A HOLY CONTRAST – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A HOLY CONTRAST – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

All of us who go through the various observances of the fall season are experiencing contrasting emotions.  Depending on the style of your congregation’s services, the emotions could be anywhere from calm to violent.  But the contrast is there.

Start with Rosh Hashanah, a time to spread friendly good wishes and offer some serious prayers for ourselves in the year ahead. Of course Rosh Hashanah begins the Ten Days of Return, adding petitions for life to the regular prayers, reminding us to inspect our lives with the purpose of making some positive changes. Those ten days culminate in Yom Kippur, with 25 hours of fasting.  Many of those hours are spent in the synagogue, hearing and repeating ritual confessions of our misdeeds – even those we don’t remember personally doing. As a united people, we share responsibility for communal mistakes, family mistakes, even national mistakes. We hope for the moral strength to turn evil into good.  As the long Day of Atonement begins to wind down, we enter N’ilah, the last of the day’s five services (the only day of the year that has that many) and the text of our prayers gives us confidence that if we were sincere today, if we observed this penitential season properly, then we have forgiven those who wronged us, and we can count on a measure of forgiveness from those we may have hurt, and a sense of release from our own errors, our misdeeds, our violations.

The sounds, the melodies of our Yom Kippur services should support the spiritual progress of that day.  In many congregations they do.  Some musical services tend to be more solemn than others, maintaining that feeling all the way to the last shofar call at the end of Yom Kippur. Other services sing their way from regret and confession to forgiveness and confidence.  This year I spent the Yamim Nora’im in a Chabad shul and felt the power of the community singing support the spiritual progress we were making.  By the end of Yom Kippur, with the rhythm of the “Napoleon march” around the Bema, the feeling of optimism and joy resounded.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe in fact named the day after Yom Kippur a day of joy.  We have every reason to be happy.  The Almighty is accepting us.

Indeed only a few days later comes the Sukkot holiday – this week, in fact.  The third of our three Pilgrim Festivals, Sukkot is thoroughly upbeat.  While Passover is identified as “the time of our freedom,” and Shavuot as “the time of giving us our Torah,” Sukkot is called simply “the time of our joy.”   Check it, it’s right there in the text of the Kiddush.  As we bless the wine at our Yomtov dinner table in the leafy-roofed holiday booth, we repeat the happy nature of this week.

True, we have other happy holidays – like Purim and Hanukkah.  But somehow this week is particularly special.  At the end of Sukkot comes what might be called the happiest day of the year – Simkhat Torah, literally “Rejoicing in the Torah.”  Torah reading goes on all year round and it does not stop. Today we celebrate that practice by starting over: reading the last portion in Deuteronomy and immediately following with the first words in Genesis.  Aliyot –Torah honors – for all who qualify!  A crazy tie or a funny hat is a costume today. And a l’khyim for every Torah honoree if you want one.  Costumes, toasts, and dancing!  As the old Yiddish song goes:

Kinder mir hobm Simkhas Teyre,

Simkhas Teyre di gantze velt

(Children, we have Simchas Torah, all over the world)

Teyre is de beste s’kheyre,

azey hot der rebbe mit unz gekvelt

(Torah is the best business – that’s how the rebbe delighted in us!)

 Oy vey, oyoyoy, freylekh kinder ot a zoy,

Nissim gissen zekh fun de zek, freylekh freylekh on an ek!

(Wonders pour out of the sack, Happy, happy without end!)

Is this the same Jewish community that beat its chests through Al Khet (“For the sin we have sinned”)?  The same people who cried through Kol Nidrey?  Yes it is.  Our holy contrast fulfilled this season.  If our prayers are answered, this holy contrast strengthened our lives.

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LEND ME YOUR EARS – Haazinu – Deut. 32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

LEND ME YOUR EARS – Haazinu – Deut. 32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Our Torah reading this week starts with a call that can easily be translated “Lend me your ears!”  No, this is not Marc Antony haranguing the Romans, and it has nothing to do with burying Caesar.  This is Moses calling Heaven and Earth to attention.

This 41-line poem shows links with the entire subject matter of Torah and indeed it was reportedly sung throughout the year by the Levites in the Sanctuary when they prepared the Sabbath offering.  Two sages of a past century insisted that every Jew should memorize Haazinu with all its melodic cantillations, in preparation to greet the Messiah.   They also held that regular chanting of Hazing would help achieve success in business. That may be open to question, but this much is for sure.  Haazinu is the last song Moses will sing.  It resounds with power and protest and principle.

