the same-sex couple just has to buy a cake somewhere
else.  Which apparently is what they did.  But they made sure to put in a
complaint to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, even though their
same-sex ceremony took place in Massachusetts.
          If anything, Justice Kennedy and his fellow judges — 7 out of the 9
anyway — ruled that equality before the law means that just as one
American has the right to live out a deviant life style, another
American has the right to live by his religious principles.  From the
Biblical point of view, of course, homosexuality is a capital offense.
Leviticus 20:13 commands: “If a man lies with a male as one lies
with a woman, both of them did an abhorrent thing; they must die.
Their bloodguilt is on them.”
          Bear in mind, however, that in the Torah, no accounts of an execution
for this offense appear. In fact we have no record of any such executions
by a Jewish court.  Since, at least in historic times, this kind
of action took place in private, and since Biblical law requires two
eye witnesses who warn the offender in advance, it would be close to
impossible to convict anyone.
          So how does that condition affect the believing baker?  We can
conclude that any violation of sexual law may or may not take place
before the cake is baked.  And we can also recognize that the couple
ordering the cake is about to celebrate their sin.
          They are hiring the baker to help them.
         Anyone think we saw the last case like this?
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A HIGHER LIGHT – B’haalos’kho – Num. 8-12, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A HIGHER LIGHT – B’haalos’kho – Num. 8-12, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The name of this week’s Sedrah has its own unique message. It is the first word of the Divine charge to Aaron, who had the duty and privilege of lighting the Menorah.  Familiar to all of us, the 7-branch candlestick graces our synagogues and appears as a symbol, both on many Jewish documents and on treasured jewelry.   And with the addition of the eighth candle and the “shamash”, the Menorah becomes the trademark of Hanukkah, the holiday of Dedication.  In fact, this week’s Haftorah – Zechariah’s vision – will be read on Hanukkah too.  So when Aaron dedicated the Menorah he started one of our ongoing traditions.

So let’s see what his commandment – his Mitzvah – was. We might expect it to be stated simply, as many such commandments are:  Take pure olive oil, fill the cups of the Menorah, and kindle the lights. Not here.  The word is not הדלקh-d-l-k (to kindle, as in l’hadlik ner shel shabat or shel Hanukkah).  Here the word isהעלה h-a-l-h (to raise, or to elevate):  B’haalos’kho es ha-ney-ros (When you raise the candles), they will shine on everything that is facing the Menorah.  The shaping of the Menorah itself is detailed here, showing that the 7 burning cups are shaped so that the flame does not burn just straight up, but also outward.  Spread the light.  Yes, it is for G-d, and it is also for people.  All people.

Our commentators note details about the cups on the Menorah that add to the visual engineering.  Of the three cups on the east side, says Rashi, the two outer ones are angled just slightly so they all shine toward what is directly facing the middle light; and the same way on the west side.  The center light, (number 4 if you count from either end) is not angled at all, but shines up and straight out.

From the various laws, observances and travel experiences we will read in these 5 chapters, and from the centuries of history that followed, we can learn something of the value of the light Aaron kindled, and raised.  Our Menorah indeed shines upward toward Heaven, and it tries to shine forward on all who face it.

Did it shine on the group of tribesmen who missed the first Passover, and convinced Moses to get them the opportunity to celebrate their freedom a month later?   Of course it did.

Did it shine on Miriam when she spoke against her sister-in-law?   Maybe it did, and maybe she wasn’t facing it.  She got punished, and she atoned.  In effect, she turned around and accepted the light.

B’haalos’kho brings us a message that can inspire us. The light on our Menorah is more than just a flame pointing up.  Like Aaron the High Priest, we can share the light of Torah by shining it up and out. And being among those it shines on, we can face that beautiful Torah light, accept it, and let it light up our lives.

