98 WORDS TO THE WISE – Kee tavo, Deut.26-29:8 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

98 WORDS TO THE WISE – Kee tavo, Deut.26-29:8 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Torah reading includes Moses’ Third Discourse, and the famous lists of blessings and curses – blessings earned by carrying out the Divine commandments, and curses incurred by violating them. When reading this section in traditional Sabbath services, either the rabbi or the Torah reader himself is called to recite the blessings before and after the section is read.

The reader starts chanting the words in full voice, detailing the blessings we can expect from right conduct. For example, “G-d will make you the head and not the tail. You will always be above and never below, when you listen to G-d’s commandments that I give you today.”

And then the reader drops his pitch and his volume, and launches into a list of warnings – disasters we can bring on ourselves. A hush falls on the congregation. Quiet though the reader’s voice may be, the tokhakha – the Warning – rings out. “You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the field… cursed in the fruit of your body and in the fruit of your land… G-d will cause you to be struck by your enemies. You will go out against them on one road, and flee from them by seven roads. You will become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth… You will betroth a woman and another man will lie with her, you will build a house and you will not dwell there, plant a vineyard and not use its fruit… Your sons and daughters will be given to another people and your eyes will see, and you will ache from losing them but will have no power in your hand… You will become insane from what your eyes will see.” And on and on. Diseases brought on by perversion; defeat resulting from false pride. The last verses sum up the feeling of the sufferer: “You will not believe in your life. In the morning you will say ‘if night will only come’ and in the evening you will say ‘when will it be morning?’… G-d will return you to Egypt in ships and you will offer yourselves for sale as servants and maids and no one will buy.”

As many commentators observed, the only worse predictions possible would be to describe what really happened in Jewish history.

This is not the only list of warnings in the Torah. The first one comes in the reading called Behukotai at the end of the Book of Leviticus, in preparation for receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Also quite dramatic, it is expressed differently. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that here in Deuteronomy we have twice as many warnings as in Leviticus. There we had 49. Here are 98. Why is this text double length? His answer is fascinating. He says since Behukotai is read before the holiday of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost) it commemorates receiving the Torah, when the Jewish People were on the level of tzadikim, the righteous. Here in Kee Tavo we are preparing for the High Holidays when the goal is teshuvah, repentance or return. The Talmud teaches that the true returnee, the baal teshuvah, occupies a moral position higher even than the most complete tzadik. Therefore when preparing for that kind of return, we need more warnings.

As if welcoming all of us potential New Year returnees, this week’s Haftorah from chapter 60 of the prophet Isaiah starts with the great words: “Kumi ori – Rise and shine, for your light has arrived, and G-d’s glory shines on you!” So may it be this year.

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AMMON, MOAB and US – Kee seytzey – Deut. 21:10 – 25 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

AMMON, MOAB and US – Kee seytzey – Deut. 21:10 – 25 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Among the 70-odd Mitzvos detailed in this week’s Torah reading, we find one that echoes strangely against today’s discussions of intergroup relations.

Deep in this section’s third Aliyah, Chapter 23 has Moses cautioning the people: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of G-d, even to the tenth generation.” Why? “Because they did not meet you with bread and water when you came out of Egypt.” No refugee status. No public handouts. In fact, they “hired Bilaam ben Beor…to bring a curse upon you.”

True, Ammon and Moab did not build any walls to keep Israel out, but they did not welcome us either. We didn’t speak their language. Maybe our eyes were a different shape? Or our skin a different shade?

By the standards of that day, Ammon and Moab had well established monarchies, and represented prosperous nations. They did not need an influx of ex-slaves, speaking a foreign language (Hebrew, that is, not Spanish).

Presumably they didn’t want immigrant kids in their schools earning all the highest grades, even if they didn’t calculate in Chinese.

Could we in our time possibly be duplicating the ancient offense of Ammon and Moab?

Or were they just typical of their time, treating any other nation as an enemy?

But wait. In our Torah reading, a contrasting rule follows immediately: “Do not despise an Edomite; he is your brother.” Edom opposed Israel, but the ancestor of their nation was Esau, Jacob’s brother. Likewise, “Do not despise an Egyptian; you were a stranger in his land.” As the rabbis explain, enslaving the Israelites was the work of the tyrannous Pharaohs, not of the people. In fact many Egyptian commoners followed their Israelite neighbors in the Exodus.

