JUDGE – AND BE JUDGED – Shoftim –Deut. 16:18 – 21:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

JUDGE – AND BE JUDGED – Shoftim –Deut. 16:18 – 21:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         Appropriately named Shoftim – Judges, this reading deals with principles and practices Moses teaches, about what is justice and how to enforce it.

         One theme that gets repeated here says: “Expunge the evil from your midst – uviarta haRa  mi-kirbekha.” That is not just the theme of Moses’ teaching, it is the motivation behind all of it.  If someone is convicted of a capital offense – whether murder, rape, leading others into idolatry, or presenting false evidence to get someone else punished – and the offender is found guilty, then that offender, whether male or female, must be executed.

         Why? Doesn’t every human being contain the Divine image?  How does a violent death cancel out an offense, even if that offense was equally violent?

         True, killing the criminal make it impossible for the same criminal to repeat the crime.  But that’s not enough.  Not for Moses, and not for Judaism.

         If Hatfield kills McCoy, and McCoy Jr. kills Hatfield in return, that’s not justice. That’s revenge.  In recent chapters, Torah law went into considerable detail to limit the power of revenge.  In Moses’ time, the next-of-kin had the right and the duty to hunt down his kinsman’s killer and take his life. That was the accepted practice: revenge killing.  But Torah law limited that right to very specific circumstances.  Above all, it limits the valid motivation for the return killing. Not revenge, now.  But “expunging the evil.”

         Take the case of a criminal who does not commit murder, he just plotted to get his neighbor in trouble. 

“As he plotted to have done to his brother, so let it be done to him,” says Moses.

“On the word of two witnesses or three witnesses shall the condemned be executed. He shall not die on the word of one witness.”

“And all the people shall see, and they will not presume [to violate] again.”

         Never mind the fact that we all have sacred souls.  By our own violations, and by credible eye-witness testimony of our fellows, we can desecrate those souls, and bring on the violent punishments described in this reading.  Not because society is taking revenge on us, but in order to expunge the evil.

         Evil is there.  It is our job – all of us – to get rid of it.


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AN INDIVIDUAL MATTER? – R’ey,  Deut. 11:26-16:17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

AN INDIVIDUAL MATTER? – R’ey,  Deut. 11:26-16:17, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

       In this section, during Moses’ second discourse to the people on the bank of the Jordan, he reviews the laws of religious observance.  One sentence stands out as particularly significant.  “Do not do as we do here today, each man whatever is right in his own eyes.”   [Deut. 12:8]  Once they enter the Holy Land, religious observance would become a national activity with uniform rules and regulations.  It would take considerable time to establish those rules and achieve any national conformity.  Only by the time of King Solomon and the building of the First Temple did a national ritual actually prevail.  But Moses set the goal.

       What happened after the Temple was destroyed, of course, Moses could not envision.  Exiled to Babylonia or conquered by Rome, the Talmudic sages saw that without the Temple, without that national center of religious practice, it was as if the Divine spirit had no home in Jewish life except for the “four cubits of Halacha (Jewish law).”  Portable Judaism found its expression in legal learning and the consequently legislated prayers and other practices that took the place of the sacrificial cult set forth in the Torah.  But still, the laissez-faire religious life of the desert was not acceptable.

       Moving into modern times, we can certainly observe a revival of “each man doing whatever is right in his own eyes.”  Some Jews group together in organizations and movements to form some kind of sub-national religious life.  Others reject organized religion altogether.   Disunity and conflict result.  In the spirit of freedom and democracy, one Jew will ask another: How can you tell me what to believe or what to observe?  After all, isn’t religion an individual matter?

       Not for Moses.  And in fact not for many non-observant Jews of our time either.  Time and again, I’ve had the experience of dealing with families who face the loss of a loved one and look for the comfort of our tradition.  “We want to do what Mom would want,” they say.  Or, “What is the right way to honor our father?”  Maybe their parent was observant and maybe not.  But at times of grief they find solace in time-honored practices.  A Jewish funeral.  A sincere memorial service.

