CURING OUR ILLS – Metzora & Shabat haGadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

CURING OUR ILLS – Metzora & Shabat haGadol – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         This week brings us a rather strange combination of texts.  The Torah reading is named for a sufferer of a disease called tzaraas.  The Haftorah reading comes from the prophet Malachi predicting the arrival of Elijah, in observance of this “Great Sabbath,” Shabat haGadol which precedes Passover.  Totally unrelated subjects, to be sure.

         This Torah portion is a follow-up to last week’s, since both discuss the tzaraas disease, a cause of ritual contamination.  In effect, last week’s portion dealt with diagnosing and isolating those who are infected, while this week’s reading is concerned more with curing them.  The details are confusing, alien to modern minds.  The sufferer sees symptoms, lesions on the skin, unnatural growth of hair, etc., and has to call in a cohen,a priest to identify the illness.   Those who are diagnosed with tzaraas get quarantined outside the camp.  After a given period of isolation – generally a week – the cohenre-examines the patient, confirms recovery,  supervises cleanup and shaving of all the hair, and helps the patient offer sacrifices to express gratitude for recovery.   Does that make the ancient cohena medicine man?

         Not really.   Many editions of the Bible translate tzaraas as leprosy, certainly a dread disease throughout human history.   Other authorities disagree.   Citing the rabbinic comment about the word metzora, the name of this week’s reading, they identify the source of infection as more spiritual than physical.  Metzora combines two words: motzi –to bring out – and ra –evil, indicating that circulating evil reports about other people can produce a plague. Loshon hora – badmouthing – is the cause, therefore, of physical suffering.  We might conclude that quarantine cures the disease by removing evil speech from the camp.

         The mystery expands, however.  Not only human beings get tzaraas, their houses can get it too.  So can their clothes.  Dark red or green lesions in the cloth are described, and if they spread, the garment must be burned.  Similar symptoms are described in the walls of a house, requiring that the bad sections of it be dumped in an impure area outside the camp, while new stone or lumber is brought in to replace them.  What is going on here?  Mold?  Dry rot?  Does the cohen become a rebuilder?  Did the coat or the wall spread malicious gossip?  

         Possibly, this whole subject needs to be taken out of the physical realm.  Granted, our ancestors very likely experienced different kinds of contamination that they had to deal with.  And the Torah provided them with methods of removing the contamination from their bodies and their possessions.  That was then.  The Midrash states that tzaraas no longer exists.  Today we have other cures for skin diseases, other remedies for mold and dry rot.  What we still need, and don’t always have, is the remedy for Loshon hora, the evil tongue.  And that definitely still exists.   As for example, take political campaigns.  

         In the high-tech world we live in, quarantine cannot be a remedy for slander.  But self-control is still an option.  Let’s remove the evil tongue.  That’s what the prophet Malachi thundered about. The Hertz Commentary notes that Malachi dealt with a despondent generation.  He reminds them: “You said it is vain to serve G-d… What did we get out of keeping the Divine charge, and walking mournfully in G-d’s path?”  Then he predicts Divine judgment: “Here comes a day, burning like a furnace, when the proud evildoers will be stubble, and that day will set them ablaze, says the L-rd of Hosts, leaving them neither root nor branch.  But you who revere My name will tread down the wicked.  They will be dust under your feet on the day that I will make, says the L-rd of Hosts.”  

         Now we can look forward to Malachi’s prophecy, and dramatize it at our Seder table next week:  One lucky youngster will open the front door to receive Elijah the prophet. And Elijah will “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents,” and we will guard that full goblet of wine to welcome Elijah, treasuring the hope that this year at last Elijah will announce the Messiah’s arrival!   

         Thoughts and prayers for Shabat haGadol.

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A TRIPLE OCCASION — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A TRIPLE OCCASION — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon            

         This coming Shabat morning in every traditional synagogue, when the Torah service starts, not one but three scrolls will be taken out of the Ark and carried in procession.  Arriving on the bema, the first Sefer Torah will be opened to the Sedrah of the week, Tazria, a detailed description of some laws of ritual contamination.  The second scroll will be opened to the commandment of observing the New Moon, since this Saturday will be the first day of Nisan.  And the third scroll will be opened to tell the special significance of this month, here calledthe head of the months.” We can expect our services to end a little later than usual this week.

         Our religious calendar thus gives us an unusual combination of subject matter.  Tazria introduces the concept that a mother’s blood in the process of delivery contaminates her.  If her baby is a boy, for the next seven days she must not join her husband in union, until the day of the B’ris. In Temple times she was not permitted to enter the House of G-d or to eat sacrificial meat for the next 33 days.  And if the baby is a girl, the time of the mother’s ritual contamination is doubled.  Why the difference?  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 new life.

         That’s just part of the first reading.  Tazria goes on to explore a skin disease which is considered to be the effect of spreading slander.  Translated “leprosy” in our English bibles, it was not necessarily fatal in Biblical times, but whoever had it was sent to pitch a tent outside the camp. If anyone approached, the “leper” had to call out “taMey taMey – Contaminated!” to prevent contact with one who was tahor – pure.  Not the most attractive section of Leviticus.  