After the formalities of Rosh Hashanah and the stringency of Yom Kippur, we owe it to ourselves to take a fresh look at this, the last song of Moses.   As we go through the text, well-known lines stand out.

“Give ear, you heavens and I will speak; earth, hear my words!”

“Let my doctrine fall like rain, my speech distill like dew…”

“When I call the Name of the L-rd, give greatness to our G-d!”

And the words that begin every Jewish burial ceremony: HaTzur tamim po’alo –    “The Rock, His way is perfect…”

We sing our protest as did Moses: “Corruption in Him?  No! That defect is in His children, a generation crooked and perverse.”

We face history: “Remember the days of old; consider the years, generation after generation.  Ask your father, he will tell you; your elders will speak to you.”

We sing of Divine guidance of our ancestors: “Like an eagle waking the nest, and hovering over the young…, [G-d] rode him over the heights of Earth and he ate the fruit of the fields…’

Then comes bad news: “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked – fat and thick and gross – and he forsook his Creator, disgraced the Rock of his salvation.”

Moral corruption brings tragic defeats:  “They are a perverse generation, children with no loyalty.  They provoked Me with a non-god, angered Me with their vanities.  I will punish them with a non-nation, with vile aliens will I provoke them.”

Moses names no names here.  He leaves that to us.   What is a non-god?  In those days it was an idol called Baal.  Later, that definition included mythic characters on Mount Olympus, or patron saints.   Or deified humans from Jesus to Mohammed to Buddha to Lenin.  And vanities?  Plenty of those, from Scientology to Political Correctness.   Valid objects of worship for some, perhaps, but not for Israelites.

Divine retribution is predicted through a non-nation. What is a non-nation? Let’s call it a tribe, whether political or ethnic. Like Nazis.  Or Palestinians.

Moses’ prediction of salvation seems more than possible to happen:“Nations, sing aloud of G-d’s people, for He avenged the blood of His servants, Returning vengeance to His enemies, and atoning for the land of His people.”

Today it takes some effort to recall the mid-60’s when it was “in” to be Jewish.  Not only was “Fiddler on the Roof” Broadway’s biggest hit, but the State of Israel was in high favor.  “Look what those Jews endured and look what they built!  What a plucky little country.”  Then came the Six-day War, more admiration for Jewish military success – but it didn’t last long.  Public opinion started turning.  Apparently the world could accept Jews as victims but not as victors.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps we missed something.  Haazinuhas it.  After “Jeshurun got fat and kicked,” the Creator lets the savage results take place:

“From outside, the sword bereaves, and in the chamber is terror… They are a nation void of counsel, they have no understanding… How can one man chase a thousand, or two put ten thousand to flight? Only if their Rock had given them over…”

Eichmann loaded freight cars and sent Jews to Auschwitz, much as Hungarian officials are doing with Syrian refugees today.   Why didn’t we fight back before losing 6 million?   Perhaps we can still learn from Haazinu:

“If only they would become wise, they would understand.                                They would discern the result.”  Lu khokhmu!

The comedian who said “Vy do ve get so soon old and so late shmart?”  got the message.  Violent action in a just cause is not wrong.  Torah wisdom can help us determine the justice of our cause. Let’s “become wise.”

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THE LAST KOL NIDREY by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

THE LAST KOL NIDREY by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This year, as every year, Jews all over the world will gather on Yom Kippur Eve for a type of religious experience that is unique.  Not just unique in Judaism but unique to Judaism.  Three elders will stand facing the congregation.  Each one holds a Torah scroll.  The people stand in silence.  And the Cantor chants a text which is not a prayer.  It is a legal formula.  And yet this chant brings tears to many eyes.  People listen with rapt attention.  In fact, we speak of going to services specifically to “hear Kol Nidrey.”  Not to say it.  To hear it.  And that is its unique quality.

The melody is what we long for, year after year.  With other sung texts, the music accompanies the lyrics.  Kol Nidrey is the opposite.  Here the words are an accompaniment to the melody.  It is the Cantor’s voice that prompts the emotion.

What’s he singing?  It may sound like the epic of Jewish suffering, but it is only a symbolic release from vows.  In fact, throughout history Jewish authorities – including revered Rabbinic scholars – tried to abolish Kol Nidrey in order to avoid the embarrassment it could bring their communities when renegades misused its text against them. “See?  Jews’ commitment is worthless, because on Yom Kippur they cancel it…”  But despite rabbinic concerns, the people wouldn’t give up Kol Nidrey.  They had to hear it.  They still do.  The Hazzonishe moil – literally “the Cantorial mouth” – sends those sounds ringing into the Jewish ear, bringing the sigh to the Jewish mouth, the tear to the Jewish eye.

