NOW WE KINDLE THE CANDLES – Hanukkah – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

NOW WE KINDLE THE CANDLES – Hanukkah – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          Haneyrot ha-lalu anakhnu madleekeen – My old Hanukkah record sings itself anew every year in Hebrew or in English or both.  The gifted Israeli bandleader and multimedia artist, David Yakobian, who made the original recording with me, remains my good friend.  Like other Jews the world over, we and our families look forward to celebrating these 8 days and the miraculous survival they recall.

Now we kindle the candles, remembering the days of old,
Lights full of myst’ry, lights full of history, 
Sparks from the battles brave and bold,
Blazing a story of ancient glory, 
Maccabees who fought to worship free, 
Still standing by us, old Mattathias
Calls “Ye faithful, come along with me.”
As each night we add one light, 
We add a prayer that freedom be for all,                          
So we know we keep them holy
Till the Eight are thrilling great and small.

          So we kindle the candles…  *

This year, as usual, we look for friends in other parts of the human race who can join in our celebration.   One historic event climaxed in Washington recently at the White House Hanukkah reception, as the U.S. Government officially acknowledged Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel.  Thus a friendly administration agrees that Eer haKodesh – the Holy City – is central to Jewish life for some 3,000 years and to the modern Jewish State for at least 68.  How this decision will be implemented remains to be seen.  But all Jews can welcome the spirit of this policy, and join in lighting a candle.

          Remember the order of our candles.  We place them in the Menorah starting on the extreme right.  That’s the first night.  Every night after that, we add a candle, increasing by one each night and setting them in place from right to left.  Then we light them, from left to right.  Always light the new one first.  Every day is a new experience, hopefully a new miracle, a new prayer of gratitude for freedom. 

          Next Monday when eight flames send their combined message of joy to the world outside, let’s join in the faith that miracles from Heaven do not stop.  As our Maccabees found just enough oil to burn for one night – and it burned for eight – so let our world alliances and our religious and national strength live and increase. 

          She-hekhe-yonnu v’kee-y’monnu v’higiyonnu laz’man ha-zeh.  “Thank G-d for our life and our sustenance to reach this time.”


*Music for the song can be found in the book “Songs for my People” p.40  (available from this writer)

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DREAMS OF GLORY – “Vayeyshev” Gen. 37-40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

DREAMS OF GLORY – “Vayeyshev” Gen. 37-40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

          Of all the dreamers in human history, Joseph stands out.  We meet him in this week’s Sedrah Vayeyshev, at age 17, telling his father and his older brothers about his dreams.   One is a dream of physical glory, in which he sees his sheaf of grain stand up in the field while all their sheaves surround his and bow.   The second dream is highly symbolic, with the sun and moon and 11 stars bowing down to him.  Already unpopular with his brothers, since he was Jacob’s favorite son, these dreams earn him their mortal hatred.  They refer to him as “baal hakhalomos – the dream-master.”  They consider murdering him, and decide instead to sell him into servitude.  His dreams of glory begin to turn into nightmares.

          Yet, 20 years later those dreams come true.

          What happens in between makes the story of Joseph not only a great classic biography, which inspired retelling it by writers from Thomas Mann to Andrew Lloyd Weber.  It also gives us a unique lesson in how to make our dreams come true.  Joseph’s character develops under all different kinds of pressure.

          First come the Ishmaelites on the caravan, who buy him from his brothers for 20 silver coins.  All of a sudden this spoiled kid becomes a slave.  He is human merchandise that they will sell in Egypt for whatever they can get, and until they arrive there he will earn his meager meal by helping tend the camels.   A boy who seldom even got a direct order from his indulgent father, now gets plenty of orders – and kicks and slaps — from heathen camel-drivers.  He learns to take it.  He has no choice.

          Then comes Potiphar, the Egyptian aristocrat, captain of the guard.  He puts Joseph to work in his house.  By now Joseph knows enough about taking orders to anticipate what needs to be done, and with native intelligence and youthful energy he does it efficiently.  So Potiphar makes him major domo.  Bright and good-looking, he is soon running the whole estate.

