NOAH WHERE ARE YOU? — Sedrah Noach — Gen. 6 – 11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

NOAH WHERE ARE YOU? — Sedrah Noach — Gen. 6 – 11, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

     “The end of all flesh is come before Me.” That is the Divine message Noah hears when he gets his mission to build an ark and save a future for selected living creatures. Severe climate change is coming. Why? Because Earth’s population is bringing it on. Evil is not limited to burning fossil fuel. Evil is so rampant as to condemn all who roam the planet to a tragic death. So someone needs to build an ark. This week’s reading bears the name of the builder of that ark, our friend Noah. He had to go way beyond finding different energy sources. He had to prepare for a worldwide deluge that would destroy all life on Earth. Only a gigantic lifeboat would do the job. A teyva – an ark.

     The lower decks of the ark will hold seven pairs of each of the “clean animals,” those suitable to offer on the altar. Also a pair of each of the unclean animals who had no such qualifications. But apparently neither the clean nor the unclean were responsible for the evil that would soon be punished in the Flood. What about the humans on the top deck? Only Noah and his family will be saved. Noah was a “righteous and perfect man in his generation.” His wife and sons and daughters-in-law learned enough of his ways to merit a place on the ark. Everyone else will be drowned.

     What was this evil that brought on universal destruction? Commentators like the Kli Yokor name three areas of human misconduct: idolatry, adultery and robbery. Put them in modern terms. Idolatry takes many forms. Denying G-d and worshipping false deities, false values, or vanity itself – those negative choices characterized the generation of the Flood, and somehow didn’t get washed away. Adultery, called gilui arroyos in Hebrew (literally “exposing nakedness”) gets expanded and remodeled in every generation, from infidelity to promiscuity to perversion, and curses and destroys social structures worldwide. And when it comes to robbery, that can be a streetcorner holdup or a mockery of justice. In fact, the Kli Yokor cites examples of officials who sell favors for a minimum price, not enough to draw punishment for each case, but enough cases to build a pattern — and a fortune. We call it corruption.

     Do we have enough corruption in our world now to bring on the “end of all flesh?” Maybe we need another Noah. Maybe this time an ark will not be enough to rescue human and animal life. We surely seem to have our up-to-date versions of the Kli Yokor’s three prime offenses.

     Isn’t Islamist terrorism a violent distortion of their faith, and therefore an extreme form of idolatry?

     Doesn’t the step-by-step destruction of the family – basic unit of every society – through official support of invalid matings, illegitimate offspring and same-sex unions qualify as adultery?

     And as for robbery, the ancients were pikers. Today, between excessive taxes and gouging prices, governments and corporations compete to milk our populations dry.

     No, a supersized lifeboat won’t do. Our Noah needs to build a moral and political ark, one that can navigate through the corruption and raise us above it, an ark that can rouse the people to change our direction, defeat our enemies and rescue our future.

     Noah, where are you?

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TWO BRIDEGROOMS – Simkhas Torah – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

TWO BRIDEGROOMS – Simkhas Torah – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will conclude our 9-day autumn festival. Starting with building the Succah to celebrate the harvest season, and continuing with the Shmini Atzeres holiday with its memorial to our departed, we come to one of the happiest days on our calendar, Simkhas Torah – “Rejoicing in the Law!” In Jewish life, the law is not just a burden to be endured, but a glorious gift to be celebrated. On this day, we don’t only march with the Torah, we dance with it. We sing to it. We toast it! In fact, in most traditional synagogues the priestly benediction is recited in the Shakharit service – before Torah reading – instead of in Musaf, where it usually appears, after Torah reading. Why? Because of the custom that every man in Shul is called to an Aliya – to bless the Torah – and after he does that Mitzvah he is given a l’khyim, a holiday drink. So just in case some of the Cohanim might not be 100% sober after that, we pronounce the blessing earlier.