       Danger and emergency can always send humans to G-d for help.  The old saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” was dramatized for me during WW2 when the Navy minesweeper I served on went through a typhoon.  The whole ship was 136 feet long, and we were tossed by 60-foot swells.  Our little ship would shudder at the top of one of those waves, both screws out of the water, vibrating as if every nail would pop out of her wooden hull.  Then she would crash down into the trough between the swells, with water breaking over the flying bridge – and every crewman praying to his own god in whatever words he knew. 

       Is religion an individual matter?  Yes it was, on that ship that night.  What about at times of joy, of celebration?   Bringing a new life into the world and into the family calls for more than a handshake of congratulations.  A feeling deep inside calls for a type of expression of gratitude, something sacred, something moving – a ceremony.  And so we have baby-namings, at home or in the synagogue, and we invite our relatives and friends. 

       Is each of us just doing “whatever is right in our own eyes?”  In a way, yes.  And in another very important way, no.  Because we are drawing on the experience and heritage of our people over many centuries.

       That heritage includes Biblical commands of violence to punish violators.  False prophets, family members who leave the faith and try to take you with them, or even an entire city that decides to practice idolatry.  The Torah condemns them all to death.

       Commentators dealt carefully with these commands to violence, as when Moses says “Your hand shall be first against him (the apostate) and finally the hand of all the people.”  Rashi and others insist that the violator first had to stand trial, and only if found guilty would be killed.  Rabbi J. H. Hertz (former Chief Rabbi of England) points out that “Jewish history does not record a single instance of punishment for religious seduction by a false prophet or a member of one’s family .”

       Another case of Biblical justice applied – or not applied – concerns the pursuer.  If you see an armed man chasing another man who is unarmed, and you assume the pursuer has murder in mind, it is your duty to stop him.  But if the unarmed man runs inside a building and the pursuer follows him, and then the pursuer comes out the other side without his weapon, and you go in and find the fugitive dead and the weapon by his side?  You have no case.  It takes two eye witnesses to convict a murderer.  You don’t know if the dead man wrestled the sword away from his attacker and then fell on it.  You don’t know, so you cannot testify.  And without an eye witness, there is no execution.

       This type of case occurred in modern Israel with the death of General Motta Gur, who was assumed to be a suicide.  He died of a gunshot in his own back yard and was found with a pistol in his hand.  Yet he received a funeral with all military honors.  Some people asked how that could happen, when suicide is after all a terrible sin in Judaism.  One answer detailed the law of two eye witnesses.  Maybe someone jumped the fence, killed Gur and placed the gun in his hand before escaping?  Another answer, less legalistic, concerned his national value as an important leader in the Six Day War.  No witnesses, so give him the benefit of the doubt.

       In this Second Discourse, Moses appears to leave no stone unturned.  He describes right and wrong in one situation after another.  The community gains people and loses people, and he teaches methods to deal with those changes.  In our own time, we hear over and again about the 6 million lives lost in the Holocaust through mass murder, and we also hear that more people were lost to a Jewish future since then, by assimilation and conversion.  Indeed, in some parts of the world, only DNA can prove any connection to the Jewish people.  Maybe those that Moses called the “idolaters” are the real sufferers.  They don’t even know what they are missing – all the wonderful color and flavor of Jewish life.  They deprived themselves of what Moses told us is “the blessing…if you follow the mitzvos – the way of life – that I command you today.”

       It’s the positive choice each of us can take, and survive by taking.  Ever since Moses.

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RESULTS – Ekev – Deut. 7:12 – 11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon 

RESULTS – Ekev – Deut. 7:12 – 11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon 

         Moses continues his Second Discourse with a detailed statement of the moral behavior that will bring positive results.  The reading is called Ekev, a word that also means “heel,” symbolizing the thought that those results should follow as the heel follows the toe. 

         Along the way, he also recounts the story of the Second Tablets, when he is summoned to climb a mountain and receive the Divinely engraved stones to replace the ones he shattered when he saw his people worshipping the golden calf.  This time he is instructed to shelter the new tablets in a wooden ark, setting the pattern for the aron kodesh —the holy ark that holds the central place in synagogues now.

        The main message of this section is what my father of blessed memory summed up as Moses’ three ideals, expressed in Chapter 10: “What does G-d ask from you? To fear the L-rd your G-d, to love Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and soul.” 