It is a dramatic moment in our year, a stirring memory in our lives.  And it may soon become a thing of the past.  Without rabbinic prohibition.  Without treacherous misinterpretation.  We may soon hear our last Kol Nidrey.  This year there will already be services where someone will play a recording of Jan Peerce singing Kol Nidrey, because no available live voice is competent to do it. Cantorial art as we know it for the last several generations is in serious decline.

Having spent the greater part of my life as a professional Hazzan, I am not just nostalgic for the “good old days” or for what is called the Golden Age of Cantorial art.  The conditions that produced a Yossele Rosenblatt or a Moshe Kusevitsky are not the conditions of today.  But the conditions that produce some of the less qualified solists who function as cantors now, do not give us a Kol Nidrey experience.  That’s not a complaint.  That’s a fact.  Young people trained in summer camps and music schools may have fine talents, but expressing the spirit of a Jewish community at prayer is not necessarily one of those talents.  You can sing Kol Nidrey to the plunking of a guitar, but why?

The economics of Jewish life being what it is, we have to expect to make sacrifices.  People who do not daven (pray the traditional way) require no traditionally skilled leader.  Except on Erev Yom Kippur.  Therefore there is less and less opportunity for a cantor with traditional skills to find a job.  On the other hand, there is considerable demand for songleaders to work in Jewish schools and camps.  So – music is music.  If Susie can sing camp songs, let her sing Kol Nidrey.

Gresham’s Law thus begins to apply to Jewish Music. Remember that from high school Economics?  Simply paraphrased, it goes like this: the cheap stuff drives the good stuff off the market.

Is there a constructive solution to this problem? Is there a way to provide songs for our children and also a religious musical experience for adults?  As I see it, there is only one solution.  It’s unlikely to happen in any widespread way. But there is no alternative: Basic knowledge.

That’s the magic formula.  Not knowledge for the professionals.  Knowledge for the members.  Vocal music occupies a vital position in Jewish life, from King David to the Levites on the steps of the Sanctuary to today’s Alberto Mizrahi and Shuli Natan – just as instrumental music expresses our emotions from the Shofar to the Klezmer band.  We need to get familiar with it.

What is a Cantor?  A Cantor is defined as Shliakh Tsibur –representative of the community. The Cantor has a duty to represent his people in prayer, to sense their feelings, to stimulate those feelings, and to express them aloud through the text and melody of the prayers. Qualifying for such a task means, first, that the Cantor as Representative must be responsible for the Mitzvos as the constituents.  In traditional Judaism men are responsible for some Mitzvos that women are not, so women are not qualified as cantors in Orthodox synagogues.  Some men are not either.  Not because they are not technically responsible for the Mitzvos, but because they habitually fail to do them.  As famous a voice as Moishe Oysher was once denied the opportunity to officiate for the High Holidays because he was known as an actor who habitually violated the Shabos.

Other Mitzvos get violated too, of course, by the Cantor and the Rabbi and the congregants. That’s why we have Yom Kippur.  But in another Cantorial highspot of the season, the Hin’ni, he prays: “Do not hold them (the congregants) guilty for my errors, and do not make them responsible for my faults.”  To say that prayer and mean it, you need to know what mitzvos you may have violated.  That counts at least as much as the quality of a voice.

Fortunately for our generation, some knowledgeable and qualified leaders are still around to represent our communities in prayer. Most congregations this year will be able to “hear Kol Nidrey.”  And there are cantorial schools and private instructors trying sincerely to train sincere leaders for the future.  And, yes, some of them are women.  Whether they succeed or fail depends largely on you.  You, the Jew in the pew.

A classic old Yiddish comedy song called Hazzonim af Probbe (Cantors at an Audition) satirizes typical 1920’s candidates for a High Holiday position.  The auditioning committee first hears an old shtetl-type Hazzan and rejects him. “That’s not what the public wants.” Then they hear a German Oberkantor, and come to the same conclusion.  They guy who gets the job is the one who sings Yismach Moshe to the tune of “Yes, sir, that’s my baby!”

Less and less is this a satire.  More and more is it an accurate description of our taste level. This year, 5779, will you make it your business to find out what you should require of a ritual representative?