          Then comes Potiphar’s wife.  She takes a look at this young man and decides she wants him.   Her proposition is anything but subtle:  “Lie with me!”  Young as he is, Joseph senses the risks.  And his home training warns him that this is wrong in the sight of G-d.  So, unlike some of our politicians, he turns her down.   What might be going through the mind of this 18-year-old slave, we don’t know.  Is he a virgin?  Is the lady attractive?  Could he really desire her?  The Torah narrative ignores those questions.  But the cantillation for the word va-y’ma-eyn (he refused) is a shalshelet, literally a “chain” – the rarest and most ornate of musical figures in Torah chant, reserved for important words.  That refusal is very important.

          Incidentally, Rashi quotes the Talmudic opinion that Potiphar himself had a homosexual desire for Joseph.  Which might explain his wife’s eagerness for something she was not getting from her husband.  The Torah identifies Potiphar as a saris, usually translated “officer” or “courtier” but literally meaning “eunuch,” as were many of ancient potentates’ courtiers, surgically emasculated to safeguard the king’s harem. 

Indeed Mrs. P keeps tempting Joseph day after day without success, until one day when the other servants are not in the house she grabs his cloak to pull him into bed.  He leaves the cloak in her hands and goes out.  Frustrated and angry, she uses the cloak as evidence to frame him for attempted rape.  So Joseph goes to prison.

          Next come his jailer and his fellow prisoners.  He impresses the jailer enough to become his right-hand man.  And his fellow inmates come to him to interpret their dreams.  In the following Torah portion we will read how Joseph’s interpretations lead Pharoah to release him and make him viceroy.  Add some Divine inspiration, and Joseph is in position to receive his brothers and his father, and to save them from starvation. 

          How did he get there?  It was no easy trip.  The Ishmaelite caravan taught him to work.  Servitude on Potiphar’s estate developed his ambition and enabled him to find ways to achieve it.  Never forgetting his father’s teaching, he is able to weather his sexual trials and to make the best of an unjust punishment.  By the time he meets Pharaoh at age 30, Joseph has all the qualifications to live out his boyhood dream.  Running the country for the next seven years and controlling its economy to survive poverty, he earns the right to have “the sun and moon and 11 stars bow to him.” No, it wasn’t easy.

          Fulfilling our dreams never is.  Typically it involves hard work, strength to endure disappointments and rise above them, backbone to live by our principles, and enough imagination to preserve the vision we aim for.   Like Joseph, we might have to spend 20 years getting there.  Maybe less, like Mark Zuckerberg.  Or maybe more, like most of us.  But it is our challenge, a sacred journey that calls us to bring our vision to life. 

          Brakha v’hatzlakha – The most successful blessing: fulfill your dreams!

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DOT’S DA DIFFERENCE – Vayishlakh – Gen. 32:4 – 36, by Rabbi Baruch  Cohon

DOT’S DA DIFFERENCE – Vayishlakh – Gen. 32:4 – 36, by Rabbi Baruch  Cohon

          Nowhere in the Torah do we find dental bridges mentioned.  I mention them here because I happen to have one in my mouth, and this week’s reading reminds me of it every year.  Why do I have a bridge between my teeth?  It so happens that while eating dinner with guests in our Succah one year I bit down on a stainless steel fork and broke a tooth.  Rather than make a scene, I just spit out half a tooth and finished my meal carefully.  But other teeth later loosened around it, and my dentist fitted me with a bridge.   No more problems.  But what does this have to do with Torah?

          Just this.  This week’s reading includes the story of Jacob meeting his brother Esau for the first time in years, as Jacob returns from Haran.    He now has a family, and flocks and herds and camels, hardly the same lone terrified Jacob who fled his brother’s anger.  How will Esau react to him now?  He sends messengers ahead, to Esau in Mount Seir in the place called Edom, with gifts, to announce his arrival.   They report back, telling him that Esau is coming to meet him alright – with 400 armed men.  So Jacob divides his followers into two camps, figuring that if Esau attacks one camp, the other camp can be saved.  The night passes, with Jacob praying, and then struggling with a mysterious stranger – possibly an angel – but in the morning he manages to set out and meet Esau and his 400-man army.  Jacob has his wives and children take turns approaching their dreaded uncle.  Jacob himself goes ahead of them and bows seven times.  And then, to our surprise, we read: “Esau ran to meet him, fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”  Is this the same man who wanted to kill him?  What about the little army?   And what about those dots over the word for “and kissed him?”  Dots over words are rare in the Torah.  What do they mean?

