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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4-F or DD? – Deut. 20 – Shoftim – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

4-F or DD? – Deut. 20 – Shoftim – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

One section in this week’s Sedrah highlights a significant difference between Torah law and facts of life today, including in modern Israel.  “When you go out to battle against your enemies,” it begins, you will get instructions.  First the cohen, the chaplain, addresses the troops and urges them not to be afraid because the Almighty is on their side.  “He will fight for you, to save you.”  Then come the officers.  They speak to the men they command, and offer certain exemptions, a total of four.

Number 1: A man who built a house that’s not yet dedicated, let him go home and dedicate his house, lest someone else take it.

2-one who planted a vineyard and still did not harvest it,

3-one who betrothed a wife and did not yet marry her, and

4-the last and most telling: one who is afraid of battle and could infect his fellow soldiers with his fear.

Clearly, Biblical Israel had a military draft, but conditions of service were different.  Today’s State of Israel also has universal military service, and it also has legal exemptions.  Different ones, to be sure.

  • Israelis who moved to another country, for one.
  • Those who have serious physical illness.
  • Those who have serious mental illness – which presumably could include fear of fighting, but is not limited to that.


4-Also exempted are Yeshiva students who proclaim Torah to be their umanut – their profession. This rule may change now, since more religious Israelis are choosing military service, and the armed forces are beginning to provide opportunities for them to serve and still observe tradition.

When the United States had a draft, the main exemptions were more limited. In World War II for example, an incurable physical ailment got you a draft number 4-F – as distinct from 1-A, a good specimen.  And if you did get drafted, or enlisted, and later showed psychological trouble, you got a DD – a Disability Discharge.  Fear of fighting was not the determining factor for one of those.

Comparing Biblical requirements with some modern ones, we can discover important differences in our views of national defense.  Neither here nor in modern Israel does the government care about the young man who just built a house, or just planted a field, or just got engaged to his sweetheart.  We may wonder how long and how thoroughly those exemptions were observed. Considerations of the individual get discarded by powerful rulers.  When we go to war, the nation comes first.

As dangers mount, we hear talk of renewing the draft in the United States.  If that happens, we can well expect exemption problems based on politics, gender identity, and religious practice – particularly in a multi-cultural country like ours.

Can we look back on the Torah’s deferments and maybe seek a way to a lifestyle as innocent as that described in Sedrah Shoftim?

While we may make an effort to bring Torah into our daily lives, this is one time when that may look impossible.  But what does not work today in military service can indeed affect our civilian attitudes.  Let our neighbors dedicate their new house.  Help them harvest their new vineyard.  Give them a wedding present.  Maybe we won’t keep a soldier out of action, but we could help a neighbor be a friend.

It’s not a law today.  It’s just Torah-true action.



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The Benefit of the Doubt Torah

This week’s Dvar Torah is a direct quote from my son Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, and appears on his website,
I think you will find it important. 
We celebrate the new month of Elul on Sunday, August 12th, the beginning of the final month of the Jewish year.  It’s the time of year to think about the state of our relationships, to prepare to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, to reflect on where we are in our lives, where we’ve been and where we are headed.

The opening lines of this week’s parsha, Re’ei, are famously about choice.  In that passage Moses says to us, the people,

“Re’ei, anochi noten lifneichem hayom bracha u’klalla.
Et habracha asher tishm’u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem asher anochi m’tzaveh etchem hayom.
V’haklallah im-lo tishm’u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem…

“See, I give you today a blessing and a curse.
The blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot of your God that I command you today.
And the curse if you don’t obey or listen.”

On the surface, this seems like a simple restatement of the central message repeated all through Devarim: if you do good you will be blessed, if you do evil you will be cursed.  This Deuteronomic covenant lies at the heart of the Torah’s understanding of ethics.

But commentator Nechama Leibowitz points out that these are not really two parallel “if’s” here, “blessing IF you listen, curse IF you do not,” though most translations hide that.  The Torah uses two different words: it reads “et habracha ASHER tishm’u“, “v’haklalla IM-lo tishm’u“.  That is, the blessing, because you listen, and the curse, if you do not.

Rashi comments that, “the curse is written in the conditional, and the blessing in the declarative.”  That is, the blessing of God is definite while the curse is only a possibility.

Leibowitz adds that God actually gives us a line of credit, a “mitzvah equity loan” if you will, and we can borrow blessings on the speculation that we will likely do mitzvot.  It’s a good deal for us, if not necessarily for God.  This is a comforting thought: we get blessings on the likelihood that we will do mitzvot.  God rewards us and then hopes—prays?—that we act well and do good.

As we approach the season of Teshuvah, the time of return, our portion of Re’ei gives us added hope that God will always give us the benefit of the doubt, and is even extending us credit in advance to help us with our return to being our best selves.  What a wonderful gift this is.  All we need to do is to take advantage of the opportunity.

May it be our choice to embrace holiness and goodness in the coming month of Elul and in the days of return that follow.

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PROTECTING THE WORD – Ekev – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

PROTECTING THE WORD – Ekev – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

(Yes I said the Word, not the World.)

Along with its legal and historical sections, this week’s Torah reading includes Moses’ narrative of his second 40-day session on the mountain top, to receive the Divine Word.  Chapter 10 opens with that narrative:

At that time, G-d told me: “Hew two stone tablets like the first ones, and climb  up the mountain to Me.  And you must make yourself a wooden ark.”

