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’tokham among 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 in your synagogue carry the holy thoughts through your life, like the gold rings on the ark, traveling through the desert.

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A MAJORITY OF ONE – “Mishpatim” – Ex. 21-24 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A MAJORITY OF ONE – “Mishpatim” – Ex. 21-24 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          Following last week’s spectacle of receiving the Torah, with the people hearing the great principles of the Ten Commandments resounding from Mt. Sinai amid sacred smoke, this week’s reading brings us many details on how to implement those principles.  Truly brings us down to cases. 

          From the laws on dealing with indentured servants to how to observe the occasions of the Jewish calendar, from administering justice in lawsuits to avoiding prejudice, from legal responsibilities between individuals to instructions for conquering the Promised Land – a lifetime of learning in one week’s reading.  And it ends with Moses and Joshua climbing the mountain together to seal the holy Covenant.

          Of all the details covered in this all-important section, perhaps one of the most significant comes in verses 2 and 3 of Chapter 23.  Here we will read about the process of making legal decisions.  The classic translation goes like this:

Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice; neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause.

Clear enough?  Not quite.  Our commentators identify the “multitude” here – rabim in Hebrew – as the majority.   Since a Jewish court consists of 3 judges, a majority would be 2.   Not exactly a multitude, nor even a deciding quorum, says the Talmud.  In capital cases, the tractate Sanhedrin insists that where the court does not unanimously condemn the defendant to death, one judge can acquit.  The word translated “cause” in verse 2 is riv, usually spelled resh, yud, vet.  But in our verse 2, the yud is missing, so Sanhedrin calls the word rav, making the translation “do not answer the majority to turn [justice] aside.”  Thus by voting to acquit a defendant of a capital offense, a single judge can save a life.  A majority of one.  In civil cases, however, that does not work.  2 judges can convict.  Based on this ruling, Ibn Ezra observes that this one verse contains both a negative and a positive Mitzvah.   The negative, as we just saw, is “do not follow the majority to do evil.”  And the positive comes in the last 3 words of the sentence: aharey rabim l’hatos: “it is a Mitzvah to follow the majority” [if the majority is right].   

Yes, the majority rules – with a big IF.  A vote, whether of a judicial court or an electorate, does not replace principles of right and wrong. 

          Among those same principles, in the very next verse we encounter the Torah’s way of dealing with one of our current bugaboos, Economic Inequality: “Do not favor a poor man in his case.”  If he is wrong, justice must still be done despite the fact that he is poor and we would like to forgive him.   That decision no judge and no court should make.  Any more than a big shot can be allowed to win a case based on his power, as we will read in Leviticus: “Do not glorify an important man.” 

          Dominant in our religious law is the maxim: Tzedek tzedek tirdof – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”  Why repeat the word?  Because, our sages point out, rather than commit crimes to even a score, it is our duty to achieve justice by just means.  Not easy, but we have to keep trying.
          One voice for justice can still be a majority.
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ONE on One – “Yitro” – Ex. 18-20 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ONE on One – “Yitro” – Ex. 18-20 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          Just 50 days after crossing the Red Sea, our ancestors receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.  One event gave them physical freedom.  The second made them a nation.  The Torah is sometimes described as our Constitution – not a document debated and decided by a select group of leaders and then presented to the people, but a Divinely dictated Code revealed to the entire nation, some 2 million strong, all at the same time. 

           Our sages always insisted that the entire Torah was revealed at Sinai, all 613 commandments.  But it’s the Big Ten – the headliners — that appear in this week’s reading, and Sabbath congregations all over the world will stand once again to hear them read, just as we learn our ancestors stood to receive them at the foot of the mountain.  They prepared for this experience for three days, washing their bodies and their clothes and refraining from sex.  Maybe we don’t take such measures, but we might well consider some mental preparations.

          Certainly we have no lack of commentary about the Ten Commandments.  Enough has been written about them to fill many libraries.   Let’s take note of just a few points regarding these famous words.

          When Moses takes his preliminary climb up the mountain, he brings down the challenge: Will you, the Israelite people, accept G-d’s will?  And the Torah tells us that the people answer “as one” saying “all that G-d tells us we will do.”  So all those 2 million ex-slaves are ready to unite.  The Jewish nation is one, and its G-d is One.  Receiving the commandments is a One-on-one experience.

