HOW MANY EXILES? – Pekudey – Ex.38 -40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HOW MANY EXILES? – Pekudey – Ex.38 -40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         The Book of Exodus concludes with an elaborate description of the process of assembling the Tabernacle and initiating its ritual. After a year of wandering in the desert, on the first day of the first month of their second year out of Egypt, the people of Israel has its portable headquarters – a home for its worship and a guide for its journey.  The last section of this reading tells us that the Divine presence shows by day in a cloud resting on the Tabernacle, and at night by a fire burning inside.  When the cloud rises, the people move on, extending their progress toward the Promised Land.  When the cloud settles, they camp.  

         Here we have a physical, visual symbol of Jewish destiny. As the “pillar of cloud by day, and the burning fire by night” are said to guide our ancestors on their ancient journey through the desert, we too could have our cloud and our fire.  We can find them in our living tradition.  Our faith should guide us on our journey through life and through history.

         The great commentator Nachmanides, the Ramban,writes that Exodus is the book of the first exile — first of four exiles scheduled for Israel.  This exile was decreed in the 15thchapter of Genesis, where the people’s redemption from exile was also predicted.  But that exile was not finished until the Tabernacle was complete and Divine glory could dwell among the people.

         Four exiles: Egypt, Babylon, Rome and Spain.  Did the independence of the State of Israel end the 4thexile?  

         Maybe not.   Maybe we are still in the 4thexile, without an invasion, without an inquisition.  Maybe we are in exile from ourselves.  Right now.  Maybe we find too many of our people wilfully turning their backs on the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire.  

No maybe about it.   

Many years ago I found myself discussing the concept of a Messiah with a Hebrew school class.  I asked them who did they think the Messiah would be.  It was a 12-year-old boy who answered: “I think the Messiah is all of us. We can save ourselves.”

Good answer, Billy.  Indeed we need to save ourselves.  We need to end our exile from ourselves and from each other.  We need to share the basic beauty of our heritage, the potent power of our Torah, over and above our quarreling opinions. There is so much in Judaism to share.  We don’t have to agree on every interpretation, but we must somehow join in the goal of “saving ourselves.”  In all the many parts of the world we live in, and in all the rival religious movements and political parties we sponsor, we can still find each other.  We must.  Together, together, we can find that pillar of fire and follow it into a future we can share.   

No 5thexile!

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ENOUGH ALREADY! – Vayak’hel – Ex. 35:1-38:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ENOUGH ALREADY! – Vayak’hel – Ex. 35:1-38:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         This week we will read the portion Vayak’hel – “Moses assembled the entire people.”  Usually this section is joined with the next one, Pikudey – “the records of the Tabernacle.”  But during a leap year like this one, the two sections occupy two weeks.  So this week we can concentrate on Moses’ purpose in calling a super meeting.

         As a nation, they are to embark on a super task. Still camped at Mount Sinai, this meeting takes place, as Rashi informs us, the day after Yom Kippur.  Moses just obtained Divine forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf and received the second Tablets of the Law.  Now he will lead his people to implement their connection to G-d by building a holy Tabernacle.  This task is not limited to any chosen few, but must include the entire Israelite nation.  Accordingly, Moses will call on all who are willing to donate t’rumah – an offering – consisting of the raw materials which will be used to create the Tabernacle.  “Take from yourselves an offering for G-d,” he says.  “All who are generous hearted, bring the offering… gold and silver and copper; blue and purple and scarlet linen, goat’s hair and red-dyed ramskins, sealskins, acacia wood.  Oil and spices, and jewels for the sacred garments.”  There’s more, of course.  The women were to weave, and the men to transport, and all are called on to dedicate their possessions and their work.  Because this travelling house of worship is to represent them all.

         But this is not Moses’ first message to this super meeting. Before even starting on his list of raw materials, he instructs his people to work 6 days and rest on the sacred seventh, Shabat.  “Anyone who works that day will die,” he says.  Don’t even build a fire on the Sabbath day.

         Nokhamol Shabbes? Again Shabos?  This makes no less than 8 times it is discussed in the Torah so far.  Not to mention at least an equal number coming up.  Clearly our tradition spares no opportunity to state the importance of Sabbath observance.  Keeping Shabos may not be easy, indeed it  frequently causes serious problems, but the one situation where it may be annulled is pikuakh nefesh – saving a life.  First comes human life.  Observance, no matter how important, comes second.  Still, a sacred structure like the Tabernacle should not be built on any sacred days.

         Of all the ideals and concepts and processes that Judaism created and gave to the world, perhaps nothing can compare with the weekly day of rest.  As other societies observe it on different days – Sunday or Friday, as we know – the Jewish Sabbath can become a serious problem for those who try to observe it in non-Jewish countries.  Yet rightly was it stated that “more than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel.”  It is a day, a value, a ritual we can all share.  Good clothes, good food, Kiddush and synagogue services and singing zmiros around the leisurely dinner table – all express joy in our heritage. Whether our work involves building a Tabernacle or building an outhouse, it should not be done on the Sabbath.  