Last time there was no ark.  Moses carried the tablets in his hands.  Our commentators tell us what else was different then.  The first tablets were Divinely created; they had no weight – until Moses saw the Golden Calf.  In his shock and rage, the tablets became too heavy to hold.  He had to throw them down and break them.  This new set of tablets will be of earthstone, cut and carved by Moses himself, sizeable and weighty.  He will need a container for them.

That container, the Holy Ark which he builds even before hewing the stone tablets, is not the only one to be used for this purpose.  Rashi points out that this is not the Ark built by Bezalel the architect of the Tabernacle.  That one will not come into use until after Yom Kippur, some time after the period of this story.  We can assume, too, that Bezalel’s ark was a grand imposing structure.  This ark is different.  In fact, says Rashi, this is the ark that Israelite fighting forces would take with them to war.   Practical and portable.

In this simple symbolic story, we learn a valuable fact: Both for formal ceremony and basic conduct, the Divine word must be protected.  Daily life proves it.   As we respect our various houses of worship, we implement that respect with thoughtful behavior.  That’s why we stand up when the officiant approaches the Holy Ark and the scroll is taken out —  just one familiar example of the ark’s function that Moses started.

In our work, our recreation, our family life, we can protect our Divine Word very readily. Conduct and conversation contribute to honoring that Word or dishonoring it.  We are not carrying a wooden ark down the street but we can still guard the Word.   Some of us choose to wear our heritage on our heads. All of us need to carry it inside our heads.  After all, the laws that Moses inscribed on those tablets are the basis of a way of life called Judaism.  That way of life is valuable enough to be protected, wherever we live, through the upright habits we should keep.

So how do we deal with those who acknowledge no Word as Divine, and who attack our way of life?   Violent opposition, like terrorism, must of course be subject to violent combat.   No matter what part of the world we are in, we can hope and plan and act, peacefully or violently, to achieve justice and attain true peace.  And for the non-violent opponents, who disparage our Word and have nothing better to offer, good old stubbornness can still prevail.

My friend, here is where I stand.  You may have different ideas, and we’ll have to discuss them reasonably, if at all.  This Word, this way, is mine.

Protect the Word, as Moses did.  With a little Divine help, it will inspire you.

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A MESSAGE FROM MOSES – Deut.3:23—7:11 – Va-etkhanan –by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A MESSAGE FROM MOSES – Deut.3:23—7:11 – Va-etkhanan –by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s reading is long, starting as Moses recalls praying to be permitted to enter the Promised Land.  He is refused, but he accepts his fate, and then turns to remind his people why they are called a “wise and understanding nation.”  It is because of the laws they follow, the Torah they received at Sinai.  That’s where they showed they could listen.  Mitzva was the message, and they accepted it.  Reviewing their progress from slavery in Egypt to nationhood, Moses cautions them to keep the Law.

Then he attends to a matter of administration. He designates Cities of Refuge, where a fugitive killer can go and be safe – if the killing was accidental and not premeditated.  This is just a reminder.  The same Cities of Refuge were described completely two weeks ago.

Now Moses launches into his second oration to his people.  Yes, it is long.  Only part of it is read this week.  Long, but worth reading.  Both dramatic and basic to our understanding of Judaism, this section of Moses’ oration includes:

(1) a repetition of the Ten Commandments, with some brief comments added.  We might well note that the Big Ten are not called commandments in Hebrew.  They are aseret hadibrot – “ten statements.”  Simple principles of right and wrong, universal truths, not limited to any one religion — the truths our ancestors accepted at Mount Sinai.  The same ones that our American neighbors liked to post in public buildings.  Unless…unless some Bible-haters pass laws to ban them.

(2) Sh’ma –“Hear O Israel,” the central declaration of Jewish faith.  I have some notes on the Sh’ma from my father Rabbi and Professor Samuel S. Cohon of blessed memory, a longtime teacher of rabbis.  He points out that the very wordsh’ma means both to hear and to understand.  The ensuing text lists ways we can achieve true understanding: our relationship to the Divine, our learning and teaching of that relationship, dramatizing it through signs and symbols like T’fillin and Mezuzot, and our goal – to make our lives praiseworthy.

(3) the duty to remember the Exodus from Egypt, the primal victory of physical independence that opened the way to moral and spiritual identity.

And finally,

(4) a warning not to be tempted by mixed marriage and idolatry.

Pitfalls await the conquering Israelites, and Moses describes them vividly. They will take over great cities that they did not build.  They will inhabit fine houses full of good things they did not produce.

Maybe the so-called “seven nations” they are replacing knew something they didn’t know?  Maybe those tribes had a better way of life?

Forget it, he tells them: “Not because you outnumbered all the other nations did G-d value you and choose you.  You are the smallest of the nations.  Because G-d loved you, that’s why He rescued you from Egypt.”

Today some people still ask: Why are Moses’ heirs still here?  Why did Jews survive all their defeats, the exile and persecution and genocide?

Not because there were more Jews in the world than there were Egyptians or Greeks or Romans or Huns or Turks.   Still a global minority, we are still able to listen.  Granted, we can listen to the wrong voices.  So we still sometimes get tripped up by idolatries from Communism to Scientology.  Today more than ever, our Torah challenges us to listen to a message from Moses.

If you read the whole Sedrah every week, more power to you.  If not, take the time to read this one.  And since this week included the Ninth of Av when we fast to mourn the destruction of the Temple twice on the same date, take a look at the beautiful Haftorah, the prophetic passage that gives its name to this Sabbath – Shabat Nachmu – the Sabbath of Comfort, as Isaiah sings: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your G-d.”

Wishing you a week of strength and comfort, Shabat Shalom.

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