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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ONE HAPPY JEW – a review of Sam Glaser’s book “The Joy of Judaism” – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ONE HAPPY JEW – a review of Sam Glaser’s book “The Joy of Judaism” – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

     By all means, take the time for this book.  It is not a weekend read.  But invest yourself in it, and you can inhale the author’s supremely positive attitude toward life in general, and Jewish life in particular.

     So, is this a memoir?  Yes, it encompasses more than a quarter century of experience, contacts, performances, and growth.  Starting, as many of us do, from a partly secular and minimally observant youth, the author recounts his progress as he finds out more and more about his Jewish identity – and describes how he implements that knowledge in his personal life. We feel the joy this process brings him. Along the way he quotes some of the numerous Jewish clergymen and lay leaders he meets.  As an internationally successful composer and performer, he comes in contact with Jewish communities and organizations of all types – movement-connected, politically targeted, strictly recreational, name it!  He loves them all, entertains them all, and does his best to connect them all.

     He implements his joy of Judaism at home, too.  He finds a way to activate his love for his wife and children by leading them to create an observant Jewish home, and to share the beauty of their Jewish life with friends, family and strangers whom they host.  That process is summarized in a later chapter where we can read his vigorous 4-page letter to his first son.  Other fathers might well learn a little here, about how Jewish growth improves life, and the importance of communicating that growth to those we love.

     So, is this a textbook?  Definitely, it builds a detailed example of how the reader can use the author’s experience to reach a level of sacred joy.

     Of course, this author’s personal experiences are tied to a career in music – singing, playing, recording, marketing albums, etc. How he applied that profession to his Jewish growth, could be quite different from anything the reader does. But here we can find some constructive ideas on raising the commitment level, for those in any line of work.

     In chapter after engrossing chapter, we join the process of exploring Jewish life.  And music figures in that process, as we roam the Jewish year.

     Each chapter opens with lyrics and links to the author’s songs.  With a little help from your computer, the author’s voice and his group’s music can  provide a melodic intro to the subject.  From the unplugged simplicity of a Shabat Shalom to Passover with an equally unplugged but so much more dramatic B’chol dor vador (“in every generation we must see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt”) quoting the Seder Haggadah, and on into the emotional Hatikvah of Israeli holidays like Jerusalem Day and Israel Independence Day, the year sings to us in familiar sounds and in the author’s added ones.

     From the shofar calls, the solemn Kol Nidrey and some Sam Glaser chants, to the pure fun of a Shlomo Carlebach tune, we sample the High Holidays. From dancing in the Succah to the rhythm of some of the author’s favorite recordings, to kindling Hanukkah lights and memorializing the Maccabees along with Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King and all who fight for freedom, we join in this extended excitement of the Jewish calendar.

     Sampling the author’s experiences in professional engagements for groups including Hillel, Chabad, the Reform Biennial and a multi-cultural High Sierra program, we watch him pick opportunities to share Jewish music with any and all audiences.   

     So, is this book a promotion?  After all, the appendix includes a sampling of the 1000-plus dates of Sam Glaser’s appearances the world over.  We can cruise a list of his recordings.  He names fans who follow him and even help sponsor his book.  Yes, of course it’s a promotion – and it promotes more than Sam Glaser’s stardom.  It promotes a noble cause. That cause is Jewish unity.  Whether or not we are as observant as this author has become, we can accept each other – Hassidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Labor Zionist, etc. etc.  We share our Jewish roots.  And so we share in growing the tree whose fruit we eat to live.  As we nurture that tree, we strengthen our future. 

    Whatever your personal Jewish habits, you will find this book surprising, and sometimes exciting.  Its stories from “the road” bring us humor, and some inspiring “small miracle” memories. Here and there, it suffers from some first-edition text-editing oversights (like omitted words, faulty usage, etc.) but the beautiful message comes through.  “The Joy of Judaism” is definitely worth reading.

Enjoy it.

Link to the book The Joy of Judaism

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HERO OR CRIMINAL? – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HERO OR CRIMINAL? – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         These five chapters cover a rare variety of subjects, from the end of an epidemic, to a plan to attack an enemy, then to Moses’ second census after 40 years, determining future ownership rights in the Promised Land, which brings up a question of female inheritance for the daughters of a man named Zelophehad who had no sons.  We will see Moses climb a mountain to get his last view of the land of Israel, and since he will never enter it, he now proceeds to appoint Joshua as the leader who will succeed him.

         Next, we will learn about the sacrificial offerings – daily and seasonal.  This section is quoted on all occasions of the Jewish year.   Reading about bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the sanctuary, we may find it a charming idea, and indeed a version of it is observed by religious farmers in Israel today.  A different effect comes from the number of sheep, cattle and goats slaughtered for various holidays.  Of course we know that animal sacrifices had to be discontinued after the destruction of the Temple, to be replaced by spoken prayers.  Here we will see how they lead up to climactic ceremonies still observed – and still animal-related – like sounding the ram’s horn, the shofar to proclaim the New Year. 

