RINGS ON THE ARK – Parsha T’rumah by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

RINGS ON THE ARK – Parsha T’rumah   by Rabbi Baruch Cohon               

         Chapters 25-27 of Exodus provide a description of the first Jewish sanctuary in complete detail.  All it lacks is a blueprint, and succeeding generations of construction-minded scholars have supplied that.  Some modern editions of the printed Torah actually include pictorial depictions of the Ark, the altars, the showbread table, the curtains – all the elements that made up the ancient Israelites’ religious center, the place where they offered prayers and sacrifices.  Here is where the gold they borrowed in Egypt got put to use, as the wooden structures were decorated in the precious metal.  Another use for the metal, however, was more practical.   On each of the four corners of the Ark, and each of the four corners of each altar, they had to mount heavy gold rings.

         Why did they need rings on the Holy Ark?  To carry it.  Long wooden poles went through each pair of rings, and men from the Tribe of Levi put their shoulders under those poles and transported the sacred structures as the people journeyed through the desert.  Primitive transportation, to be sure.  For all those 40 years, from the Red Sea by a tortured route to the east bank of the River Jordan, these people had no wheels.  Egypt had wheels.  Moab had camels.  But Israel walked.  Israel needed those rings on the Ark.

         So Judaism started out as a portable religion.  Only in Solomon’s Temple were there no rings on the ark.  That would be a permanent House of G-d.  And so it was for generations.  Until disaster came.  Enemies attacked and destroyed it.  Twice. The first time, brave and dedicated leaders were able to go back and rebuild it.  But the second time, no way of rebuilding.  What would happen to Judaism?  Where would a defeated nation find rings to carry the Ark of the Covenant?   

Then came a dedicated teacher and visionary named Yohanan ben Zakkai.  During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, when no Jews were permitted to leave the city except to bury the dead, the Talmud recounts that he lay down in a coffin and had his students carry him out. Reaching the Roman camp, Yohanan proceeded to stand up out of the coffin and tell the officer “Take me to your leader.” That leader was a general named Vespasian, whom Yohanan greeted as Emperor.  Vespasian corrected him, but Yohanan predicted that he would become emperor, as indeed he did.  Whether Vespasian believed him or was just flattered, he asked Yohanan: “What do you want? You risked your life to come to me. What are you seeking?”  Then Yohanan asked for the right to take his students to a town called Yavneh and teach them there.  Vespasian agreed.  The school they started was called Kerem b’Yavneh – the vineyard in Yavneh – because the students lined up like the rows of vines in a vineyard.  There they kept Torah alive.  

When Rosh Hashanah came, they hesitated to blow the Shofar.  A new problem, since in their memory the shofar was never blown outside of the Temple in Jerusalem.  But here it was, the morning of Rosh Hashanah, which is defined in the Torah as Yom t’ruah – the day of sounding the horn.  They had to discuss the law on this topic.  Yohanan told them: “Sound the Shofar.  We will discuss it later.”  Once it was sounded, they realized that discussion was unnecessary.  The Shofar call in Yavneh replaced the rings on the Ark. 

Again, Judaism was portable.  It remained portable, journeying to every continent on the globe.  It remains portable now, whether moving from any city’s downtown to uptown, or returning to Jerusalem.  And I daresay it will remain portable even if alien shrines get removed from the Temple Mount some day and a new Sanctuary is built there. As we say in the daily prayers:  B’chol ha-aretz k’vodo – “Throughout Earth is G-d’s glory.”

         Indeed the one commandment in this section that became a rabbinical favorite is this one:  V’asu lee mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham —“They should make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell b’tokhamamong them.”  Not b’tokho – inside of IT, but b’tokham – among THEM G-d would not dwell in the building, but in the people.  Wherever they were, wherever they built their house of worship, the Divine presence would join them.    Spectacular or humble, the sanctuary stands to help the people rise to a feeling of holiness.  Its very name, mikdash, comes from the root word kodesh – holy. Gathering in that building prompts us to call G-d’s name in prayer.  If we succeed in that effort, the holy thoughts come home with us.  

