LEADERS THEN AND NOW – Bamidbar – Numbers 1:1-4:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

LEADERS THEN AND NOW – Bamidbar – Numbers 1:1-4:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Along with the details of the military census, the duties of the tribe of Levi, and the protective coverings for transporting the Tabernacle and its furnishings, this week’s Torah reading gives us the layout of the Israelite camp in the desert. Facing decades in that harsh location, we begin this phase of our history with the Sedrah – and the entire book – named for it: Bamidbar, “In the desert.”

This is where those refugee slaves became a nation. This is where their chiefs had to become leaders. Not an easy process.

One significant part of that process is reflected in the layout of the camp. Central in every camp was placed the Tabernacle. Members of the tribe of Levi – not counted in the military census – maintained the portable sanctuary, so they had to pitch their tents closest to it on all four sides. One Levitic family is assigned to each side. Merari on the north, Kehos on the south, Gershon on the west, and on the east the families of Moses and Aaron – adjoining the Tabernacle’s entrance. We note the importance of the eastward direction. Keydma mizrakha — “forward, eastward” – says the Torah. Both for Aaron and his sons as kohanim and for his brother Moses as head of state, this location positions them to lead, whether to break camp and move on, or to find a stopping place however temporary.

Another camping assignment illustrates military and political leadership then and later. Of the 12 tribes, 3 are assigned to camp side by side, on each side of the Tabernacle, just outside of the Levitic camps. Each tribe counts its military members, and those numbers are mentioned here. On the north we have the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naftali. Their total number of fighting men: 157,600. On the south are Reuven, Shimon and Gad, with a total of 151,450. On the west are Ephraim, Menashe and Benjamin, whose total is 108,100. And on the east, parallel to the Tabernacle entrance, the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulon, with a total of 186,400 soldiers. Of course these totals add up to 603,550, the number of fighting men Moses already recorded twice – once when they left Egypt, and the second time at the beginning of this Sedrah.

As an interesting sidelight on these numbers, we might notice that the largest number of potential soldiers is camped on the east – prepared to support the national and religious leadership of the people as they head the march through the desert.

Of the tribes assigned to each side, the Torah does not specify what order they should camp in. Commentators differ about that. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, for example, assigns the central positions to Asher on the north, Shimon south, Menashe west and Issachar east, while the Hertz Commentary assigns them to Dan, Reuven, Ephraim and Judah. Very likely, Rabbi Hertz had historical reasons for selecting Judah’s descendants to occupy the position closest to the Tabernacle entrance, as a reward for the past leadership that Judah himself showed, and the fact that Israel’s kings – the House of David — would some day emerge from Judah’s tribe.

Considered today, we have to realize that our Tabernacle is still portable. All of us, from whatever family or tribe, can be grateful for the devoted ancestors that moved our people and our heritage forward. Their route covered much more of the planet than the desert of Moses’ time. For many modern Israelites it led to the same destination.

For the rest of us, let us pursue our trek into the Jewish future with the same determination that Moses and his tribal leaders had.

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DESTINY OR DEBATE – Behar/Behukosai – Lev. 25-27– by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

DESTINY OR DEBATE – Behar/Behukosai – Lev. 25-27– by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

As we conclude the Book of Leviticus this week with a double reading covering its last three chapters, we might well consider this a particularly appropriate year to read this text. This spring, we will acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. That memorable Israeli victory reunited Jerusalem and reconquered historic territory. What happened since then effectively ruined much of that accomplishment. And this week’s Torah readings explain modern history rather dramatically.

The first of these readings is called Behar – “On the mountain” – referring of course to Mount Sinai where our ancestors accepted the Divine commandments that became our Constitution. As you know, the entire Sinai peninsula was captured in 1967, and later given back to Egypt. But the commandments still belong to us. Included in those commandments are rules for tending and preserving the land the Israelites were heading for. Also principles for how to treat each other. We will read about the sabbatical year, when farms should be left unplowed to rest the earth. And we will also read about responsibility to help “your brother who is waxen poor.” If you lend him money, take no interest. Help him live. Whether he is a native Jew, or a convert, or as Ibn Ezra includes a resident alien – don’t let him starve. And we notice that the Torah directs this rule to the individual, not the state. This is not a “stimulus package.” It is an Israelite’s duty to save a neighbor. We are one people.

The second reading, Behukosai – “In My statutes” – details the results to be expected from following Torah principles. And from violating them. Make those principles our guide, we will read, and we can relish the joys of peace and prosperity. We will even read about further victories, that if we must go to war “five of you will chase a hundred enemies, and a hundred of you will chase a thousand. Your enemies will fall before you.” Speaking in G-d’s name, the Torah predicts: “I will walk among you, and you will be my people.”

But then we will also read about the reverse effects. Forget about our mutual concern, despise the Mitzvos, exploit the land and each other? Then “I will let your cities be ruined, and your holy places destroyed…” This full list of curses, called the tokhakha, goes on and on – and is a mere preview of the list in Deuteronomy. Both lists hardly anticipate our history.

