Collapse? By Rabbi Baruch Cohon


During nightly riots kicked off by the death of one George Floyd in Minneapolis, some leaders in foreign countries spoke of the “collapse of the United States.”  Viewing news coverage of the disturbances, it could look that way.  Was it?

Frustrated by COVID19 restrictions, and in pain from resulting unemployment and bankruptcy, many Americans needed a good excuse to get out of the house and vent their anger. Seeing the TV video of a police officer killing a man he was arresting for allegedly passing counterfeit money was enough to start loud protests in the street – not just in Minneapolis but in cities throughout the country. 

Do “black lives matter?” Of course.  All lives matter.  Would George Floyd be alive today if he was white?  Maybe, maybe not.  Either way, his death at the hands of law enforcement was a crime.  Protests started immediately.

Marching in the protest crowd were demonstrators with a variety of causes.  Some were truly dedicated to justice for black Americans; others had quite different interests.  Political extremists like Antifa and Jihad used the protest movement for their own purposes – including vandalizing synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in several cities.

Petty criminals grabbed the opportunity to join the night marchers and break into local stores to loot them for liquor and jewelry and drugs.

Violence and victimhood can look like national collapse.  But the America I know can recover from it.  G-d willing, medical scientists will yet cure coronavirus, law enforcement will implement firm standards, and our economy will once again lead the world to some prosperity.

And most important, we can all once and for all realize that whoever we are – black or white, Jewish or Latino, Asiatic or Hawaiian, Navajo or Eskimo — we are one nation. Significantly, in his memorial to George Floyd, his brother Terence called for our unity. 

Let’s all make whatever effort we can to reach that goal. 

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As happens every year, on the eve of the Shavuot festival we had a nighttime learning session.  Subject matter was Jewish law, since Shavuot celebrates our ancestors receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.  This year being lockdown time, our learning was conducted via Zoom.  But “virtual” participants still asked questions, volunteered relevant information, and – guess what – argued.

Then came two days of celebration, complete with some memorable cheesecake, and now it’s the day after.  One subject we discussed online sticks in my mind.  How does today’s life style relate to religious law?

Many of us conduct ourselves by moral principles.  We accept Divine law as we understand it.  We don’t murder, we don’t steal, we don’t testify falsely.  We may even honor our parents and take one day off every week as a Sabbath.  Those laws are 3,000 years old.  What about today’s sexual standards?  Do we accept “same-sex marriage”, even though the Torah defines it as a capital offense called perversion? 

And if a male and female want to live together and maybe have children, do we consider them a family whether or not they bother to have a wedding?  No doubt about it, the family institution is in trouble in many parts of the world.  All through human history the basic unit of any civilization – from tribal to industrial – is the family, consisting of one man, one woman (in most places, but as many as 4 women in other societies), and one or more children.  Not reliable lately. The number of conventional families in the U.S. is in serious decline. 

Current protests raise a similar question.  If a police officer kills someone he is arresting, that action certainly breaks the law, both civil and religious.  And when other people stage violent protests and set fire to homes and public buildings and ransack the nearest stores, are they not breaking the law? 

Here, to my view, is the bottom line.  If and when my standards of conduct conflict with the laws of my religion, one of us is wrong.  Usually, if not always, I’m it.

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This generation seems to produce more organizations than it does children. How far left do you want to go? If the leaders of the club you are in look too mild, don’t just differ with them as fellow members. Resign and organize a group that’s more extreme. Same holds true on the right, of course.

It also can hold true in reverse: if your group leaders look too extreme, resign and form a more diplomatic organization.

That is one way organizations multiply. True both in the nationwide population of our country, and specifically in the Jewish community.

Religiously, American Jews were long considered to belong to 3 categories: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. This generation also counts Reconstructionist, Renewal, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, Secular, and no doubt more that don’t come to this writer’s mind.

Politically, too, we are just about as divided as our Gentile neighbors. Even in the foreign policy field, we promote all shades of policy, from pro-Israeli to pro-Arab.

The old expression “Two Jews, three opinions” is far from describing our reality. It’s more like “Ten Jews, fifty opinions” these days.

Facing a national election, it takes no genius to see the development of an overdiversified campaign, and voters who cannot confidently select any candidate they really agree with. Seeing Israeli elections fail, one after another, and the country continuing to function “without a government,” we might well wonder if that could happen here.

More of us need to analyze our plight. Disband about 75% of our squabbling organizations, and let’s promote basic targets – freedom, security, peace. It could be done.