Will you hear another Kol Nidrey?

I hope, deeply and passionately, that you will.  And I wish you and yours a year of health, fulfillment and increased knowledge.

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In this week’s short reading, we can find the precedent for a familiar custom. That custom is the regular public reading of the Torah in synagogue services. A look at the history of the familiar experience shows its value.

Our Sedrah tells us that “Moses wrote this Law, and delivered it to the priests, to the Levites who carried the Ark of G-d’s covenant [that held the Law], and to the elders of Israel.” Then he commands them to read it to the people. This initial commanded reading was to take place every seven years — yes, that’s years, not days. On the Succos holiday of the Sabbatical year, when “all Israel will assemble in G-d’s chosen place, you will read this Torah in the ears of all Israel.” A dramatic event to charge the members of a nation with their heritage, their responsibilities, their duties to G-d and to each other.

We might well wonder if and how this order could be carried out. No p.a. system, of course, so it would take a good many Cohanim with an equal number of Torah scrolls to instruct many groups of people. Did they listen? How long did it take? Could all those Torah readers hold their audience?

No historical record answers all those questions. The Hertz commentary quotes Josephus who says the High Priest did the reading. Rabbinic tradition specifies that it was the king who read, and he did not read all the Five Books. He read a section of Deuteronomy that reviewed the history of the receiving the Laws, what those laws call for and their Divine origin. The Ten Commandments and the Shema both come into this section, so we might all call it a short course in Basic Judaism. Every seven years.

By the early Rabbinic period, it was evident that the short course was not enough. The rabbis developed a system to make the entire Torah available to the people. They divided it into 156 short portions, to be read with translation in the spoken vernacular – one portion every week. The total reading would take three years. Interestingly enough, some modern congregations follow a similar plan today. Since tradition calls for member to have Aliyot – honors go up and bless the Torah when their section is read – each honoree (or a spouse) can then read that section in English. The three-year calendar, however, is not the same. More about that later.

As the Talmudic academies in Babylonia grew increasingly productive and influential, they decided that three years was too long to spend on one reading of the Torah, so they divided the text into just 54 portions, enough to cover in one year. And of course, that is the system we still use. Since the Jewish calendar sometimes has a leap year with thirteen months, all those 54 portions get read, and on non-leap years we get some “double headers” — two Parashiot on one Shabat. Usually, the rabbi will find  text in that reading to talk about. Like these Divrey Torah you are reading. While Orthodox congregations read the entire section every week, less traditional services tend to abbreviate the reading. If they are careful, they can still read the full Torah in two or three years — even when the translation is included.

So why is all this so important? Does reading — or chanting — ancient hebrew from a handwritten scroll constitute a sacred act? Are we really expected to understand it, even if we have a printed text to follow?

Certainly, when we study our sacred literature, we use a printed book with vowels in the Hebrew, supported by commentators developed by scholars over centuries, and translated by experts. And some of those printed books are usually available in the synagogue for you and me to follow during the reading. But there’s more to this experience than studying. Synagogue practice includes more than one activity. Four in fact. Prayer, obviously is one. Celebration and mourning are two more. And the fourth is learning. Judaism does not require us to do things just because our parents did. We hope our parents did good things, but we have to mould our lives on principles that include more than copying our elders. We acquire those principles by learning the Torah. Yes, one of the Torah’s basic commandments says “Honor your father and your mother” –  and there are nine more commandments that go with it. What we learn in Shul give meaning to our participation in Jewish life, and in the world arounds us.

We re-read and repeat those ancient words week after week and year after year. New experiences can give those words added value. Let’s try to re-read them thoughtfully, to repeat them gladly, and to retain them as our personal guide.

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HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE?    By Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30    

HOW CLOSE IS CLOSE?    By Rabbi Baruch Cohon – Nitzavim – Deut. 29:9–30

The people are camped on the east bank of the Jordan, listening to a final message from Moshe Rabbeinu —.  Moses our Rav.  He knows he will not cross that river with them, and he wants them to know what to do when they enter the Promised Land.  The name of this reading is “Nitzavim” – literally “Standing.”  Not just “standing around,” however.  That would be om’dim. The very word Nitzavim indicates they were standing at attention.  The opening lines of Moses’ discourse set the scene:

“You are standing today, all of you, before your G-d.  Your leaders, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel.  Your children, your women, the strangers in your midst, your woodcutters and your water-carriers.  [You are here] to form a covenant with G-d… all those who are here with us today, and those who are not here with us today.”