         But frequently it is.  Strict Sabbath observance was long considered impossible in modern life. Today, some Jews are reviving Shabos with inventive skill.  Take a day to unplug!  Use Friday night for family visits.  Join groups like National Jewish Outreach in a communal Shabat Across America. Creative people are coming up with various ways to be a little more Jewish once a week.

         In our Torah portion, only after Moses reminds the nation of the importance of the Sabbath, does he call on them to contribute their offerings to the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  Betzalel and Oholiav, the master builders/architects/designers, take all this donated raw material and begin their work.  Soon they realize they have more than they need.  Enough already!  Stop bringing!   When they notify Moses of this surplus, he orders a loud proclamation: “Let no man or woman do any more!”  Definitely the first and only time that a temple fundraising project had to be stopped for its success!  And here Moses accomplished something even more important: national unity. How did this happen?  They were working together, doing it themselves while sharing the Sabbath, and thus they developed a strong community.  

By working together, joining in a common cause, and observing our Mitzvos as faithfully as possible, we can still produce results that outstrip our needs.  Worth trying, isn’t it?

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BE COUNTED – Kee Tissa – Ex. 30:11—34:35, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Rabbi Baruch Cohon

BE COUNTED – Kee Tissa – Ex. 30:11—34:35, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         “When you count the sons of Israel,” Moses is told, “let each man give a ransom for his soul.”  What goes without saying here is that it is not a direct count.  Our commentators provide the explanation that counting people directly can activate the ayin hora – the Evil Eye.   In the effort to avoid that mystic disaster, our people found various ways to count each other indirectly.   The synagogue shamas must make sure a minyanof 10 qualified Jews is present for services, so he recites the Biblical verse that begins Hoshiah es amekha (Save Your people), which contains exactly 10 words, while visually indicating one man per word. And if Grandma wanted to know that all the children were assembled for dinner, she would talley them saying Nisht eyns, nisht tzvey… (Not one, not two, etc.).

So in this week’s reading, Moses must ask for half a shekel from each Jew as a kofer nafsho (a ransom for his soul), and by counting the coins he could arrive at a census.  Just half a shekel.  This is not a fund-raising effort.  Specific orders demand that “the rich shall not increase [the amount] and the poor shall not reduce it.”  This half-shekel coin is called “an offering to G-d” because, says the Klee Yokor, it makes rich and poor equal.  A rich man cannot brag to his poor neighbor: “Look, I gave so much more than you did.”  Implying, of course, that his gift makes him important.  Like a PAC contribution.

Yes, this is a count.  But we must note that it is not a national census.  The population is numbered tribe by tribe elsewhere in the Torah.  Here we see no total figure.  Rather than a census, we should call this registering for the draft.  Men 20 years old and up are the only ones included.  These are the future soldiers who will fight to conquer the Promised Land. As the Hertz commentary points out, “this word ‘ransom’ occurs only three times in the Torah, and each time it refers to the money paid by one who is guilty of taking human life in circumstances that do not constitute murder.  Thus, the owner of an ox who killed a man, after the owner was warned that his animal was dangerous, was held responsible; but as his crime was not intentional he was permitted to pay a ransom.   Such a ransom was forbidden in the case of deliberate murder… The soldier who is ready to march into battle is in the eyes of Heaven a potential taker of life, though not a deliberate murderer.  Hence he requires a ‘ransom’ for his life.”

What we may find odd in this situation is the use to which the ransom money is put.  No weapons will be purchased with it, no intelligence operations financed, no military officers hired.  This money will go toward the construction and care of the holy Tabernacle, led by the expert craftsmen Betzalel and Oholiav, as described in this reading. All the future draftees who just got counted will be expected to learn the Mitzvos, like Sabbath observance which is detailed later in this reading, and observe them, with just as much devotion as they will show by risking their lives for their G-d and their people in the battle for the Land.

Of course the most famous section of this reading is the story of the Golden Calf, which our sages tell us happened somewhat earlier.  One minor episode in this story is worth our attention here.   After Aaron capitulates to the people’s impatience and builds them an idol, then announces “a holiday tomorrow,” the people spend the next day bringing offerings to the Calf, and sitting down to eat.  And to drink.  Then vayakumu l’tzakhek – “they rose up to make merry!”  Considering their inebriation, Rashi gives us some implied meanings for that word l’tzakhek: 1-sexual promiscuity, as Potiphar’s wife used the word when she accused Joseph of attempted rape; and 2- bloodshed, as brought on during the struggle between Saul and David when the corrupt generals Abner and Joab set up a supposed entertainment by the young recruits, which becomes a massacre.  Comparisons like these illustrate the depraved nature of idolatry, and how it prompted Moses to shatter the tablets and to threaten the idolaters with death. Only after deep trouble, after the many casualties caused by the Levites’ attacks, after Aaron’s rehabilitation and Moses’ own soul searching, could he go back up the mountain and receive the second set of Tablets of the Law.  This time, he achieved such close contact with the Divine that his face shown with a beacon of light, frightening those who saw him.  We will read how Moses had to wear a veil in camp after that.