         Start with “fear.”  The Biblical concept of fear implies reverence.  Not fright but supreme respect.  If we truly revere G-d we want to pattern our lives after the qualities we associate with Him.  One primary attribute of Divinity is justice.  The midas ha-din – the quality of justice – is expressed with great drama on Yom Kippur.  Then it is associated with G-d.  We can take it as a pattern.  Reverence for G-d should lead to doing justice.

         “Love” of G-d is actualized in our lives by love of our fellow creatures.  We believe that we humans all carry the Divine image within us. That image includes midas ho-rakhamim – the quality of mercy.  Therefore we are taught to treat each other with kindness, to carry over some of the respect we feel for G-d into a mutual respect dealing with each other.

         And “serving” G-d with total sincerity implies both a type of attitude and a type of conduct.  Avodah is one of those Hebrew words that has two meanings – Work, and Worship.  To worship G-d with sincerity requires an attitude of humility.  You can’t pray honestly unless you feel a good deal less important than the Divinity you pray to.  And you can’t strive to do better and better work unless you realize that you yourself are less than perfect.  Unless you have some humility.

         How do we accomplish these goals?  We use the tool Moses gave us at Mount  Sinai.  “Keep G-d’s Mitzvos,” he says.  A Mitzvah is literally a commandment, and by carrying it out we earn credit on the religious value scale.  Truly Mitzvah is a uniquely Jewish concept that distinguished Jewish life throughout history. 

         Doing a Mitzvah can help another person, whether that Mitzvah is helping start their car, or visiting them when they are in mourning, or buying a gift for their child’s birthday.  It also applies to lighting Shabat candles.  It fulfills a responsibility, and it does more than that. As the great commentator Rashi points out, we should keep the Mitzvos lo l’khinnom ello l’tov lokh – “not for nothing, but for your own good.”  Whether humble or ambitious, those Mitzvos make us better people.  It follows as the heel follows the toe.

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

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

        This long section starts as Moses recalls praying to be permitted to enter the Promised Land.  Our Midrash notes that there are ten different words for prayer in the Torah, and here Moses uses the one that appeals to Divine grace.  “Have mercy and let me in, even if I don’t really deserve it.” There he was, our greatest leader, the man who brought our ancestors to freedom and to G-d, and his prayer is denied. What must his reaction be?

        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.  Mitzvah was the message, and they accepted it.  Reviewing their progress from slavery in Egypt to nationhood, Moses cautions them to continue keeping the Law.

         Then he attends to a matter of administration. He designates Cities of Refuge, where a fugitive accidental killer can go and be safe.  This is just a reminder, since the same Cities of Refuge were described completely in the last chapters of the Book of Numbers.

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

  • A repetition of the Ten Commandments, with some brief comments added. We might once again note that the Big Ten are not called Commandments in Hebrew. They are aseret hadibrot –“the ten statements.”  Simple principles of right and wrong – the universal truths accepted at Mount Sinai. The same ones our American neighbors liked to post in courthouses.  Unless….unless some Bible haters pass laws to ban them.
  • 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 word sh’ma means both to hear and to understand.  The ensuing text gives us ways we can gain true understanding and achieve a love relationship with the Divine, by learning and teaching that relationship, and dramatizing it through signs and symbols like t’fillin and m’zuzot – on our arms and heads and the doorposts of our house, practicing the commandments that will bless our lives.
  • The duty to remember the Exodus from Egypt, that primal victory of physical independence that opened the way to moral, spiritual and national identity.

And finally,

  • 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 houses full of good things they did not produce.

        Maybe those 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.”

        Moses held history to witness how the Almighty took one nation out of the midst of another nation – to choose it and make it holy.  Looking at history from Moses’ time until now, we must face the fact that individually and collectively our people repeatedly proves the Divine choice.  Despite tragic losses as the “fewest,” we survive, and we progress.  Current enemies may want to wipe us out, but they won’t.  Nobel prizes, startup industries, topflight arts and literature, or sacred truths – you name it, we are there.  No, being chosen does not mean others are doomed, or even inferior.  They are not.  It just means we have an identity to give thanks for.