But now comes our second Torah scroll with the special reading for Rosh Khodesh, the New Moon.  Pious celebrants already greeted the skinny crescent last night, if the sky was clear enough.  And Rosh Khodesh is traditionally a special happy day for Jewish women, a reward for their decision notto offer their jewelry for the creation of the Golden Calf.

Finally we come to Sefer Torah #3 – the Maftir section called Hakhodesh – THE month.  “This month is the beginning of months for you,” it says, “first of the months of the year.”  Now we know when our year begins, don’t we?  In the fall, right?  The first of Tishri — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kipur, the whole High Holiday season!  What’s this?  

This is Nisan, the holiday of freedom.  Ask a good Hebrew school student to name the months of the Jewish year, and he’ll reply quickly: “Nisan, Iyyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul” – not reaching Tishri until he goes through those six.  In fact, the Talmud outlines no less than four New Years days in the Jewish calendar.  The first of Nisan is called Rosh Hashanah lim’lachim – the new year for kings, from which we reckon the rule of the kings of Israel.  Rosh Hashanah la’ilanot – the new year for trees – on the 15thof Sh’vat is still widely observed as a Jewish Arbor Day.  The first of Elul was a time to bring tithes in Temple times. And the Mishna identifies the first of Tishri as Rosh Hashanah lashanim – the new year of years, as the religious new year when we are all judged by G-d.  That of course is also the day when we change the year’s number on the calendar. Of them all, Nisan stands out as a month of celebration. No days of Atonement this month, just family feasts with special foods.  And this Torah reading sets forth preparation for our Passover holiday, the feast of freedom. Today’s Haftorah gives us Ezekiel’s elaboration of the process, in a lengthy description of its future in the rebuilt Temple in Messianic times.  A fitting introduction to Freedom Month.  Shabat Shalom!            

                                     

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DRINK AND BURN – Shmini – Ex. 9-11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

DRINK AND BURN – Shmini – Ex. 9-11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         Here we learn the tragic story of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, their violation and their death.  The Torah text is terse, stating only that these two men brought “strange fire” into the Tabernacle and a Divine fire consumed them fatally.  Our commentators suggest many possible explanations, including 

(1) they used the wrong fire because they were drunk, since the very next message to Moses is to prohibit the priests from drinking wine or liquor before entering the sanctuary;

(2) they were jealous of their father and their uncle, even asking “when will these old men die, so that we can lead the people?”; 

(3) they presumed to decide legal questions in place of Moses; 

(4) they were not married; 

(5) they had no children; 

(6) they did not wash their hands and feet upon entering the Tabernacle.  

Rabbinical writers also note that the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu did not burn their clothes, implying it was truly fire from heaven – lightning.  

         Interesting suggestions, all.  Questionable actions and their penalties are not confined to ancient times or to religious ceremony.  When a pilot fails a breathalyzer test, minutes before he is to fly a passenger plane, he is grounded.  In fact, airline rules require pilots to stay away from alcohol – not all the time, but for a certain definite period before and during flights.

         Our Torah provides a sacred precedent for those rules. After the shock of Nadav’s and Avihu’s death, Moses has to caution Aaron and his remaining sons not to drink wine or liquor “when they come into the Tent of Meeting.”  In other words, don’t officiate while under the influence. What the Torah most definitely does not do, is ban alcoholic beverages completely.  Not even for priests.  No Prohibition law here.  This distinction continued through Jewish history.  Kiddush to this day involves a drink of wine.  But note, in the synagogue the cantor chants the prayer and drinks the wine toward the end of the Sabbath or holiday evening service, when most of his officiating is over.  And daytime Kiddush occurs after the service is finished.  As for priests, Cohanim, they generally recite their benediction, their blessing of the people, during Musaf, the additional and concluding service of a festival morning.  But there is an exception on Simchas Torah, the holiday of Rejoicing in the Torah. Many congregations accent that annual celebration by giving every man called to the Torah reading a schnapps. So on Simchas Torah the blessing of the Cohanim is moved to the Shakhris service – before Torah reading!  And of course, since the reading of this secton in the synagogue closely follows Purim, with its accent on partying, we can appreciate the perils of overindulgence.   No, we don’t prohibit alcohol, even for Cohanim.  Any more than the airlines demand total sobriety from their pilots.  What they – and the Torah – require, is good judgment. Take the time to sober up.  

         For some of us, that sobering is a process of years. Those of us who experience dependence on alcohol or drugs usually discover that recovery can go on indefinitely. Our tradition provides for that too. Remember that the blessing over grape juice is exactly the same as the blessing over wine.  That parallel goes for whiskey and coffee too.  Hopefully, we made some progress since the days of Nadav and Avihu.  Even without lightning.                

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INAUGURATION DAY – “Tzav” – Lev. 6-8 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

INAUGURATION DAY – “Tzav” – Lev. 6-8 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         No parade.  No speeches.  No wildly cheering crowd.  This is not the coronation of a king or the inauguration of a president.  This is a dedication of a high priest and his assistants.