         Do you need rings on your ark?  Or do you already have them?  Let your prayers carry the holy thoughts through your life, like the gold rings on the ark, traveling through the desert.  

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OUR RESPONSIBILITIES – Mishpatim – Ex. 21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

OUR RESPONSIBILITIES – Mishpatim – Ex. 21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         All through the Torah we learn about our responsibilities – to G-d, to ourselves, to the land, to our work, and to each other. This week’s reading will include a detailed list of those responsibilities.   We should keep in mind that this is not a complete list, but it’s a good start.  

         Included here we find both positive and negative commands. They range from capital offenses to calendar celebrations, from how to treat a slave to what to do with an ox that gores.  The name of this reading is mishpatim, “Judgments.”  And its basic theme is justice.  Here we will find the famous rule of “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth,” a rule that was always interpreted to mean the economic value of that body part. Inflicting identical damage on the guilty does the victim no good, but paying for the damage is only right. Here we also learn that if a master inflicts that kind of injury on a slave, that slave must go free.  In Torah times slavery was a recognized reality. But unlike the attitude elsewhere – then and ever since then – that slaves are merely property, the Torah insists on treating slaves as human beings.  And lest we deceive ourselves that this is all ancient history, shocking current statistics reveal a number of slaves in the world today in the millions.

         Reading the penalties listed for violating these rules, we observe that in Torah times jail overcrowding was not a problem.  No long prison terms.   Generally punishment consisted of either economic penalties like fines and damage payments, or physical punishment – whippings or beatings, limited to 39 lashes – or banishment, or execution.  In the case of lesser religious violations, the guilty party had to bring a sacrificial offering.  

         Some penalties do not appear here, but will show up in the Book of Leviticus.  For example, here we find execution mandated for sorcery and for bestiality.  Not for other offenses, such as those described in Leviticus, including adultery and homosexuality where both violators got the death penalty.  Actually, fewer executions took place than we might expect, since the Torah requires two credible witnesses in order to convict and impose the death sentence.  And this week’s reading includes strict standards for honest testimony.

Worshiping a false god is punished with “destruction,” which is understood as “death at the hands of Heaven” rather than execution by human methods. Those methods were stoning, burning, beheading and hanging.  Violent action only, not poison or starvation.  Today presumably, the Torah would favor the firing squad over the lethal injection.  In murder cases, Torah justice recognizes the ancient practice of goel ha-dam –“the redeemer of blood” – closest relative of the victim, who had the right to avenge the death by killing the murderer.  And here we find an immediate reference to the case of an accidental unpremeditated killing, where the innocent killer should have a place to go and be safe from the avenging relative.  Cities of refuge were in fact established for this purpose both east and west of the Jordan, as detailed in later readings. 

         More outstanding than all the penalties are the moral imperatives set forth in this week’s reading.  If someone digs a pit and a man or an animal falls into it, whoever dug that pit is responsible for the injuries.  Give a tool or an animal to your neighbor for safekeeping, and that neighbor assumes responsibility to return your property intact.  And “do not take a bribe, for a bribe will blind the sharp-eyed, and pervert the words of the righteous.”  Practical rules to live by.  Our sages never stopped exploring rules like these.  The Talmud sets forth many imperatives that do not appear in the Torah at all, but became part of Jewish law, based on the principle of tikkun ha-olam–“repairing the world.” 

Repeated several times in the Torah, including this week, is the message: “Consider the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.”  Not stated but understood is the result: You know what happened to you –slavery and persecution; you didn’t deserve it; don’t do it to others.   

Truly this is a section worth reading and learning.  All four chapters.