          This is where the dental problem comes in.  Commentators, from Rashi on, tell us that what Esau really intended to do was to bite Jacob’s neck.  In fact, the 3-letter Hebrew root words for “bite” and “kiss” are quite similar.  Nashak and nashach.  Only one letter is different – kuf (the K-sound) in the word “kiss” and the guttural chaf in “bite.”  To which one Midrash adds this explanation: Esau did bite Jacob’s neck, aiming for the jugular.  But at that moment Jacob’s neck miraculously turned to iron.  Esau broke all his teeth.  No wonder he cried!

          Maybe the Midrash has a message here for all of us, personally and nationally.   The old stiff neck can protect us from false friends.  All the bowing that Jacob and his wives and children did for Esau – no dots.  It was sincere.  Esau’s display of emotion remains questionable.  The Torah’s dots pose that silent question.  We might well dot various agreements made with questionable groups today, including some of Esau’s descendants. 

          We notice that Esau proceeds to accept Jacob’s gifts, and invites him to bring his family to Edom.  Jacob declines, citing the difficulty of travel for his children.  Really, how does he know when to expect Esau’s next attempted attack?   Better leave some space between them.  Through the centuries after that, Israel and Edom remained enemies.  Rabbis in the Talmud even refer to Rome, the enemy in their day, by the code name Edom.  Esau’s actions left the taste of danger in the mouths of Jacob’s family.  As it left those dots in the Torah. 

          Nobody dots nuclear treaties these days.  Seems like the least we could do.

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DESTINY, DECEIT and ROMANCE – Vayeytzey – Gen. 27:10—32:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

DESTINY, DECEIT and ROMANCE – Vayeytzey – Gen. 27:10—32:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Personal stories about our patriarchs flavor the Book of Genesis with some fascinating – and even some familiar – relationships. Last week we learned how Isaac received Rebecca as a pre-determined wife ordered by his father and brought to him by the major domo Eliezer. This week we will read a very different Shiddukh (matchmaking) story.

Jacob is no stay-at-home rancher like his father. He sets out to see his world and meet his relatives, journeying from Beer Sheva to Haran. There he finds the local shepherds gathering to water their flocks, and waiting till all of them are gathered to remove the huge rock that covers the well. They get together, move the rock and water their sheep, then put the rock back in place. Inquiring about his relatives, Laban’s family, he is told that not only do they all know Laban, but “here is his daughter Rachel with their flock.” Sure enough, a beautiful girl arrives leading a huge flock of sheep. And here comes romance! Struck with his young cousin’s looks, Jacob proceeds to roll that huge rock off the well single-handed, and then kisses Rachel.

Two questions enter the reader’s mind. First, of course, if the rock requires so many men to move it in order to water the flocks, why doesn’t Rachel get there earlier? All right, she’s late that day. And secondly, where does Jacob get the nerve to kiss a girl he never saw before? Wasn’t Jacob frum? Wasn’t he our third patriarch? Shame on you, Yankel!

Maybe this meeting forms a romantic exception to the rules. Maybe Rachel also behaved questionably by submitting to Jacob’s kiss. Didn’t she suffer plenty afterwards? Seven long years waiting for her groom while he works for her father. We will read the amazing story of her wedding night, when by her father’s deceitful trickery it is her sister Leah who winds up in Jacob’s bed, and not Rachel. And how Jacob has to agree to another seven years of virtual slavery so he can marry both sisters.