Another feature of the Simkhas Torah service concerns just two participants directly. But in reality, it offers its message to all of us indirectly. That special feature occurs when we read from each of two Torah scrolls that are prepared for this occasion. One scroll is set at end of the book of Deuteronomy, and other at the beginning of Genesis. Torah reading never stops, and Simkhas Torah dramatizes that continuity. We read the last section in one scroll, and follow it immediately with the first section in the second scroll. To bless the end reading, one member is honored with the Aliya called Khosson Torah – “the bridegroom of the Torah” – and he witnesses the reading of the very end of Moses’ blessing of his people, followed by the narrative of Moses climbing to a special place on Mount Nebo, from where G-d shows him the entire country that his people will enter and possess. Then Moses dies, and is buried by Divine hands. “No one knows his burial place, to this day.” The text continues to describe his successor Joshua as “full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses placed his hands on him.” So the people accepted his leadership. But “no prophet ever arose in Israel like Moses, who knew G-d face to face.”

Now the reading recalls how Moses brought power and spectacle into reality “in the eyes of all Israel.” The Bridegroom of the Torah recites the final blessing, and the Torah scroll is lifted for the congregation to see and acknowledge. Then the second scroll is opened, and the Bridegroom of Genesis pronounces the blessing. Incidentally, the two readings are quite equal in length: one chapter plus 3 verses.

The Genesis Bridegroom’s reading is the story of Creation, a preview of the portion for the coming Shabos. From the familiar “In the beginning” it continues to the sanctification of the seventh day, when G-d finished the work on “all that G-d created to achieve.” The Bridegroom of Genesis then completes his honor with his second blessing, and the service continues.

Of course, this is only one feature of the pageant that is traditional to Simkhas Torah. Traditional synagogues see all their Torah scrolls taken from the ark and paraded around the shul seven times, amid a lot of singing and some dancing — even by those with two left feet – all this before the reading starts. Then if too many people are present to honor in one reading, some Torah scrolls may be taken to other rooms to facilitate multiple readings, to honor all those eligible, including kol han’orrim” when all the minor youngsters gather under one Tallis, and one adult recites the blessing.

Humor is a favorite feature of this holiday, too. Some people wear the most unexpected clothes to shul to invite their friends’ laughter. As to l’khyims – we don’t talk about that…

What we should talk about, and think about, is a simple lesson we could take home with us. Each one of us, youth, parents, grandparents or just Jews, has a double function. You and I can realize that we are both “bridegrooms of the Torah” and also “bridegrooms of Genesis.” As Torah bridegrooms we respect the past. We don’t live in the past but we learn from it. And as “bridegrooms of Genesis” we head for a creative future. What can I do, or improve, or create that will help those I love? What will honor my ancestors’ memory? Will my work carry forth an inspiration from the past? Our challenge in this dual role is to fuse heritage with adventure. Welcome opportunity and apply noble rules.

Not an easy role, this fusion of past and future. But an exciting one. Worth celebrating on this Simkhas Torah.


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SOME “MAZEL” FOR SUCCOTH –by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

SOME “MAZEL” FOR SUCCOTH –by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

My friend and former colleague Rabbi Meyer Heller used to feel sorry for the Succoth holiday which comes this week. “Succoth has no mazel” was how he put it. “People are all shuled out from the High Holidays and don’t want another religious occasion four days later.” For many people, of course, that is still true. And it is unfortunate, because this yomtov with its decorated tabernacle and its guests both real and imaginary offers a happy and relaxed celebration. Quite a contrast to the serious soul searching of Yom Kippur. In fact, Succoth is the only holiday where the Torah instructs us v’hayita akh sameyach – “just be happy!”

So what is Succoth? Historically, Succoth celebrates harvest time. Reapers erected booths in the field to save time while gathering in earth’s bounties. Those booths recalled the temporary shelters our ancestors lived in during the Exodus. Just as Divine power helped us gain freedom then, so it helps reap nature’s bounty in more settled times. And small homemade sheds express our gratitude for freedom, for nature, for history. Here and there, some people like to sleep in their succah. Everyone who has a succah eats meals there. And we invite guests – ushpizin as they are called in Aramaic. Maybe you saw a delightful Israeli film by that name a few years ago, in which the guests turned out to be two escaped convicts who knew the host before he became religious!