Considered from the vantage point of the last half century, we can draw a distinct parallel.

The Six Day War brought a miracle to Israel and to World Jewry. We thought that the miracle was military victory. What it really was, was the spirit of national unity that made victory possible. Secular kibbutzniks and religious yeshiva students joined forces to defeat their smug enemies. But they all served under assorted leadership. During the battle for Jerusalem, General Motta Gur radioed headquarters with a historic 3-word message: Har ha-ba-yit b’ya-deynu – “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” And a single soldier climbed the Dome of the Rock and attached an Israeli flag, signaling Jewish return to the holy hilltop after 19 centuries. But no less a hero than Moshe Dayan ordered it taken down. By the following week, national unity began to dissolve.

Over the succeeding decades, we see appeasement groups within our communities both in Israel and worldwide, Jewish pressure on the left. And we see opposing efforts on the right, supporting Israeli power. Neither national unity nor Torah principles can prevail. From the Middle East to the committees of the UN, enemies threaten the Jewish future. Do we have something to learn? Definitely.

This week’s double reading completes this year’s review of Leviticus – the book of priestly statutes. Next comes the Book of Numbers, in Hebrew called Bamidbor – “In the desert.” In many ways, that’s where we are. We need to find our way out of this religious and historic desert where we find ourselves. This week’s double Sedrah offers us one strong guide: Help our fellow Jews, remembering that we are one people.

Group of People Waving the Flag of Israel

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354 DAYS AT A TIME – Emor – Lev.21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

354 DAYS AT A TIME – Emor – Lev.21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

You probably heard about the fellow who decided to become an atheist. He left his family’s house of worship and turned his back on religion. But then a few weeks later, he came back.

“You changed your mind? How come?”

“Atheists have no holidays.”

This week’s Torah reading outlines the Jewish calendar, which provides our annual cycle of holidays both serious and upbeat, and all sanctified by faith. Indeed, Judaism as a way of life is closely connected with the calendar. That connection goes back to our origins. Moses reminded us that we left Egypt in the spring month. Count 49 days – 7 weeks from the Exodus, and we reach Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and become a nation. And here in Leviticus 23 we go on to detail the dates of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succoth – New Year, Day of Atonement, and the Harvest festival, all in the fall.

So why is New Years Day celebrated on the first day of the seventh month? Precisely because Nisan, the month that includes Passover, is the month of freedom, and is specifically designated as the first month of the year in the very story of the Exodus. The Talmud (in tractate Rosh Hashana) lists four “new years days” every year: one for kings, one for numbering years, one for planting trees and one for tithes. In our urban culture, of course, we generally limit our ceremonial New Year to the 1st of Tishri. That is the day we change the number of the year.

As we all know, the Jewish calendar, like the Chinese, is based on the moon. 354 days on average, instead of the 365 of the solar calendar. That causes considerable variety in how Jewish holidays compare with those of our neighbors. In 2011, for example, Hanukkah coincided with Christmas. In 2013 it coincided with Thanksgiving. This year the 8th day of Hanukkah coincided with January 1st. And next year? Halloween maybe?

No way. Because, 7 times in every 19 years, the Jewish calendar adds a month during the spring, forming a leap year that resolves the lunar-solar difference. An ancient scholar named Shmuel who headed the academy in a Babylonian town called Nehardea was responsible for much of the development of the calendar used today. The Talmud describes him as a man who knew the orbits of the planets as well as he knew the streets of Nehardea. This self-taught astronomer laid the groundwork for a system that gives Jews the world over the opportunity to celebrate their holidays at the same time. In the days of much slower communication, they had to add a day to the holiday if they lived outside of Israel, in order to make sure they were all observing the occasion together. Hence we still have the Second Day of many festivals in traditional Diaspora communities but not in Israel. A notable exception to this rule is Rosh Hashana itself, the New Year, which is observed for two days in Israel too. It is not considered an “exile holiday” (yomtov sheyni shel goluyos) but the two days are called “one long day” (yoma arikhta). One more opportunity to hear the call of the Shofar!

With all its complex history, the Jewish calendar constitutes a sacred schedule giving us colorful special days that add meaning to all the grey weekdays of our lives.

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WHO’S HOLY? – Ahrey Mot-K’doshim Lev. 16-20 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

WHO’S HOLY? – Ahrey Mot-K’doshim Lev. 16-20 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Just as they did last week, this week synagogue Torah readings cover two sections. They get combined except during leap years. In fact, they go together well. Last week’s double bill concentrated on the issues of purity and contamination. This week we read about laws and penalties.

First, however, the Torah lays out the conduct of the Yom Kippur service in the ancient sanctuary, including the sacrificial offerings, the conduct and clothing of the High Priest, and of course the scapegoat ritual.

Then come some detailed directions for slaughtering, preparing and eating meat. One outstanding provision is not to eat the blood. No “steak juice” cocktails allowed. Consuming an animal’s lifeblood had idolatrous associations, and we are told to pour it on the ground like water.