So for our ancestors, relations between national populations grew complicated. Moses attempted to put some ideals to work in forming those relations. It was difficult for him, and that difficulty extended into the following centuries.

In the case of Ammon and Moab, for example, the ban applied to men, but a woman could become a giyores – a convert – and be totally accepted. The prime example of that process was the young lady who gave her name to a particularly beloved book of the Bible, namely Ruth. Moabite though she was, she married Boaz and became the ancestress of no less than King David.

Maybe we in the United States are not consistent in our attitude toward the “stranger,” the refugee, the unfortunates who seek a better life. We don’t always meet them with “bread and water.”

Still, our country has a better record on immigration than many other nations. Certainly a large majority of us became American Jews by moving here from oppressive foreign shores. Many of us, or our parents or grandparents, had to travel halfway around the world, with no money, no connections, no language to greet their new countrymen. I will never cease admiring the courage of our Immigrant Generation. Much of that kind of courage can be seen in the faces of the young people who throng U.S. borders now.

No, we are not encouraging our government to admit criminals, and definitely not terrorists. But we have some power to check an immigrant’s record. And we can still move away from the offensive stance of Ammon and Moab. Even some bread and water can help.

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HOW SACRED IS HUMAN LIFE? – Shoftim, Deut. 16:18 – 21:9 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HOW SACRED IS HUMAN LIFE? – Shoftim, Deut. 16:18 – 21:9
by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Appropriately named Shoftim – Judges, this week’s reading deals with principles and practices Moses teaches us about what is justice and how to enforce it.

One theme that gets repeated in this section says: “Expunge the evil from your midst.—uviarta haRa mi-kir-bekha.” That is not just the theme of his teaching, it is the motivation behind all of it. If someone is convicted of a capital offence – including murder, rape, leading others into idolatry, or presenting false evidence to get someone else punished – and the offender is found guilty, then that offender, whether male or female, must be executed. Why?

Doesn’t every human being contain the Divine image? How does a violent death cancel out an offense, even if that offense was equally violent?

True, killing the criminal makes him unable to repeat his crime. But that’s not enough. Not for Moses, and not for Judaism.

If Hatfield kills McCoy, and McCoy Jr. kills Hatfield in return, that’s not justice. That’s revenge. And Torah law went into considerable detail in the last couple of weeks to limit the power of revenge. In Moses’ time, the accepted practice was for the next-of-kin to have the right and the duty to hunt down his kinsman’s killer and take his life. Revenge killing. But Torah law limited that right to very specific circumstances. Above all, it limits the valid motivation for the return killing. Not revenge, now. But “Expunging the evil.”

Take the case of a criminal who plotted to get his neighbor in trouble.

“As he plotted to have done to his brother, so let it be done to him,” says Moses.

“On the word of two witnesses or three witnesses shall the condemned be executed. He shall not die on the word of one witness.”

“And all the people shall see, and they will not presume [to violate] again.”

Never mind the fact that we all have sacred souls. By our own violations, and by credible eye-witness testimony of our fellows, we can desecrate those souls, and bring on the violent punishments described in this reading. Not because society is taking revenge on us, but in order to expunge the evil.

Execution methods in many parts of the world have become much milder than they were in Torah times. No longer do they consist of just stoning, burning, beheading or hanging. And long years on death row were certainly unknown to Moses. But what should not – must not – change, is the purpose behind the verdict: we still need to expunge the evil.

Evil is there. It is our job – all of us – to get rid of it.

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ALTARS AND IDOLS – Re’eh – Deut. 11:26 – 16:17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ALTARS AND IDOLS – Re’eh – Deut. 11:26 – 16:17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s Torah reading continues Moses’ farewell discourses, and covers several topics, connected by the concept of blessing vs. curse. Follow Divine law and earn blessing, or break that law and be cursed. Most years, we tend to select the moral absolutes outlined here and glean their message. This year I cannot dodge a challenge with which Moses confronts our ancestors at the very beginning of Chapter 12.

“These are the statutes and ordinances that you must be sure to do, in the land that the G-d of your fathers gave you to possess it, all the days that you will live on earth. You must totally destroy all the places where the people you are dispossessing served their gods – on high mountains, on hills, and under every leafy tree. Break their altars, smash their pillars, burn their idols, chop down their graven images and wipe out their name from that place.”