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CREED OR DEED – Yisro – Ex. 18-20 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

CREED OR DEED – Yisro – Ex. 18-20 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

As we read the one-and-only story of an entire nation getting certified by G-d Almighty, with Moses ascending Mount Sinai amid thunder, lightning and smoke, we might expect this week’s reading to be named for Moses.  It is not.  Instead, it bears the name of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, a heathen priest of Midian.  When he heard about the miraculous events of the Exodus, he determined to cast his lot with his son-in-law and the people of Israel.  At the beginning of this week’s reading, we find him giving Moses practical advice:  Don’t wear yourself out judging all these people’s petty grievances – appoint some able G-d-fearing truthful men, men who hate unjust gain, and make them rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.  Let them bring you the hardest cases, and let them judge the rest. Moses gratefully takes the advice, and Jethro goes home.   His vision, his wise counsel, qualifies him to give his name to this climactic Torah portion.

Now Israel arrives at Sinai. All through the centuries, thinkers wondered why this rather minor mountain became the place where mankind would meet G-d.  Located in desert country, it is usually identified with Jebel Musa, where a wide plain spreads below it, offering enough space for the Israelite camp. Remember Moses led 600,000 men of military age, plus the women, children and old people – plus the eyrev rav, the hangers-on who left Egypt with them.  Estimates of the total population number 2 to 2.5 million.  And they had animals too, so they needed plenty of camping space.  But more than that, they needed purpose.

Against all probabilities, they got out of Egypt safely.  That purpose was physical freedom, and they accomplished it.  What now?

Moses climbs the mountain and hears the Divine call: “Speak to beys Yaakov, the House of Jacob, and tell b’ney Yisroel, the sons of Israel..”  Who were these two entities?  Our commentators tell us that the House of Jacob refers to the women, and the Sons of Israel to the men.  Indeed, today we frequently find schools for Jewish girls called Beys Yaakov.   The message went to the women first, as they would teach it to their children and extend it into future generations.  

What is the message Moses is charged with?  “If you will listen, and keep My covenant, you will be My treasure among all nations, for all the earth is Mine.”  And the people agree!  For once, the answer is unanimous.  

Now they are given time to prepare for the covenant that will make Israel a singular nation. “Sanctify yourselves today and tomorrow. Wash your clothes… Be ready for the third day.  Don’t go near a woman.”

How’s that again?   Is this an ancient “war on women?”  Exactly the opposite, as Rashi explains quite graphically.   Abstaining from sexual contact for those 3 days would ensure that the women would be ritually clean to receive the Torah.   

While tradition holds that all 613 Mitzvos were received on that third day, all the text gives us here are the “big 10.”  Significantly, they are not called Commandments in Hebrew.   They are called aseres hadibros, literally “ten statements.”  These are principles of right and wrong, Divinely authorized in #1 and #2, and detailed in the other 8.  Honoring your parents is right.  So is resting one day a week.  But murder is wrong – and the text definitely reads “thou shalt not murder,” not “thou shalt not kill.” Warfare and legal execution involve killing, but they are not the violent sin of murder.  Also wrong are adultery, theft, false witnessing, and that puzzling word “covet,” the urge that comes from jealousy, the desire to have what someone else has, the obsession that leads to crime.  These are not ritual observances.  These are basic standards of human conduct.  

How can we justify removing Ten Commandments monuments from our courthouses today?  There is no church-state violation of the U.S. Constitution here.  Even those first two statements cite no specific religion – not “I am thy Jewish G-d, or thy Christian or Hindu or Muslim G-d” – just the One divine source of life and instructor of right and wrong.  These Ten belong on our houses of justice.   

In the next reading Moses will receive the practical do’s and don’ts, and their corresponding rewards and penalties, and we will read of some disturbing results among the people at the foot of the mountain.  But for now, hearing the Big Ten in shul, let’s stand and receive these eternal principles once more, with respect and gratitude for our distant ancestors, just 3 months out of slavery, who could accept the role of teaching truth to the world.