Besides the friends who are our guests in the succah, we also invite imaginary guests – our Biblical forebears, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David – seven in all, one for each day of Succoth. That’s right, it is a seven-day holiday both in Israel and the Diaspora.

So why do our calendars show nine days? Because a separate yomtov – Shmini Atzeret, literally Eighth day of Assembly — starts on the eighth day, as prescribed in the Torah. And the ninth day in the Diaspora is another separate holiday, Simchat Torah – Rejoicing in the Law – which gets combined with the Eighth day in Israel and in Reform congregations. More about that next week.

Meanwhile, take a little time to build a succah in your backyard and celebrate in it Wednesday night. Some handy prefab units are now on the market, that save time doing this. Personally I prefer to build our 8 X 8 shed every year and cover it with palm fronds. Depending on where you live, that covering called s’khakh, which must consist of cut-off branches, could be palm fronds, or evergreens, or as in my middle-western boyhood corn stalks. It connects us to the earth. Yet it is not so solid that you can’t look through it and see the stars. Earth, sky and people – all G-d’s bounty.

Happy Succoth!

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THE 41ST DAY – a Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

THE 41ST DAY – a Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Forty days ago was the first of Elul – Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holidays. That makes tomorrow the 41st day. But wait a minute. We had just One Month to prepare ourselves for a new year. One month? Is that enough?

This year I’d like to offer an alternate view.

True, our tradition calls for the shofar to be sounded every morning from the first of Elul until Rosh HaShanah, to remind us of the coming Divine judgment. But that’s only the immediate alert – like the siren calling Israelis to the bomb shelters. From the viewpoint of biblical history, our days of preparation should last all summer. Let’s check the dates.

Shavuot, the Festival that comes seven weeks after the second Seder, commemorates receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. It takes place on the 6th day in Sivan (this year May 31st). That was the beginning of the experience. First, our ancestors heard the thunder, saw the lightning, got the message of the Ten Commandments – and then Moses climbed the mountain. He stayed there for 40 days, came down with the two Tablets of the Law, saw the Jews dancing around the Golden Calf, and smashed the tablets. That tragic event took place on the eve of the 17th of Tamuz, and was only the first of several historic disasters associated with that date. Still observed as a fast day, the 17th of Tamuz this year coincided with July 11th. The following day, the 41st day after Shavuot, Moses offers a prayer of desperation and is invited back up the mountain.

Another 40 days pass. As Rabbi Yonason Goldson points out, this was a period of prayer. No tablets. Again Moses returns to report to the people that the Almighty accepted his prayer, and will forgive them. He returned on the last day of the month of Av (this year August 22nd).

Now Moses gets the message to carve out two new stone tablets, carry them up the mountain, and then G-d will inscribe them with the same words that were on the broken tablets. Moses does so. After a third stay of 40 days on Mount Sinai he brings down the tablets intact. Count 40 days from the first day of Elul, and you come to the 10th day in Tishri, otherwise known as Yom Kippur.

So our ancestors finally received – and accepted — the Torah, not on Shavuot but today – on Yom Kippur. And what does that signify for us?

We could sum up the answer in one word: Hineni. When summoned to duty, it is the reply of every faithful Jew from Abraham to Moses to the cantor at Musaf time, to the soldier on the West Bank: Hineni – one Hebrew word that combines three concepts, and is accordingly translated by three English words: Here I am. Here is the place. I am the one. Now is the time.

We face these challenges in our daily lives. All three of them.

Yes, we should learn Torah. We should bring our heritage into our family life. Yes, opportunities are available to do that, right here where we live. But not right now… I’m busy… maybe later after I retire.

Two out of three doesn’t make it.

Yes, we get appeals from good causes that need our help – from food banks to war relief to medical research to education to congregational programs. We see opportunities for service, and yes, we write a check. But put in some time right here? Maybe not.

Again it’s two out of three.

Other challenges face us, in the community and in the world at large. How do we use energy? Do we identify the source of merchandise before we buy? Do we take the trouble to think about those daily decisions, or do we leave them to other people? Here and now, but not me. Reminds us of some national policies: yes, al Qaeda should be stopped; yes, Hizbollah should be disarmed – by someone else…

Two out of three.