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HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE?    By Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30

HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE?    By Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30

     The people are camped on the east bank of the Jordan, listening to a final message from Moshe Rabbeinu —.  Moses our Rav.  He knows he will not cross that river with them, and he wants them to know what to do when they enter the Promised Land.  The name of this reading is “Nitzavim” – literally “Standing.”  Not just “standing around,” however.  That would be om’dim. The very word Nitzavim indicates they were standing at attention.  The opening lines of Moses’ discourse set the scene:

     “You are standing today, all of you, before your G-d.  Your leaders, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel.  Your children, your women, the strangers in your midst, your woodcutters and your water-carriers.  [You are here] to form a covenant with G-d… all those who are here with us today, and those who are not here with us today.”

     Not here?  Did anyone not make that list?  That was a pretty complete list.  Who was not there?  All the unborn generations.  Including us. The covenant is a sacred commitment that involves us all.

     And what was the covenant?  Of course we know the Hebrew word for a covenant is “bris.”  That’s right.  Bris does not mean circumcision, it means covenant.  First came the covenant of Abraham which certainly includes circumcision.  That is still observed, even though lately some officials in some places consider it politically incorrect.  But the covenant of Moses goes far beyond a physical operation.  It extends to the responsibility for “mitzvot,” the commandments, the daily conduct that shapes our lives.  It’s what we do that makes us what we are.  Moses taught us standards for our conduct – like honest dealings, respect for the sacred, educating our children in Torah. Carrying out those standards of conduct can make us more than what we are; they can make us what we should be.

     Earlier in his speeches, Moses went into quite a bit of detail about those standards.  Here he refers to the rewards we can expect if we live by Torah teachings, and the penalties that go with their violation – 98 of them that we read last week. Then he anticipates the inevitable question, which does not appear in the Torah but resounds in each of our minds, the question we just have to ask: Isn’t this job too hard?  Do you really expect me to do all this?

     In Chapter 30 that we read this morning, Moses gives his answer: Hamitzva hazot lo nifleyt hee mim’kha v’lo r’khoka hee,which we can paraphrase this way:  This commandment is not beyond your ability, nor is it far away.  It is not in heaven, so you don’t need to say “who will go up in a space ship and get it for us and bring it down and tell it to us so we may do it?”  And it is not overseas, so don’t look for someone to cross the ocean and bring it back to you.  No, this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.  Kee karov elekha hadavar m’od, b’feekha uvil’vav’kha laasoto. 

     Karov m’od – very close.  Very close, eh?  How close is close?

     By attending this service and hearing the message of Nitzavim, you already come closer to fulfilling the commandment.

     How about those services you missed last year?  Those Shabat and festival occasions when you chose to be somewhere else?  Did the covenant desert you because you were somewhere else?  What commandment did you fulfill somewhere else?  Did you help someone who needed help because their car stalled?  Did you remind your kids to get advance homework because they will be absent from school on Rosh Hashana?  Did you write a letter to the editor of a newspaper that printed a slanderous anti-Israel column?

     By the way, if I can change the subject for a minute, we can all hold our own honest opinions pro or con about Israeli government policies, but some 7 million Jews in Israel are our people, and what affects them is bound to affect us.  We are, and we remain, “am segulah,” a chosen people. Divinely chosen for a certain lifestyle, and chosen all too often by human enemies as a victim.  Once in a while, like Tevye we might wish that the Almighty would choose someone else, but don’t hold your breath.  And besides, those 7 million are also Nitzavim today.  They stand with us.  One people.

     Now back to the contract.  Reform congregations will read “Nitzavim” again on Yom Kippur morning, as we come face to face with our spiritual day of reckoning.  For traditional Jews, this very Shabat sanctifies a week of prayers for forgiveness.  We said our midnight prayers at Slichot, we glory in the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana.  And ten days later, we will stand at attention, all of us.  More Jews in one place at one time than on any other day in the year.  Our leaders and our followers, wives and husbands and children, woodcutters and water department meter readers.  We stand together – Nitzavim – and we try to honor the covenant.

     This is the time, this is the season when we can remind ourselves that our commitment to our Torah, to our faith, to our people, is not beyond our reach.  It is not in heaven, but here on earth.  It is not exclusively overseas, because our forebears brought it to America.  It is indeed close to us.

     How close?  As close as the mezuzah on your doorpost.  As close as the candle on your table.  As close as the book on your shelf.  As close as your pride in your heritage.

     The covenant is as close to us today as the medal a decorated veteran wears. By wearing it, we evidence our pride. It is as close as the cup we lift to celebrate the Sabbath — and by drinking that wine we bring the sweet taste of heritage into our lives.  Truly it is in your mouth and in your heart.  It is as close as the tree limbs we will lift on top of our Succah, recalling our ancestors’ joy in the harvest.  It is as close as the hour we will spend helping a child do some homework.  It is as close as the jumper cables we will use to help our neighbor start that stalled car.

       Every service we attend, every ritual we observe, brings it closer.

     All of these actions are part of our covenant.  They are as close to us as we will get to them.  The closer we bring our covenant to our lives, the better prepared we can be to face a new year.

Have a great one!

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