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WHY DO YOU CRY TO ME? BETTER SING! – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

WHY DO YOU CRY TO ME?  BETTER SING! – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         The 13ththru 17thchapters of Exodus tell some of the Bible’s most dramatic and significant episodes.  After unsuccessfully negotiating with Moses, Pharaoh and his people experienced the last three plagues, starting with Locusts, #8, then Darkness, #9, and finally #10, the most fearsome of all, Death of the Firstborn.  Again Pharaoh tries negotiating after 8 and 9, but fails.  When his own firstborn, the heir to the throne, is found dead – as well as every firstborn of humans and cattle in Egypt – he officially ejects the entire Hebrew nation, adults, children, livestock and all.  Off they go.

         But before they can reach the Red Sea, Pharaoh has another “change of heart.”   What was he thinking?  How could he send away all those slaves?  So he mobilizes 600 shock troops – chariots and horsemen – and gives chase.  Seeing the cloud of dust raised by the pursuing army, the Israelites turn on Moses: “Were there no graves in Egypt?  You had to bring us here to die in the desert?”  Moses assures them that G-d will fight for them, and they are to be silent.  And indeed the Divine pillar of cloud moves from in front of the Israelites to behind them and hovers between them and the Egyptian army.  

         Now they arrive at the sea shore.  What can they do?  Like his people, Moses sees a grim alternative: get slaughtered by the enemy or drown in the sea.  Moses cries to G-d for help, and gets the Divine retort: Mah titz’ak ey-lai?  (We can almost hear Jewish parents asking the same question in Yiddish: Vos shry’stu af mir?)   Moses hears:“Why do you cry to me?  Tell the Israelites to move forward.”  Here a famous midrash supplies the details.  Nothing happens until one man, Nachshon by name, steps into the water. He goes forward until the water reaches his neck, and then – the great miracle!  A powerful wind raises the water to a wall on his right and on his left, and the Israelites cross on dry land.  In his honor, the name Nachshon survives in modern Israel as the example of courageous action.  

The pursuing Egyptian chariots lose their wheels in the deep wet sand, and their riders die in the sea.  The lost wheels of the royal chariots were overlaid in gold.  Just recently archeologists found those gold wheel-covers at the bottom of the Red Sea.  The wooden wheels and the chariots themselves were long since decomposed, but the metal survived!   Yes, it really happened.         

         None of these episodes, spectacular as they are, give their name to this reading, however.   This Sabbath in synagogues throughout the world is not called the Sabbath of escape, or the Sabbath of freedom or the Sabbath of broken wheels. It is called Shabat Shira –the Sabbath of Song.  Arriving on the far side of the Red Sea and seeing their enemies sink behind them, Moses and his people sang an epic song of praise and triumph. This Song of the Sea is still chanted with its special melody in this week’s Sabbath morning services.  And this Sabbath provides an occasion to perform Jewish music old and new for many audiences.

Of course the story goes on, as the 40-year trek through the desert is just starting.  In fact, at the end of this section we see the cowardly tribe of Amalek – the jihadists of their day – attack Israel, striking from the rear. A fierce battle ensues. We will read how Moses climbs a hill and holds his sacred staff up high, with Aaron and Hur flanking him, while on the plain below Joshua leads the fight against Amalek.  As the day goes on, Moses’ arms tire and Aaron and Hur have to hold them up so the fighters can see the symbol.  As long as they can look up, they prevail.  Only when they look down do they risk losing.  Courage and confidence lead them to victory, A symbolic tale if there ever was one.

         Among the symbolic stories in this section, one word that gets very little mention – and even gets an inexact translation – appears in Chapter 14 verse 30.  The standard English translation reads: “The Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.”  But that’s not what the Hebrew text says. The word for Egyptians would be mitzrim, but the Hebrew says mitzra-yim, which would translate: “Israel saw EGYPT dead.” Not some soldiers floating in the water, but the death of the Egyptian empire.   After defying destiny and denying freedom, Pharoah succeeded only in leading his nation to defeat.  Indeed the ancient power of Egypt never recovered.  King Tut’s fame and the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam are all the work of foreigners.  Even the population changed when civilized Egyptians were overrun by Mohamed’s primitive tribesmen.  Truly Israel saw Egypt dead.  