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The Head by Baruch Cohon

     In the Navy, the men’s room was called the Head.  And on WW2 ships it
was exclusively a men’s room.  But that was the first American war
when women who were not nurses were actually admitted to the armed
forces.  Accordingly, a cartoon from those days comes back to me.  Not
a cartoonist, I can’t draw it, so I’ll develop it:
     Urinals in the “head” were attached to the bulkhead (that’s the wall
on a ship) and they stuck out at a height of at least 2 feet.  In the
cartoon, a sailor is using one urinal, and at the one next to him a
short gal in a WAVE  uniform is busy hoisting one leg over the urinal.
   To his unspoken comment she says: “Well, I’m doing a man’s job,
ain’t I?”
     It was funny in 1943.  Little did we know how prophetic it was.  All
Gender bathrooms go with a policy that sets a goal of equality in
employment.  No more men’s jobs and women’s jobs.  Stay-at-home wives
used to be respected as homemakers.  Now they are in a snubbed
minority.  Makes anyone my age wonder about the future of the American
family.  Maybe more gals are doing men’s jobs, but who’s doing the
women’s jobs?
     No matter how “progressive” they are, male Americans don’t seem to be
able to bear babies.  So how can they reproduce?  In many cases
their reproductive value is limited to supplying nameless semen to
impregnate one or the other member of a female “marriage.”
     Biblical statements are sometimes difficult to understand, but here’s
one that is perfectly clear: “Male and female created He them.”  It
applies to animals, birds, fish, insects – and humans.  We don’t see
other forms of life trying to deny their sex.  Maybe they know
something we don’t know?
   Young people maturing in a confused world like this understandably
take their time making any relationship permanent – or productive.
Any thought of building a family is pretty far down on their scale.
That does not keep them from sex.  Or from reproduction.  Recent
statistics list some 23% of white babies and 73% of black babies as
born out of wedlock.  City fire stations get a steady influx of
unwanted infants, and have a system to keep them alive.  But our
national population is damaged by a decreasing birthrate, and an
increasing crime rate involving many of those boys who got delivered
to the fire station, only to grow up on the street and have no fathers
to raise them.
   So what do we need to do?  Reverse our direction and put all the women
back in the kitchen?
   Not hardly.  Our girls go to school just like the boys.  They find
interests and careers in business and industry, in government and
education.  They bring real talent to their employers and valuable
service to the public.  Are they “doing a man’s job?”  You bet.
Sometimes better than the men they replace.  And if they can also
build a family with a beloved mate, they are also doing a woman’s job.
Many women succeed in doing both.  And hopefully more men will accept
their wives in both areas, and join them to keep the house clean and
put food on the table and, yes, to supervise their kids – to build
homes and families and a balanced future.
   Somehow change never seems to come without pain.  Old habits are hard
to break.  But a little understanding can ease the pain and help the
change.  Let’s try for that.
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COUNTING IN THE DESERT – Bamidbor – Numbers 1-4:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

COUNTING IN THE DESERT – Bamidbor – Numbers 1-4:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s reading gives its name to the entire book which it opens.  But the English name seems to bear no relationship to the Hebrew name of the same book.  “Numbers” is not a translation of “Bamidbor,” which means “In the desert.”  Actually, the Hebrew name sets the scene for the whole history described in this book, which follows the ancient Hebrew tribes through the desert, in their slow and perilous progress toward the Promised Land.  The English name is appropriate to this week’s reading, however, since here we see the completion of the census Moses conducted just a couple of months earlier when the Tabernacle – the mishkan – was built.  Then, every male Israelite of military age had to bring a contribution of half a shekel toward the construction of the first Jewish house of worship.  By counting the coins, the people’s leaders knew the total number of potential fighters: 603,550.

Now Moses has to fill in the details.  How many in each tribe, who will lead each tribe, where will each tribe camp, etc.  The total here is identical with the total in the half-shekel count in Exodus 38:26. But the purpose of this census is different.   Besides joining in a religious cause, the men of Israel are now registering for the draft – the IDF of Moses’ time — accepting responsibility for the safety of their camp, and acknowledging the authority of their tribal chiefs.  In effect, this census – this re-count if you will – marks another step in developing both civil and military structure. Ancient Israel is becoming a nation. Not without pain, to be sure. Further along in this book of Bamidbor we will see their trials, tragedies, triumphs – all the milestones and missteps on the way to nationhood – even before crossing the Jordan.        Each tribe is numbered here, from the largest, Judah at 74,600, to the smallest, Menasheh at 32,200.  Only the tribe of Levi is not numbered since the men of Levi had military exemption; they did not serve in the army but were devoted to Tabernacle service.  In fact they camped closest to the Tabernacle on three sides.  And the families of Moses and Aaron camped on the east side. Rashi’s commentary points out that their neighbors on the east side of the camp were the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, and because of that proximity those tribes produced great Torah scholars!  Thus we learn about the great value of a good neighbor.   So observes the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Another feature of this week’s reading should not be overlooked.  We will read that G-d spoke to Moses and the Israelite people in the desert.  A place of danger!  That is where they went when they left Egypt, without provisions, without protection, without plans.  All they took with them was courage.  Faith in G-d, confidence in themselves, perhaps a “here goes nothing” feeling that this is a chance they have to take.  Certainly they were not above challenging Moses.   Certainly they had to wait for one of their own leaders, Nakhshon ben Aminodov, to wade into the Red Sea before they could cross on dry land.  Yet they moved ahead into a barren wasteland with no guarantees of success – or even of survival.  Guts like that could impress the Divine.  And so our ancestors received the Torah, and built the Mishkan,the portable sanctuary that served as their spiritual center for 40 grim years. To such a brave nation – despite their quarrels, their doubts, their mistakes – Moses brought G-d’s word.  In the desert.

Some deserts bloom today, because the descendants of that nation make them bloom.  And some of those descendants face challenges today that equal those of Moses’ time. In a way, we’re all in the desert. Like the nation that marched into Sinai, let us earn the Torah’s message – and learn that message, to implement it in our lives.  It can strengthen us to achieve victory over enemy violence and self-defeating doubt. We were counted in the desert. Count us in now, everywhere.

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