Those same three components of Hineni show up in the 120-day buildup to the New Year. Apply them to Moses at Mount Sinai:

The first 40 days encouraged the Here. Here is the place. Sinai was the place for revelation. Look what the Almighty is giving us! But the people couldn’t see the top of the mountain. They missed the Here. They were afraid Moses would not come back, so they turned to idolatry. Came the 41st day, and disaster.

The second 40 days expressed the Now. Now is the time. “This is Your people whom You freed from Egypt,” Moses prayed. “Don’t destroy them now! Forgive them, now!” And he brought back the assurance of Divine compassion in the 13 attributes of G-d, to give the people back their courage: “The Lord, the Lord is a G-d merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in kindness…” This time, the 41st day brought a challenge: You want the Torah? Carve your own tablets.

Only then did the third and final preparation period begin. Human effort brought cosmic fulfillment. I am the one. Even if it means hard work. Even if it means spending Rosh HaShanah on the mountain top. Maybe Moses heard the shofar sounded in the valley below, maybe not. But on that first Yom Kippur he brought us the visible, tangible presence of our heritage.

That Yom Kippur, as every Yom Kippur, was the 40th day. Moses rose to his challenge and won his reward. Each one of us faces a similar challenge. Here is the place. Now is the time. I am the one.

The day AFTER Yom Kippur is our 41st day. Let’s put it together, three out of three. Hineni.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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GOODBYE and HELLO – Nitzavim/Vayeylekh – Deut. 29-31, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

GOODBYE and HELLO – Nitzavim/Vayeylekh – Deut. 29-31, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Last week’s reading concluded the second of Moses’ Final Discourses and began his third and last public message to the Jewish People. Since we will read two sections this week, we will also read the end of his public orations, and his personal instructions to Joshua who will soon take his place as the people’s leader.

Often we reserve special respect for an elder’s last words. Rightly so, particularly in Moses’ case. Speaking of the Mitzvos – the Commandments that he delivered, of the rewards for following them, and the punishments for violating them that he already predicted quite graphically, he reminds his people:

“This Mitzva that I command you today, it is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say: Who will go up in the sky and get it for us and tell it to us so we can do it? And it is not overseas, that you should say: Who will cross the ocean and get it for us and tell it to us so we can do it? For the word is very close to you – in your own mouth and your own heart. Just do it. …

“I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you today! I set before you life and death. Choose life, so that you may live, you and your descendants. Love G-d, listen to His words and cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days, to dwell on the land that G-d swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give them.”

So the land is part of the blessing. Life, the word of G-d, and the ancestral home. All go together for a nation that observes Mitzvot.

No wonder that in the very next chapter Moses charges Joshua to lead the conquest of the Promised Land with supreme courage, and he pronounces this charge in the presence of all the people.

Then he writes a Sefer Torah – not a quick job, even if the writer is not 120 years old. So maybe he wrote it earlier? But Moses himself wrote it. Now he gives it to the Cohanim to be placed in the Ark with the Tablets of the Law. Allowing 7 years for the war of conquest, he then instructs Joshua and the priests on the Mitzvah of Hak-hel – “Gather the People” – to take place at Succos time. Now we celebrate Simchas Torah that week. But Hak-hel had a different theme. What was it? A victory bash? No, the purpose of this national gathering is to read the Torah. To learn the Mitzvot. To make the Holy Land holy. This gathering is not for the elite, it is for all the people – “the men, the women, the children, and the stranger within your gates. Let them listen and learn, and revere the L-rd your G-d, to guard the words of this Torah and to activate them.”

Facing the end of his life, Moses predicts that his people will go wrong after he is gone. And he calls on his followers to write down the song that he will sing – his last song, a stirring verse of faith, that can bring them away from their error. Next week we will read it.

For now, maybe we should just recall a ditty from the early days of modern Israel:

Eretz Yisrael b’lee Torah,
hee k’guf b’lee n’shamah.
“The land of Israel without the scroll
Is like a body without a soul.”

Just as Moses charged Joshua, we may well remind our people today: Courage and faith go together.

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