The remainder of the first section details actions to be avoided, citing them as typical of the corruption of Egypt. Included here are prohibited degrees of sexual contact, from incest to bestiality and, yes, homosexual relations. Polluting the Promised Land with such conduct would cause the land to “vomit you out, as it did the nation who was there before you.”

Warnings and prohibitions are not enough. The second section, called K’doshim – “Holy ones” – sets out penalties for violating these laws. We don’t find any prison time mentioned here. No fines, either. Minor infractions call for burnt offerings. Major violations incur execution or ostracism. Torah law may not be politically correct. Too bad. But what does all this strict punishment have to do with holiness?

In its very special way, the Torah defines Holiness before even going into detail about punishment. To be holy does not mean setting yourself apart from human society and its temptations. No ivory tower. Don’t try to be what’s called a “holy Joe.”

Just the opposite, in fact. Holiness requires that we deal justly and respectfully with each other. Honor your parents. Keep the Sabbath. Pay a day-worker before nightfall. Do not deceive your neighbor or lie, and never swear falsely because that is blasphemy. Do not curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block in the path of the blind.

Judges may well note the ruling: “Do not favor the person of the poor and do not glorify the person of the mighty. Judge your neighbor with justice.” Principles like those apply to non-court situations too, as we read about relations with someone whose actions you disapprove: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke him, and do not bear sin because of him.”

Perhaps the most down-to-earth expression of holiness is this: “Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against one of your people.” The classic examples of this disapproved conduct goes this way: Vengeance is when you ask to borrow your neighbor’s axe and he refuses; then next week he asks to borrow your ladder and you refuse, saying “You wouldn’t lend to me, so I’m not lending to you.” A grudge is when he refuses to lend you his axe, but when he comes to borrow your ladder you say: “Sure, here it is. You see? I’m not like you!”

Most famous of all the holiness teachings is the line “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To me, this means that first you need some self-love. If I have no respect for myself , what value is my love for my neighbor? Of course, the process goes both ways. By building a habit of treating other people right, we can also take some pride in our own lives.

Who is holy? Potentially, you and I.

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CONTAMINATED — Lev. 12-15 Tazria-Metzora – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

CONTAMINATED — Lev. 12-15 Tazria-Metzora – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Some tribal societies have medicine men who treat physical ailments with mystery cures. Ancient Israel left that function to the cohanim, the priests, Aaron and his descendants. The Book of Leviticus prescribes some treatments in three of the less pleasant chapters in the Torah. Most of these treatments involve declaring the patient to be taMEY – Contaminated. That condition could last a day, or could go on for months. Sometimes that condition just meant that the patient could not enter the sanctuary and was prevented from eating sacrificial meat.

Most dreaded of diseases was leprosy – tzaraas. Its treatment is the most extreme. One device used is familiar to us today as quarantine. The leper had to pitch his tent outside the main camp, must wear torn clothes, let his hair hang loose, and if anyone comes near him he must cover his upper lip and cry out taMEY taMEY – “Contaminated, contaminated!” – thus warning people to stay away from him.

Surprisingly enough, this entire double section that we will read this week starts with a law that is not about disease, but about childbirth. When a woman conceives and bears a son, we are told, she is considered to be contaminated by the blood she has shed. This condition lasts one week, the same length as her menstruation. Then she takes a ritual bath and her son gets circumcised. By most rabbinical opinions she now can and should resume relations with her husband. But she is not to enter the sanctuary for another 33 days, after which she brings an offering to the sanctuary and the cohen declares her pure.

When the baby is a girl, the length of the mother’s contamination is doubled – 14 days before the bath and 66 days thereafter. Theories about this difference are varied, but it would seem to place special importance on the birth of a female who will grow up to experience the monthly cycle, and some day may also bear a new life.

So how do we move from the joy of new life to the plague of leprosy? Contamination – tum’ah – is the key word. It can affect the healthy mother, or the suffering patient. It can even affect the house we live in and the clothes we wear. While the Torah’s remedies have no obvious connection to modern science, we get the definite message that sometimes we cause our own contamination. In fact, the rabbis note, the word for a leper – metzora – is a contraction of the words motzi shem ra, which means “bringing out a bad name.” In other words, slander.

Whether it starts as thoughtless gossip or as deliberate character assassination, loshon hora – the evil tongue – contaminates our lives. No cohen and no medicine man can cure it. It was the great Maimonides who wrote that the evil tongue destroys three people: the one who spreads the bad report, the one who is the subject of it, and the one who listens to it. The only antidote is prevention. If we fail to prevent it, if we participate, we might do well to cover our upper lip and cry “Contaminated!”

Throughout this week’s reading we learn how the cohen must search for the infection. He has specific ways to examine the patient, or the clothing, or the house. When he finds the plague cleaned up, he pronounces the verdict tahor – “pure.”

So let it be said of us.

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