Interestingly enough, none of the classic commentators discuss that first kiss. And from the Talmud on, tradition tells us that Jacob’s 14 years of service does not mean that Rachel had to wait that long to get married. Using the Hebrew term shavua which can describe a period of seven years or seven days, we learn that when Jacob discovers Leah in his bed in the morning and challenges Laban “Why did you deceive me?” Laban agrees to give him Rachel too. Just maley sh’vua zos – “Finish out this week” of celebration, and you can marry her. Recognizing that wedding ceremonies were very different then, if not totally confined to a family party and physical intimacy, we need to realize that here was our #3 patriarch, still young and strong, with two wives and a growing family, building up his crafty father-in-law’s estate for a total of 20 long years.

What did Jacob earn? Later in the reading we will see how he prepared for his trip home, by setting the terms of his wages: all the striped and speckled animals will be his, the plain colored ones remain with Laban. And we see that Jacob is up to some trickery too. He catches the animals at the time of procreation and hypnotizes them with poplar and almond and plane-tree branches that he has peeled to make white streaks. “The flocks conceived at the sight of the peeled rods, and bore striped and speckled and spotted.”

Defeated economically, Laban can only charge Jacob to swear that he will never take any more wives “alongside my daughters.” Jacob and his family head back to Canaan. Why go there? He had built himself some wealth in Haran. Indeed, why Canaan again? Back at the beginning of his trip, the angels in his dream brought him the Divine promise that the land he slept on would be his. That land was Canaan, presently dominated by his wicked brother Esau. Esau, like their father Isaac, never got his name changed. But Jacob would soon become Israel. And that land was to be the Land of Israel.

So in this one reading, Destiny joins with Deceit and Romance to tell us an exciting story of our distant ancestor. And next week he will face his murderous brother, his rival for a homeland. News? Tune in to the Torah.

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HOW MANY JUDY’S DO YOU KNOW? — Toldos – Gen.25:19—28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HOW MANY JUDY’S DO YOU KNOW? — Toldos – Gen.25:19—28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Of all feminine first names, certainly one of the most popular among our people is Judith, usually abbreviated to Judy. In its Hebrew form Yehudit it is a description of a person or a thing as being Jewish. If a Jewish man is a Yehudi, Hebrew grammar adds a letter and his sister is a Yehudit, whatever her given name might be. Most of us have at least one cousin by that name, don’t we?

Linguistically, the word Yehudit is also used to identify a Jewish language like Yiddish or Ladino. It can also signify a product or an activity as being associated with Jewish people. Want to give your kid a birthday party? Make it a Jewish celebration – a Khagigah Yehudit!

Certainly we would expect this familiar name to have Biblical roots. And in fact it does. This week’s Torah reading includes the first – and only – mention of the name Judith in the entire Hebrew Bible. And who was she? A matriarch like Sarah? A devoted leader like Miriam?

Don’t be shocked, but she was not even Jewish. Reading of Isaac’s family, we come to his older son Esau, and we learn that at age 40 Esau married two Hittite women. One of them was Judith, daughter of B’eyri, a Hittite chief. What was she like? The very next sentence describes her as a source of moras ruakh – “bitterness of spirit” – to Isaac and Rebecca.

Now wait a minute, all you Judy’s. Don’t change your name yet. We have another sacred book, later than the Tanach, a collection of books in fact, called the Apocrypha. Along with books like The Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus, and the two books of Maccabees that give us the Hanukkah story, here we find a book named Judith. The story it tells takes place during the Assyrian invasion led by Holofernes, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s generals. Critics place the Hebrew manuscript as written sometime around the first century BCE. The book has 16 chapters, and the name Judith does not even appear until Chapter 8. Those first seven chapters tell us about the invasion, the cruelty of the Assyrians and their takeover of all the water sources in the territories they conquered. In the city of Bethulia the people are suffering drought, while their enemies camp nearby and demand passage through the hills. Their governors are no help, stuck between a desperate population and a stubborn enemy.

Only a young widow can help them. She is Judith. Her husband died just 3 years and 4 months ago, a victim of sunstroke during the barley harvest. Still in mourning, and still beautiful, respected by her neighbors for her faithful ways – and also for the wealth her husband left her – Judith steps forward and listens to the people’s cries. The governors promised to deliver the city to the Assyrians within 5 days! All could be killed!