         Most dramatic and most discussed of all these subjects is the opening section of this reading, which concerns a man named Pinkhas (Phineas).  The entire reading bears his name.  At the end of the previous section, we saw him take a spear in his hand and kill both an Israelite tribal prince and the Midianite idolatrous prostitute he was showing off – thus halting the orgies and the resulting epidemic that was raging in the camp.  

         This reading opens with Moses receiving the Divine word to award Pinkhas “My covenant of peace.  He and his progeny will have a covenant of eternal priesthood because he was jealous for his G-d and he atoned for the people of Israel.”

         By his act of violence, does Pinkhas earn permanent High Priesthood for himself and his descendants?   He was not carrying out a legal execution.  The couple he killed, Zimri and the woman named Cozbi, never went to trial.  They flaunted their violation.  All the Israelites saw them enter the tent together.  And all saw Pinkhas run them through, right through the tent. 

Of all the major characters in Biblical literature, Pinkhas ranks with the most controversial.   Rashi and other commentators recount that the tribes ridiculed him, considering him as lacking any right to take the law into his own hands and kill a tribal leader like Zimri.  Maybe he should be tried for murder.  How could such a violent crime qualify him for the priesthood? 

The opening line of this portion identifies Pinkhas as the son of Elazar and therefore grandson of Aaron, which already should make him a priest, a cohen. But Elazar’s wife, Pinkhas’ mother, was the daughter of Jethro, a heathen priest who in Rashi’s words “fattened cows [to slaughter] for idolatry.”  So if Pinkhas’ father could marry a woman who was not born Jewish, what gives Pinkhas the right to execute Zimri for cohabiting with a heathen woman?  Negative opinions about Pinkhas continue through the writings of subsequent commentators including Sifsey Khakhomim (“Lips of the wise”), Klee Yokor (“Vessel of Value”) etc., all the way to Maimonides, the famous Rambam.  He states that the law permits a “zealot” to kill a Jew who is having intercourse with a non-Jewish woman, even though a bet din (a Jewish court) cannot give him permission to do so.  The reason for this ruling concerns the possible offspring of that couple. If the birth results from a forbidden relationship between two Jews, as when they are not legally married to each other, the baby will be a mamzer (illegitimate) but will still be a Jew, and will be identified as the Jewish father’s son or daughter.  But in the case of a non-Jewish woman who gives birth, her baby is not a Jew at all, and “is not considered to be [the Jewish father’s] child…”.  

         And yet, this Torah portion that bears his name asserts that through his violent action Pinkhas turned G-d’s anger away from the people Israel.

         Or did he?  Psalm 106 tells the story a little differently.  “Pinkhas stood and prayed,” says the Psalm, “and the plagued ceased.” Was King David, author of the Psalms, taking liberties with the facts in order to elevate the reputation of Pinkhas? Is Pinkhas really such a hero?  He killed two defenseless people.

           Was it prayer or was it murder?  Or was it something else, something unique?   Maybe Pinkhas carried out an act of affirmation, a violent and shocking act to be sure, but an extreme act made vital by an extreme situation.  Maybe he saw a need no one else could see, a need for a nation to be shocked.  They did not seem to realize that Midian was their enemy, with the false prophet Balaam plotting their destruction and actually causing the infection and death of some 24,000 Israelite victims of the disease contracted from the Midianite women.  In Chapter 31 we will read about the military campaign that defeated Midian and killed Balaam.  Pinkhas is there too, but he is not the leader of the campaign. More like an enlisted man.  His father Elazar is the army chaplain.  But without Pinkhas and his spear, would the battle of Midian ever be fought?

         An extreme story, yet one to remember.  The goal of many a war is peace.  World War 1 was supposed to make the world safe for democracy, so in World War 2 we used to wisecrack that we were fighting to make the world safe for peace.  Sorry, folks. That didn’t happen.  Ink on the peace treaties of 1945 was scarcely dry before Arab armies attacked the new State of Israel in ’48, Communist forces fought their way to ruling China in ’49, and other conflicts followed.  We know them and their victims all too well.

         And yet, Pinkhas and his sudden violence did save his people from an immediate threat.  There are situations where nothing else works.  Not diplomacy, not negotiations, not even prayer.  He “turned back [Divine] anger from the people of Israel” with a brutal but courageous attack.  He shocked his people into action, and gave his name to this Sedrah – as well as to countless Jewish boys throughout the centuries.  We don’t name our sons Balaam, or Cain or Adonijah (David’s spoiled son).   But young Pinky’s abound. 

         Sometimes extreme situations need extreme action.

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