        Pride in that identity is, in its own way, a Mitzvah.

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“Tribal Journeys, You Kept The Women Alive – Mattos, Safe Haven For Killers – Mas’ey” by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

TRIBAL JOURNEYS – Num. 30-36 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         The Book of Numbers ends with two contrasting sections, which are frequently read on the same Sabbath in the synagogue. 

         First comes Chapter 30-32 which centers on the Israelite tribes in relation to Moses and his leadership, and their experiences in war. Here it is:


YOU KEPT THE WOMEN ALIVE? – “Mattos” Num.30-32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         Punishment, revenge, anger – all motivate the story we will read in this section called “Mattos,” literally “tribes.”  The heads of the Israelite tribes hear Moses call for 1,000 fighting men from each tribe – including his own tribe of Levi which otherwise does not provide soldiers but only chaplain’s assistants.  This is to be Moses’ last battle, and he is told he must conclude it before being “gathered to his people,” the beautiful Biblical euphemism for dying.  Even when facing his earthly end, Moses responds gladly.  We can expect this to be a highly important battle.

         The military operation has a specific purpose, namely to punish the people of Midian.  To execute “Divine revenge” on them is how the Torah phrases it.  The sexual epidemic that took the lives of thousands of Israelites was engineered by the false prophet Bilaam.  Remembering how that all started with the Israelite men getting seduced by the “girls of Moab,” we might wonder why the revenge is not ordered against Moab.  True, Bilaam himself was a Midianite, but what about those girls?  So let’s go back to Chapter 25.  There we find the violent action Pinhas (Phinehas the priest) took to stop the spread of the epidemic.  He saw a grandee of the tribe of Shimon take a woman into his tent, and Pinhas proceeded to grab a spear and strike them both fatally, through the tent. Who was this woman?  Her name was Cozbi, daughter of a prince of Midian. Not Moab.  Midian.   Conceivably Bilaam saw an opportunity to destroy Israel with poisonous orgies, and brought in his own female operatives to carry it out.

         Another reason for not attacking Moab, says Rashi, is because Divine punishment is withheld in consideration of one great woman who will come from there to join Israel and bring it glory.  Her name was Ruth, whose name and story grace a book in the K’tuvim (“Writings”) section of the Bible.  Ruth set the pattern for all future converts – “Your people shall be my people, and your G-d shall be my G-d” – and became the ancestor of King David.

         So Midian gets attacked.   Indeed it gets destroyed.  The Israelites besiege Midian, wipe out the male population, execute the kings, kill Bilaam, and take the women and children prisoners.  Quite a complete punishment, right? 

         Wrong.  Moses meets the returning troops and he is angry.  “You kept all the women alive?” he shouts.  These are the women whom Bilaam sent to lure you to the orgies of Baal-Peor!  They brought you the plague!  And he proceeds to give orders to execute all women old enough to have sex, and the male children too.  Just keep the little girls…  They’re clean.

         Did Moses himself commit a sin here?  The “Arizal” teaches that anger is a most dangerous sin. In his mystical thinking, when someone becomes angry his soul leaves his body and gets replaced with an “external soul.” Anger can make one forget all his Torah learning, misled by that external soul.  Spurred by his anger, did Moses insist on a mass slaughter of defenseless people?  Was this some kind of genocide?  Or did he give this order in desperation, hopeful that this, his last battle, would guarantee his people’s survival?

         Just maybe, our teacher Moses recognized in Midian the kind of dangerous deceit we see in some of our enemies today.  Executing the leaders is not enough.  Eradicate the source of the danger, whether or not that source is female.  Just maybe, that last battle set an example that every free people needs to remember.


         The second section, which closes the Book of Numbers, is a good deal longer, and includes a review of the Israelite travels through the desert.  In fact it is called “Mas’ey” (“Travels”). 

         In Chapter 33, we can read the itinerary of every time they broke camp, and where they pitched their tents next.  The Gutnik edition of the Pentateuch – the Chabad chumash – prints a few maps of their progress, showing changes of direction that are not evident in the Biblical text.