She sends her maids to invite the governors to her house, and she gives them a good lecture, showing them the danger of their policy, and reminding them what their forefathers did and how Divine wisdom inspired them. To which Governor Ozias replies with respect to her wisdom, and asks her to pray for them.

Judith will pray, all right, and she has other plans too. No details here; she just says in effect “Don’t stop me.” To which Ozias agrees, wishing her well. And the big shots leave.
As soon as they are gone, Judith offers passionate prayers, and then prepares for action. She dresses magnificently, makes up her face to accent her famous beauty, gathers her maids around her, and gives them some gifts to carry – wine, oil, corn, figs and fine bread. And they head for the city gate. There she demands and gets the gate opened, and proceeds toward the Assyrian camp.

What follows there is a step-by-step deception of the general, Holofernes, and his officers – all of whom find Judith fascinating. First, the officers. They welcome this beautiful woman of the Hebrews, who claims she fled the city because it and its people are doomed to be conquered and killed. She claims she can tell their leader how to take over all the hill country without losing a single soldier. They listen, they look at her face, and they believe. Without asking questions, they take her to Holofernes’ tent.

Interviewing this gorgeous lady is something Holofernes really enjoys. She states her faith in the Almighty, yet in outlining her plan to Holofernes, she swears – not by the Almighty but by Nebuchadnezzar. She declares that her nation of Israel will not be punished or defeated unless they sinned against their G-d. And she offers to guide Holofernes through her country to victory. The sessions go on for 3 days, as the Assyrian commander grows more and more fascinated with Judith. On the fourth day he orders a feast, inviting all his personal servants – but not the army officers. He orders his Number One eunuch to invite the Hebrew woman to the feast, to eat and drink with him. She accepts, but insists that she may not eat or drink anything but what she and her maid brought with them. She will not break any kosher laws.

Holofernes has no such limits, either on solid food or on wine. He welcomes Judith into his private tent and proceeds to drink himself unconscious. Nobody else will enter the tent, because the eunuchs are following orders to shut the door and stay outside with Judith’s maid. Alone with Holofernes now, Judith approaches his bed, where he is out cold. She looks up and sees something hanging from the upper bed frame. A scimitar! Hands trembling, she takes the scimitar down. Silently she prays: “G-d of Israel, make me strong today!” And she strikes the snoring man’s neck – not once but twice, with all her might. The head rolls free. She pulls the bedclothes around the body, wraps the head and takes it outside to her maid, who hides it in the food bag. They immediately proceed up the mountain to Bethulia’s city gates. She proclaims that G-d’s mercy is still with His people, and calls for the governors. They hear her voice and run to admit her.

“Look!” she says, “Here is the head of Holofernes, captain of the army of Assyria. See the canopy where he lay drunk. G-d struck him by the hand of a woman.” And she continues to express her thanks to the Almighty that the general fell for her fabulous face, but never defiled her body.

Ozias the governor praises Judith and orders an attack on the enemy camp. They take Judith with them, heroine of the nation. Their counterattack drives the enemy all the way to Damascus and beyond. They reward Judith with all the spoils they take from Holofernes’ tent, and Judith leads the women of Israel in victory songs and dances.

She also composes a song of celebration that is the last chapter of her book.
So the woman who caused Isaac and Rebecca such spiritual pain had the same name as the woman who brought victory and holy gratitude to her entire country. Which Judith would you rather be?

Probably most of today’s Judys would say Neither one. And very likely they are right. When we name our babies after our parents or grandparents, we hope that the name will bring some of the goodness of our loved ones of blessed memory to these new members of the family. And when we give a new child a name of an ancient foreparent – a Sarah or an Abraham, a David or – yes, a Judith – we do so with a prayer for the honor that comes with that name. Earning that honor is up to our child.

So we wish all our Judy’s some of the devotion and courage and success of your namesake. And all the acclaim of your people.

Ken y’hee ratzon.

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