Among the profound and famous passages in this week’s reading, we must not overlook the Thirteen Attributes –sh’losh esreh meedos – which we repeat while facing the Ark on all major holidays: “The L-rd, the L-rd is G-d, gracious and merciful, patient, with great kindness and truth.  He vouchsafes kindness to thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.  By no means clearing the guilty, He will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generations.” Note that in our prayers we never finish the passage.  We express our hope by stopping before the punishment predicted in the last sentence. 

Do we have that much hope?  A quick look at Jewish history can confirm both the favor and the punishment we know. Maybe we just need to join equally in that half-shekel registration, and remove Moses’ veil.

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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’tokhamamong 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 carry the holy thoughts through your life, like the gold rings on the ark, traveling through the desert.  

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OUR RESPONSIBILITIES – Mishpatim – Ex. 21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

OUR RESPONSIBILITIES – Mishpatim – Ex. 21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         All through the Torah we learn about our responsibilities – to G-d, to ourselves, to the land, to our work, and to each other. This week’s reading will include a detailed list of those responsibilities.   We should keep in mind that this is not a complete list, but it’s a good start.  

         Included here we find both positive and negative commands. They range from capital offenses to calendar celebrations, from how to treat a slave to what to do with an ox that gores.  The name of this reading is mishpatim, “Judgments.”  And its basic theme is justice.  Here we will find the famous rule of “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth,” a rule that was always interpreted to mean the economic value of that body part. Inflicting identical damage on the guilty does the victim no good, but paying for the damage is only right. Here we also learn that if a master inflicts that kind of injury on a slave, that slave must go free.  In Torah times slavery was a recognized reality. But unlike the attitude elsewhere – then and ever since then – that slaves are merely property, the Torah insists on treating slaves as human beings.  And lest we deceive ourselves that this is all ancient history, shocking current statistics reveal a number of slaves in the world today in the millions.

         Reading the penalties listed for violating these rules, we observe that in Torah times jail overcrowding was not a problem.  No long prison terms.   Generally punishment consisted of either economic penalties like fines and damage payments, or physical punishment – whippings or beatings, limited to 39 lashes – or banishment, or execution.  In the case of lesser religious violations, the guilty party had to bring a sacrificial offering.  

         Some penalties do not appear here, but will show up in the Book of Leviticus.  For example, here we find execution mandated for sorcery and for bestiality.  Not for other offenses, such as those described in Leviticus, including adultery and homosexuality where both violators got the death penalty.  Actually, fewer executions took place than we might expect, since the Torah requires two credible witnesses in order to convict and impose the death sentence.  And this week’s reading includes strict standards for honest testimony.

Worshiping a false god is punished with “destruction,” which is understood as “death at the hands of Heaven” rather than execution by human methods. Those methods were stoning, burning, beheading and hanging.  Violent action only, not poison or starvation.  Today presumably, the Torah would favor the firing squad over the lethal injection.  In murder cases, Torah justice recognizes the ancient practice of goel ha-dam –“the redeemer of blood” – closest relative of the victim, who had the right to avenge the death by killing the murderer.  And here we find an immediate reference to the case of an accidental unpremeditated killing, where the innocent killer should have a place to go and be safe from the avenging relative.  Cities of refuge were in fact established for this purpose both east and west of the Jordan, as detailed in later readings. 

         More outstanding than all the penalties are the moral imperatives set forth in this week’s reading.  If someone digs a pit and a man or an animal falls into it, whoever dug that pit is responsible for the injuries.  Give a tool or an animal to your neighbor for safekeeping, and that neighbor assumes responsibility to return your property intact.  And “do not take a bribe, for a bribe will blind the sharp-eyed, and pervert the words of the righteous.”  Practical rules to live by.  Our sages never stopped exploring rules like these.  The Talmud sets forth many imperatives that do not appear in the Torah at all, but became part of Jewish law, based on the principle of tikkun ha-olam–“repairing the world.” 

Repeated several times in the Torah, including this week, is the message: “Consider the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.”  Not stated but understood is the result: You know what happened to you –slavery and persecution; you didn’t deserve it; don’t do it to others.   

Truly this is a section worth reading and learning.  All four chapters.

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