Not here?  Did anyone not make that list?  That was a pretty complete list.  Who was not there?  All the unborn generations.  Including us. The covenant is a sacred commitment that involves us all.

And what was the covenant?  Of course we know the Hebrew word for a covenant is “bris.”  That’s right.  Bris does not mean circumcision, it means covenant.  First came the covenant of Abraham which certainly includes circumcision.  That is still observed, even though lately some officials in some places consider it politically incorrect.  But the covenant of Moses goes far beyond a physical operation.  It extends to the responsibility for “mitzvot,” the commandments, the daily conduct that shapes our lives.  It’s what we do that makes us what we are.  Moses taught us standards for our conduct – like honest dealings, respect for the sacred, educating our children in Torah. Carrying out those standards of conduct can make us more than what we are; they can make us what we should be.

Earlier in his speeches, Moses went into quite a bit of detail about those standards.  Here he refers to the rewards we can expect if we live by Torah teachings, and the penalties that go with their violation – 98 of them that we read last week. Then he anticipates the inevitable question, which does not appear in the Torah but resounds in each of our minds, the question we just have to ask: Isn’t this job too hard?  Do you really expect me to do all this?

In Chapter 30 that we read this morning, Moses gives his answer: Hamitzva hazot lo nifleyt hee mim’kha v’lo r’khoka hee,which we can paraphrase this way:  This commandment is not beyond your ability, nor is it far away.  It is not in heaven, so you don’t need to say “who will go up in a space ship and get it for us and bring it down and tell it to us so we may do it?”  And it is not overseas, so don’t look for someone to cross the ocean and bring it back to you.  No, this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.  Kee karov elekha hadavar m’od, b’feekha uvil’vav’kha laasoto. 

Karov m’od – very close.  Very close, eh?  How close is close?

By attending this service and hearing the message of Nitzavim, you already come closer to fulfilling the commandment.

How about those services you missed last year?  Those Shabat and festival occasions when you chose to be somewhere else?  Did the covenant desert you because you were somewhere else?  What commandment did you fulfill somewhere else?  Did you help someone who needed help because their car stalled?  Did you remind your kids to get advance homework because they will be absent from school on Rosh Hashana?  Did you write a letter to the editor of a newspaper that printed a slanderous anti-Israel column?

By the way, if I can change the subject for a minute, we can all hold our own honest opinions pro or con about Israeli government policies, but some 7 million Jews in Israel are our people, and what affects them is bound to affect us.  We are, and we remain, “am segulah,” a chosen people. Divinely chosen for a certain lifestyle, and chosen all too often by human enemies as a victim.  Once in a while, like Tevye we might wish that the Almighty would choose someone else, but don’t hold your breath.  And besides, those 7 million are also Nitzavim today.  They stand with us.  One people.

Now back to the contract.  Reform congregations will read “Nitzavim” again on Yom Kippur morning, as we come face to face with our spiritual day of reckoning.  For traditional Jews, this very Shabat sanctifies a week of prayers for forgiveness.  We said our midnight prayers at Slichot, we glory in the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana.  And ten days later, we will stand at attention, all of us.  More Jews in one place at one time than on any other day in the year.  Our leaders and our followers, wives and husbands and children, woodcutters and water department meter readers.  We stand together – Nitzavim – and we try to honor the covenant.

This is the time, this is the season when we can remind ourselves that our commitment to our Torah, to our faith, to our people, is not beyond our reach.  It is not in heaven, but here on earth.  It is not exclusively overseas, because our forebears brought it to America.  It is indeed close to us.

How close?  As close as the mezuzah on your doorpost.  As close as the candle on your table.  As close as the book on your shelf.  As close as your pride in your heritage.

The covenant is as close to us today as the medal a decorated veteran wears. By wearing it, we evidence our pride. It is as close as the cup we lift to celebrate the Sabbath — and by drinking that wine we bring the sweet taste of heritage into our lives.  Truly it is in your mouth and in your heart.  It is as close as the tree limbs we will lift on top of our Succah, recalling our ancestors’ joy in the harvest.  It is as close as the hour we will spend helping a child do some homework.  It is as close as the jumper cables we will use to help our neighbor start that stalled car.

Every service we attend, every ritual we observe, brings it closer.

All of these actions are part of our covenant.  They are as close to us as we will get to them.  The closer we bring our covenant to our lives, the better prepared we can be to face a new year.

Have a great one!


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