          So the commandments are spoken to all the people.  Yet they are phrased in the singular.  Because they apply to each of us individually.  In the classic translation, it is not “Ye shall not murder.”  It is “Thou shalt not murder.”  And a special note on that one: the word is tirtzakh – murder.  It is not taharog – kill.  From the very beginning, Jewish law recognized that killing is not always murder.   Self-defense, capital punishment and war all involve violent death, in fact we have the principle “he who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  Historic methods of execution were far harsher than some modern ones, but the principle did not change.

          By the same token we can well ask whether any of the principles of Sinai ever changed.  True, in recent years the Ten Commandments became Politically Incorrect to some people.  Those who would like to banish G-d from our lives like to quote the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  They cite church-state separation as a reason to remove the Big Ten from public buildings.  This despite the fact that these commandments mention no “establishment of religion,” but constitute an eternal statement of right and wrong.    Even the first commandment says simply “I am the L-rd your G-d.” It does not say “the L-rd your Jewish G-d….  or your Catholic G-d… .   or your Hindu G-d..  etc.”  And of course a plaque on a wall, or a monument outside a courthouse, does not involve an act of Congress.  Chances are, we can still expect to see the great text in many American places reminding us of the principles we share with our fellow citizens.  

          These principles form the entry to a life strengthened by Torah and Mitzvos, a character marked with what my father z”l called “ethical consciousness.”   One particularly telling comment in this connection appears in the Mishna Kidushin: “One who is at home with Scripture, and Mishna, and honest dealings with fellow creatures, will not readily sin.  As it is written (Eccl.4:12): ‘the triple cord will not soon be broken.’”

Indeed, those who live by our ancestral teachings, and use them to treat other human beings fairly, have the best chance to achieve a good life.  Our noble Commandments give us our basic guide.   As Moses’ generation said, “We will do and we will listen.”

Let’s remember.



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BECOMING DISTINCT – “Bo” – Ex.10-13:16 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

BECOMING DISTINCT – “Bo” – Ex.10-13:16 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          One Torah reading – this week’s — brings us our transition into our distinct nationhood, our distinctive calendar, and the very trademark of our homes.  Warning the people that a destroying angel will descend on Egypt and kill the firstborn human and animal in every household, Moses delivers the Divine commandment to take a lamb for every Israelite household, and slaughter the lamb for a sacrifice to celebrate what will become the first Jewish festival – Passover.  And why is it called Passover?  Because before eating that lamb the Israelite must put some of its blood on the doorpost to signal that this is an Israelite home, so the destroyer will pass over it.   That doorpost signal would later become the Mezuzah that decorates and identifies our homes today. 

          Passover is not just the first Jewish festival – the festival of freedom – but also marks the beginning of the Jewish calendar.  This week’s reading tells us: “This month for you is the head of the months, first of all the months of the year.” 

          Now wait a minute.  Are we talking about Passover or Rosh Hashanah? 

In a way, both.  The Talmud reminds us that our calendar contains no less than four New Years days including one in Nisan for kings and festivals and one in Tishri for numbering the years.  The other two are for ancient tithes.  Any Hebrew school student who can repeat the names of the months will start this way: Nisan Iyyar Sivan Tamuz – always starting with Nisan, the month of Passover. 

          Of course Passover does not begin the month of Nisan.  It starts in the middle of the month, on the 15th.   Our ancestors had two weeks to prepare for the first Seder, and we all know it takes at least two weeks to prepare for that event even now – finding the “khometz” (leaven) and getting rid of it, shopping for the Pesach food, inviting the guests, polishing the cup for Elijah (the Prophet whom we will welcome symbolically) – and we don’t even have to smear blood on the doorpost.  Still, Passover remains a favorite family festival, the first Jewish holiday.