From the commentators and from historians we learn that many of those altars provided locations for sacred prostitution. These were not just for prayer and sacrifice. They were gathering places for eating and drinking and sanctified sex. So they had to be destroyed.

Israel is to be a one-faith state. And it is to have just one sacred place, which Moses does not describe here, but after some temporary locations for the Holy Ark in places like Gilgal and Shiloh, and David dancing before the Ark in transit, we know that King Solomon would build the Temple in Jerusalem.

No Dome of the Rock. No El Aqsa. No Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Bet haMikdash stood alone.

In 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar would not rest until he destroyed – what? The king’s palace? The royal treasury? Of course not. He had to destroy the First Temple and that’s what conquered the nation.

In 70 CE the Romans followed his example, and even commemorated their destructive victory with images on the Arch of Triumph showing Roman soldiers carrying the sacred Menorah out of the Second Temple.

So now our Sedrah fairly demands the answer to the events of the 20th century:

Did modern Israel violate Torah law by turning the Temple Mount over to a Jordanian theocracy to administer? Other nations don’t do that. In effect, some of them could be said to observe the violent commandment in this week’s Torah reading. Jihadis smash statues of Buddha in Pakistan, and their archeological imams in Jerusalem find and destroy relics of Solomon’s Temple in a pan-Islamist campaign to banish Jews from the land they call Palestine. In Europe, synagogues were polluted and destroyed by pogromniks for centuries. Nazis used them for stables. Arab terrorists target them in France and the Netherlands and Scandinavia now.

Certainly our Torah portion, Re’eh – “See here!” – does not anticipate a time when a Jewish country, in its classic Biblical location, would voluntarily share its most sacred place with its sworn enemies. Various rabbinic commentaries advise us of possible future changes on the Temple Mount. One teaches that the Moshiach – the Messiah (the Jewish one, that is) – will build the Third Temple. When that happens, Israel would once more be a one-faith state.

Are there any others?

Well, Saudi Arabia comes to mind. Its holy cities, Mecca and Medina are closed to non-Muslims, and the faithful are expected to make a pilgrimage to those sanctified places at least once in their lifetime. For sure, there is no synagogue in Mecca. No church either.

21st century publicity stresses the position of Jerusalem’s holy mountain as being sacred to three religions. This despite the fact that many people who were born into those religions do not observe them, and so do not visit that mountain anyway.

Fifty years ago Israel fought a Six-Day War which strengthened its position in many areas, including East Jerusalem, fighting their way through the alleys of the old city, and encountering no significant opposition. One famous memory from that campaign recounts a message General Motta Gur radioed to headquarters. Just three words: Har habayit b’yadeynu – “the Temple Mount is in our hands!” To his shock, the government would not let him take it. They thought they could avoid large-scale Muslim attacks if they denied his conquest.

Many times since then, that decision was questioned.

Would it make Israel stronger, or bring the Moshiach any closer, if the IDF demolished a couple of mosques? Or would the Six Day War bring on a conflict of decades? We won’t know. The mosques stand, and the conflict continues.

But if we can learn one lesson from Re’eh, let it be this: We can approach G-d wherever we are. Even at the Kotel, the Western Wall – depending on who you are, and what the latest political decision may be as to where you should pray if you are female. We can pray for the advent of the Moshiach. We can certainly ignore the pretentions of our enemies. And whatever our religious approach may be, we can follow it in truth. No longer can we expect Israel to be a one-faith state. But we can make sure it will never be a no-faith state.

Let us keep whatever Mitzvos we are able to, in Los Angeles or Tel Aviv or on the Temple Mount, and let us do it sincerely. Sincerity can bring us blessing. The opposite already brought us enough curses.

Uvokharta vakhayim – Choose life! Ken y’hee ratzon.

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HEEL AND TOE – “Eykev” – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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HEEL AND TOE – “Eykev” – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The name of this week’s reading is EYKEV – meaning a result. “Eykev tishm’oon” it says – As a result of listening to the commandments and following them, you can expect to accomplish good things in your life. And if we don’t listen, and we don’t carry out the Divine will, we will suffer the consequences. Cause and effect. Interestingly enough, EYKEV also means Heel. The imagery is unique: just as surely as the heel follows the toe, so follow the results of our actions.