         The first 12 moves go south, from Ramises near the Mediterranean to Mt. Sinai near the lower end of the Sinai Peninsular.  There, of course, they received the Torah.  Then they spend the next 5 weeks moving northeast to Kadesh Barnea.  For the next 18 years they will be wandering through the desert, in and out of Kadesh Barnea, until Journeys #35-42 take them east and then north to prepare for crossing the Jordan River at Jericho.

         Experiences and instruction during those years should equip our ancestors to conquer and settle the Promised Land.  One unique commandment they receive for that process is fully described in Chapter 35.  This is the rule of the City of Refuge.

         Details follow.


SAFE HAVEN FOR KILLERS? – Mas’ey – Num. 33-36 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         From Cain’s murder of Abel, on throughout the Bible, violence and justice recur.  Rules like “One who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” establish the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime.

         The Torah even recognizes the ancient practice of the avenger, called the “blood redeemer,” who took responsibility to kill whoever killed his kinsman.  Of course the court required two eye witnesses to confirm guilt.  Two or three, never just one.  And no circumstantial evidence was considered. Even that standard was extended to require that someone warn the killer before he struck.  After a court convicted a murderer, the ancient custom still gave this blood redeemer the right to execute him.

         But suppose the killing was an accident? Manslaughter, yes, but not willful murder?  This Torah section cites the classic example of two men who go to the forest to chop down trees.  One swings his axe, and the iron head flies off the wooden handle and kills his friend. Shall he be exposed to the vengeance of the victim’s brother?  After all, says the Torah, “he did not hate [the victim] yesterday or the day before.”  No premeditated crime here.  No crime at all, really.  A tragic accident.  And so in two passages – one here in Numbers 35 and one in Deuteronomy 19 – we find the commandment to designate Cities of Refuge where the inadvertent killer can go and be safe, and the blood redeemer cannot follow him.  The Hebrew text calls these cities a-rey miklat.  The word miklat (refuge or shelter) is used in Israel today for an air-raid shelter.  Moses set up three such refuge cities east of the Jordan, and the people were to add three more after entering the Land.   There the manslayer could flee and stay, until the death of the current High Priest, after which time the blood redeemer would have no further right to take his life.

         These ancient laws give us a handle on some basic concepts of right and wrong, fairness to the suspect, and at the same time a realistic way to deal with primitive human emotions like revenge.  Surely that poor fellow with the faulty axe faced an awful change in his life, from independent woodsman to cooped-up fugitive.  But he was alive. And the victim’s brother had to deal with his family‘s loss without a violent vengeance that certainly could not bring back the victim of that tragic accident.

         Ancient history?  Sure.  Or is it?

         If you go to Hawaii, take a little excursion to some of the state parks, and you will likely find one of them in a cave that is accessible only by water.  I found that one particularly interesting.  Getting out the boat, we walked through the cave and saw a diorama that an artist executed on one wall.  It showed that cave’s importance to the old Hawaiians.  The cave was a special place where a fugitive killer could go and be safe – until the death of the Big Kahuna.  Big Kahuna = Cohen Gadol =High Priest.

         Unbelievable, I thought.  An exact parallel to the Torah’s Cities of Refuge!  So I contacted an old friend of mine, Rabbi Julius Nodel of blessed memory, who at that time was the only rabbi in Hawaii, and we talked about it.

         “That’s not all,” he told me.  Not only does “kahuna” sound like “cohen,” but a University of Hawaii researcher found some 500 words in the Hawaiian language that have parallel sound and meaning to those same words in Hebrew.  Like “makana” – a gift.  Hebrew word: “matana” – the Hawaiian language substitutes K for T since it has no T sound.  How did all this happen?  Are the Hawaiians the mysterious lost tribes of Israel?  Not exactly.  But some historians deduce that when Polynesians adventured north to explore and later populate the Hawaiian islands, they had to cross many hundreds of miles of open ocean, and they needed some skilled navigtors.  At that time, the best navigators in the Pacific were Jews, refugees from European massacres now living on the Chinese coast and very available.  They piloted the Polynesians, and apparently some stayed with them in their new Hawaiian home, and left their mark.

         Including the Refuge Cave – the miklat – a safe haven for killers!



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