          An interesting sidelight to this week’s reading would be to compare Passover with Shabat.  Since the seventh day is mentioned as a day of rest in the story of Creation, we must consider it the first Jewish sacred day.  Yet we find no reference to it in the lives of the Patriarchs.   We don’t find Abraham making Kiddush.   Not until the Israelites leave Egypt does the Sabbath appear in the Torah narrative.  The manna that sustains the people in their trek through the desert comes to them six days a week, and they are warned to collect double manna on Friday.  When they do that, it does not spoil and they can eat at leisure on Saturday.  Slaves have no Sabbath, but free people do.  Or they should.   Maybe the Patriarchs kept the Sabbath without a special ceremony, since those Mitzvos came later.  And in fact, no ceremony is mentioned for the Israelites in the desert either.  But the Passover ceremony is defined quite practically: “If the household is too small to use a lamb, let them share one with their neighbor… Each according to what he eats, so shall you count for the lamb.”  This mitzvah should not prove prohibitive.  As Rashi points out, the standard “each according to what he eats” is understood to exclude the old and infirm who cannot eat a full morsel.   Thus two neighbor families can celebrate with the same meal.  And both will mark their homes.  And both will taste freedom. 

          Can we do less?   Today it’s not lamb, since animal sacrifice ceased with the destruction of the Temple.  So maybe we share chicken.  But the principle remains.  Celebrate our freedom.  Revel in our tradition.  Sing “Dy dy yeynu.”  Welcome Eliyahu – and feel that you, too, were redeemed. 

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BURY ME NOT– Va-y’khi – Gen.47:28-50:26 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

BURY ME NOT– Va-y’khi – Gen.47:28-50:26 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Remember this one? 

Oh bury me not on the lone prairie,                                                                                 

These words come low and mournfully                                                                                

From the pallid lips of a youth who lay                                                                      

On his dyin’ bed at the close of day….

By my father’s grave oh let me be                                                                                        

And bury me not on the lone prairie.

That sad young cowboy had good company.  None other than the patriarch Jacob.  In this week’s Torah reading, he calls in his favorite son Joseph and makes him swear not to bury his father in Egypt.  His last request is to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah where his parents and his wife Leah lie.  Like so many other mortals facing the end of life, he wants to go home.

          Our commentators cite a few other reasons not to bury Jacob in Egypt, not even in a pyramid.  After his years in Egypt, Jacob evidently became well respected, and might rate a distinguished tomb.  But he does not want one, not there.   Rashi and the Klee Yokor detail three factors behind this oath that Jacob requires of Joseph.  One concerns lice, which inhabit Egyptian soil and would attack the body.  Worms are bad enough, but lice??  (Actually tradition states that there were seven people whose bodies the worms could not devour, and Jacob was one of them.  No word about lice.)  A second one concerns the Egyptian custom of gathering at the tomb of an honored man and conducting pagan worship.  Jacob’s grave should not prompt idolatry.  And the third consideration is the tradition that when the Messiah comes, those buried outside the Land of Israel will have to roll underground all the way there to be revived.  All things considered, Jacob says “take me out of Egypt, let me lie with my fathers, and bury me in their burying-place.”

          Jacob then proceeds to give his last message to his sons.  Not really a blessing, this message is more of a judgment on their characters, based on their behavior.  Some show promise, some are plodders, others get specific charges from their father.  Reuben loses the privilege of the firstborn because he once bedded his father’s wife.  Judah, by contrast, proved himself a leader and gets acknowledged as such.  No mention of his little intrigue with Tamar.  The commentators link this praise of Judah to the future, for he will be the ancestor of King David.  But of course it is Joseph who gets Jacob’s greatest love and favor.  And Joseph’s two sons got blessed as equal to Reuben and Simeon, effectively giving Joseph the double portion of the firstborn which Reuben is denied.   As Jacob completes his message, he puts his legs back in bed and breathes his last.  It is Joseph who weeps over him, kisses him, and then orders his body embalmed. 

          Commentators point out that the embalming process will take 40 days, to prepare for the journey to Hebron.  Joseph leads that trek.  And the rest of Jacob’s family goes with him – the entire people.  When they stop in Atad, east of the Jordan en route to Machpelah, they observe seven days of deep mourning, the same week of shiv’a that Jewish families still sit, although now we do so after the burial.  When Jacob’s family does it, the local population sees them and concludes that this must be a very sad day for Egypt.  Actually we read here that Egypt mourned Jacob for 70 days.   Almost the same importance as the Pharaohs, since royalty received just 72 days.  Flags at half-staff. 

And maybe something more.

Jacob the foreigner earned Egypt’s respect.  Now he has every right to go home.


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