         In these three long chapters we will read how Moses inaugurated his brother Aaron and sons as priests in the newly completed Tabernacle. First the necessary sacrifices are detailed.  Then Moses assembles his brother and nephews, washes them, gives them their special clothes, and performs the ceremony. He assembles the people at the door of the Tent to witness this event.  He applies holy oil to the furniture of the Tabernacle, sprinkles that oil seven times on the altar, and anoints the head of Aaron as High Priest.  He then brings in Aaron’s sons and dresses them.  

Then come the sacrifices.  A bullock and two rams, each has special significance.  The bullock is a sin offering.  The first ram is “olah” – literally a burnt offering, but the word also means “rising,” directing human thoughts upward, rising to heaven with the smoke.  And the second ram is “millu-im” – completion.  During this whole ceremony, we might find it surprising that Aaron and his sons do not lead it.  All they do is place their hands on the head of the sacrificial animal before it is slaughtered.  Moses does all the work.  Only when the rites are completed does he give his nephews instructions about cooking the meat and where to eat it.  They will stay in the Tabernacle for a full week, and work into their duties.  

This ceremony consecrated the hereditary priesthood – the cohanim —for all of Jewish history to come.  So we will read the account of slaughtering animals, and which parts were burned, which parts eaten, and how the blood was used to sanctify the priests – a drop on the right ear-lobe, a drop on the right thumb, a drop on the right big toe.  Quite graphic.  

Obviously this is not how we practice our religion today.  After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis set a principle: Prayer replaces sacrifice –t’filah bim’kom korban.  They created a prayerbook that includes descriptions of the ancient sacrifices, and taught that repeating those descriptions qualifies us as if we performed the sacrifices ourselves.  Some Jews still anticipate building the Third Temple and restoring the sacrificial cult.  Others deny that plan, consider it barbaric.  And many realistic traditionalists, even though continuing to read about the sacrifices in the daily prayers, will simply wait for the Messiah and let him decide what rites to perform in the Third Temple.

Yet when we read the Torah in the synagogue, we continue reviewing the sacrificial offerings every year, in this portion and indeed in a large part of the Book of Leviticus.  Why?  

My father, Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon of blessed memory, called it “the supreme symbol of religious idealism.”  Citing the homiletical play on the second verse of this portion, “zot torat ha-olah hee ha-olah,” he wrote: “The rabbis [thus] expressed a great truth: ‘This is the law of the burnt-offering; it leads upward.’  Only sacrifice lifts man to the highlands of the spirit.”

What we should take note of here are the reasons cited for sacrifice. They include violations of positive commandments, and of prohibitions.  Those call for what the Torah defines as Sin offerings and Guilt offerings.  Other reasons for sacrifice are even more contemporary: thanksgiving, and peace. The very Hebrew word for a sacrifice, korban, comes from the same 3-letter root as the word karov – “near.”  Through the ages, our sages stress that point.  In Hasidus, to be m’korev someone is not to sacrifice them but to bring them near, to involve them in Jewish life.   

Our sacrifice may not be expressed in slaughtered cattle, or in cornmeal flavored with frankincense.  Instead, we offer our time, our labor, our cash.   A selfless act of devotion can bring us near to G-d and to each other. 

Sharing our food with the hungry, helping those who have no help, teaching those who need to learn, and joining in prayer with any 9 Jews who need one more for a Minyan – are just a few ways we can fulfill the Mitzvah of sacrifice today.

We don’t even need holy oil.

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GETTING THE CALL – Vayikra – Leviticus 1:1 ff – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

GETTING THE CALL – Vayikra – Leviticus 1:1 ff – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         Now we begin the book of Leviticus.  Its first three words are worth dwelling on.  Unlike most English translations, this book does NOT open by saying “The L-rd called to Moses, and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”  The Hebrew original starts with the three words “Vayikra el Mosheh” – literally, “He called to Moses.”  Who called?  The text does not say.  Of course, next come the words “the L-rd spoke to him,” but we still don’t know who called Moses to attention.

         True, most commentators assume that the call came from G-d, because the immediate previous section, at the end of Exodus, specifically tells us that Divine glory filled the Tabernacle.  So if a call came to Moses from there, it had to be the voice of G-d.  It remained for the Lubavitcher Rebbe to ask “Who is calling?” and to differ with some earlier commentators as to the basis, but he too assumed the Divine source.

         Now let’s take another look at this text.  The Torah not only does not waste words, it does not omit words.  No message reaches its target unless that target is there to receive it.  Every target – particularly a human ear – needs to be ready, needs an alert, an alarm, a call to attention.  The source of that call could be natural or supernatural, human or animal or technical.  G-d might send us a message, and we might not be listening.   So Vayikra el Mosheh really applies to all of us. If a Moses needs a call, what about us ordinary people?  A baby cries, a bird squawks, thunder roars, tires shriek, a plane power-dives – were you listening?   Maybe you weren’t, but you are now.  And if you have the head and the heart to get the message, you can save yourself and those you love.         

Who called to Moses?  It doesn’t matter.  Moses heard the call, and was ready.  So may it be for us.        

                                         

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