This is the message Moses gives the people during his farewell speeches at the end of his life. Every year we read it. And every year we wonder if it makes any impression.

Of course Moses was not the only leader who gave the people such messages. Just a few weeks ago we read in the Haftorah of Balak a message from the prophet Micah: “higid l’kha adam ma tov – He told you, man, what is good and what is required of you: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your G-d.”

Down through the ages, lawgiver, prophet and sage keep trying to teach us basic values. Personally, this Shabos is very special for me, since I observe my father’s 57th Yortzite this week. My father z”l was a rabbi and a teacher of rabbis. The last sermon I ever heard him deliver was based on both of these texts. In fact, he contrasted them. Here, in effect, was his message:

Micah stresses three ideals: justice, mercy, humility. These make the character of a religious human being.

Moses also stresses three ideals. In Chapter 10 verse 12, he asks: “Now, Israel, what does G-d expect from you? To fear the L-rd your G-d, to love Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and soul.”

The parallels are not hard to draw. The Biblical concept of “fear of G-d” implies reverence. Not fright, but supreme respect. If we truly revere G-d we want to pattern our lives after the qualities we associate with Him. And justice is one primary attribute of Divinity, the MIDAS haDIN, the “quality of justice” that we recall with such drama on Yom Kippur. So, reverence for G-d – Moses’ first ideal – leads to doing justice – Micah’s first ideal.

“Love of G-d” is actualized by love of our fellow creatures. We believe that we all carry the Divine image in us. That image includes the MIDAS haRAKHAMIM, the quality of mercy. Even Shakespeare said it is “not strained.” Judaism teaches us to treat each other with kindness, to carry over some of the respect we feel for G-d into a mutual respect in dealing with people. Micah’s second ideal – loving mercy – is the clear result.

And serving G-d with total respect implies a type of attitude and a type of conduct: AVODAH is one of those Hebrew words that has two meanings – Work, and Worship. To worship G-d with sincerity requires an attitude of humility. You can’t pray honestly unless you feel a good deal less important than the Divinity you pray to. And you can’t strive to do better and better work unless you realize that you yourself are less than perfect. Unless you have some humility. When Micah said “walk humbly with G-d” he meant exactly that.

So Moses and Micah struck three parallel alerts.

Then my father went on to point out the difference between these two prophetic messages.

The difference comes in the very next sentence. Here Moses says “Lishmor es mitzvos HaShem – Keep G-d’s commandments!” That is the tool he gave us at Mount Sinai – the tool to carry out and accomplish these ideals.

Micah said nothing about Mitzvos. For a very good reason too. Micah was addressing the whole human race: Adam – Mankind. Moses was addressing Yisroel – The Jewish people. For us, Mitzva is the key that unlocks the door of a better life.

All this, of course, is on the individual level. EYKEV covers the national level too. Moses reminds them of the chosenness of Israel: “Rak ba-avosekha — Only your ancestors did G-d desire to be His beloved people” – and then he follows this section with a discussion of the land they are about to enter, and tells them that HaShem watches the land of Israel all year round.

Today we see our people in Israel dealing with attacks both violent and verbal. We pray for their survival, their success, their safety. We hear controversy about whether Mitzva-observant Jews should leave yeshiva training to serve in the army, and we also hear about military arrangements developed to facilitate that service. And we recall Moses’ promise to the IDF of his day, that they will triumph “Im shomor tishm’roon – If indeed you will guard the Mitzvos” by learning and doing them, and guard again by reviewing them to prevent forgetting.

Does this mean that only observant Jews should fight for their country? Hardly. Certainly they are not the only ones who live there. So, try this basic interpretation. The policies of a nation produce some logical results. If Israel is a Jewish nation, we should expect it to follow Torah values, and indeed it does even in warfare, always striving to avoid civilian casualties, fighting clean. Essentially Israel follows the vision of EYKEV for Eretz Yisrael. We need to implement it for Klal Yisrael– for global Jewry. We have the tools to achieve it: Lishmor es haMitzvos – Keep the Mitzvos, as Rashi points out “Lo l’khinnom ella l’tov lokh – Not for nothing, but for your own good.”

Micah gave a message to humanity. Moses gave a message to the Jews. We ignore both at our peril. We can accept both for our own good. It follows as the heel follows the toe.


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