         Another significant word-form starts the Song of the Sea.  The Hebrew does not say Az sharMosheh – “Then Moses and the Israelites sang,”but Az yashirMosheh – “Then Moses and the Israelites will sing,” a hint that our great song is yet to come, when we will all sing with the Moshiach – the Messiah, who will bring G-d’s kingdom to Earth.

         Many of us are still waiting.

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MIDNIGHT AT NOON – Bo – Ex. 10-13 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Author Rabbi Baruch Cohon

MIDNIGHT AT NOON – Bo – Ex. 10-13 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         This week we will read about plagues #8, 9 and 10.  Of these, as well as the ones we read about last week, #9 has a unique quality.   It afflicts the mind rather than the body.  This time, no hailstones will pelt the Egyptians, no lice will bite them, no frogs will overrun their country.  This time they will get a blackout.  The Torah describes it as darkness so thick you could feel it.  For three days and nights, people could not see each other.  They were afraid to move.

         How did Moses manage this?  According to some historians, maybe he didn’t.  They tell us this was an actual total eclipse of the sun which took place on March 13, 1335 BCE.  Perhaps that’s why Moses didn’t warn Pharaoh in advance the way he did before some of the other plagues.  

         Our classic commentators offer other explanations.  The Klee Yokor (Vessel of Value) observes that the pattern of creation gives human beings both day and night.  So here the Creator borrowed night from the Israelite territory and added it to Egypt, turning the daytime into night.  Thus the Egyptians had double darkness – all night and all day.  Never saw the sun.  Remember, the sun was the Egyptian chief god.  No wonder they were scared.  But, we are told, “the Israelite people had light, where they lived.”  In fact, says Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim in Klee Yokor, they had light both by day and by night.  To prove it, he points out that the last letters of the words “all the people of Israel had – l’khoLb’neYyisroeLhayaH–“ spell “LY’LaH – Night!”

         The Or haHayyim (Light of Life) commentary takes a spiritual approach.  Suppose a word is missing from the sentence about the Israelites having light.   Just a little word, asher, translated “which, or who, or that,” as sometimes happens elsewhere in Scripture.  Then the sentence would read: “The Israelites who had light were in the dwellings.”  Meaning that those Israelites who went to Egyptian dwellings brought their light with them!  Evil people cover themselves in darkness, as did the wicked Egyptians.  But tzadikim —the righteous — experience Divine light “like the sun in all its power.”  G-d loans them some of that light, so they can have light in their dwellings.  And they can bring it with them to other dwellings.  They had no Harry James to play it or Kitty Kallen to sing it, but some of the Egyptians that the Israelites visited in those days surely found themselves Beginning to See the Light!  Had to.  A couple of chapters further in this week’s reading, we will find out about the “mixed multitude – eyrev rav” who left Egypt with the Israelites.  Who were they?  Presumably dissatisfied Egyptians, glad to leave Pharaoh’s tyranny.  No doubt some of them received light in their darkness from their slave neighbors, during the Blackout of the Ninth Plague.

         Like the scholars and scientists and entrepreneurs in modern Israel, those ancient tzadikim brought their light to their neighbors.  Even though they were working for the Egyptians – not providing jobs for today’s Arabs – the light of Truth was with them.

         All the Plague stories are symbolic, each in its own way, and the Plague of Darkness comes to remind us of all the varieties of light we can enjoy, and share, and use, to reveal the world’s blessings.  Throughout our history, Jews take leading roles in kindling and sharing the light of knowledge, the light of discovery, the light of justice, and above all the light of truth.  

         Let’s hope we always will.

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