The Benefit of the Doubt Torah

This week’s Dvar Torah is a direct quote from my son Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, and appears on his website,
I think you will find it important. 
We celebrate the new month of Elul on Sunday, August 12th, the beginning of the final month of the Jewish year.  It’s the time of year to think about the state of our relationships, to prepare to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, to reflect on where we are in our lives, where we’ve been and where we are headed.

The opening lines of this week’s parsha, Re’ei, are famously about choice.  In that passage Moses says to us, the people,

“Re’ei, anochi noten lifneichem hayom bracha u’klalla.
Et habracha asher tishm’u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem asher anochi m’tzaveh etchem hayom.
V’haklallah im-lo tishm’u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem…

“See, I give you today a blessing and a curse.
The blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot of your God that I command you today.
And the curse if you don’t obey or listen.”

On the surface, this seems like a simple restatement of the central message repeated all through Devarim: if you do good you will be blessed, if you do evil you will be cursed.  This Deuteronomic covenant lies at the heart of the Torah’s understanding of ethics.

But commentator Nechama Leibowitz points out that these are not really two parallel “if’s” here, “blessing IF you listen, curse IF you do not,” though most translations hide that.  The Torah uses two different words: it reads “et habracha ASHER tishm’u“, “v’haklalla IM-lo tishm’u“.  That is, the blessing, because you listen, and the curse, if you do not.

Rashi comments that, “the curse is written in the conditional, and the blessing in the declarative.”  That is, the blessing of God is definite while the curse is only a possibility.

Leibowitz adds that God actually gives us a line of credit, a “mitzvah equity loan” if you will, and we can borrow blessings on the speculation that we will likely do mitzvot.  It’s a good deal for us, if not necessarily for God.  This is a comforting thought: we get blessings on the likelihood that we will do mitzvot.  God rewards us and then hopes—prays?—that we act well and do good.

As we approach the season of Teshuvah, the time of return, our portion of Re’ei gives us added hope that God will always give us the benefit of the doubt, and is even extending us credit in advance to help us with our return to being our best selves.  What a wonderful gift this is.  All we need to do is to take advantage of the opportunity.

May it be our choice to embrace holiness and goodness in the coming month of Elul and in the days of return that follow.

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PROTECTING THE WORD – Ekev – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

PROTECTING THE WORD – Ekev – Deut. 7:12-11:25, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

(Yes I said the Word, not the World.)

Along with its legal and historical sections, this week’s Torah reading includes Moses’ narrative of his second 40-day session on the mountain top, to receive the Divine Word.  Chapter 10 opens with that narrative:

At that time, G-d told me: “Hew two stone tablets like the first ones, and climb  up the mountain to Me.  And you must make yourself a wooden ark.”

Last time there was no ark.  Moses carried the tablets in his hands.  Our commentators tell us what else was different then.  The first tablets were Divinely created; they had no weight – until Moses saw the Golden Calf.  In his shock and rage, the tablets became too heavy to hold.  He had to throw them down and break them.  This new set of tablets will be of earthstone, cut and carved by Moses himself, sizeable and weighty.  He will need a container for them.

That container, the Holy Ark which he builds even before hewing the stone tablets, is not the only one to be used for this purpose.  Rashi points out that this is not the Ark built by Bezalel the architect of the Tabernacle.  That one will not come into use until after Yom Kippur, some time after the period of this story.  We can assume, too, that Bezalel’s ark was a grand imposing structure.  This ark is different.  In fact, says Rashi, this is the ark that Israelite fighting forces would take with them to war.   Practical and portable.

In this simple symbolic story, we learn a valuable fact: Both for formal ceremony and basic conduct, the Divine word must be protected.  Daily life proves it.   As we respect our various houses of worship, we implement that respect with thoughtful behavior.  That’s why we stand up when the officiant approaches the Holy Ark and the scroll is taken out —  just one familiar example of the ark’s function that Moses started.

In our work, our recreation, our family life, we can protect our Divine Word very readily. Conduct and conversation contribute to honoring that Word or dishonoring it.  We are not carrying a wooden ark down the street but we can still guard the Word.   Some of us choose to wear our heritage on our heads. All of us need to carry it inside our heads.  After all, the laws that Moses inscribed on those tablets are the basis of a way of life called Judaism.  That way of life is valuable enough to be protected, wherever we live, through the upright habits we should keep.

So how do we deal with those who acknowledge no Word as Divine, and who attack our way of life?   Violent opposition, like terrorism, must of course be subject to violent combat.   No matter what part of the world we are in, we can hope and plan and act, peacefully or violently, to achieve justice and attain true peace.  And for the non-violent opponents, who disparage our Word and have nothing better to offer, good old stubbornness can still prevail.

My friend, here is where I stand.  You may have different ideas, and we’ll have to discuss them reasonably, if at all.  This Word, this way, is mine.

Protect the Word, as Moses did.  With a little Divine help, it will inspire you.

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A MESSAGE FROM MOSES – Deut.3:23—7:11 – Va-etkhanan –by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A MESSAGE FROM MOSES – Deut.3:23—7:11 – Va-etkhanan –by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s reading is long, starting as Moses recalls praying to be permitted to enter the Promised Land.  He is refused, but he accepts his fate, and then turns to remind his people why they are called a “wise and understanding nation.”  It is because of the laws they follow, the Torah they received at Sinai.  That’s where they showed they could listen.  Mitzva was the message, and they accepted it.  Reviewing their progress from slavery in Egypt to nationhood, Moses cautions them to keep the Law.

Then he attends to a matter of administration. He designates Cities of Refuge, where a fugitive killer can go and be safe – if the killing was accidental and not premeditated.  This is just a reminder.  The same Cities of Refuge were described completely two weeks ago.

Now Moses launches into his second oration to his people.  Yes, it is long.  Only part of it is read this week.  Long, but worth reading.  Both dramatic and basic to our understanding of Judaism, this section of Moses’ oration includes:

(1) a repetition of the Ten Commandments, with some brief comments added.  We might well note that the Big Ten are not called commandments in Hebrew.  They are aseret hadibrot – “ten statements.”  Simple principles of right and wrong, universal truths, not limited to any one religion — the truths our ancestors accepted at Mount Sinai.  The same ones that our American neighbors liked to post in public buildings.  Unless…unless some Bible-haters pass laws to ban them.

(2) Sh’ma –“Hear O Israel,” the central declaration of Jewish faith.  I have some notes on the Sh’ma from my father Rabbi and Professor Samuel S. Cohon of blessed memory, a longtime teacher of rabbis.  He points out that the very wordsh’ma means both to hear and to understand.  The ensuing text lists ways we can achieve true understanding: our relationship to the Divine, our learning and teaching of that relationship, dramatizing it through signs and symbols like T’fillin and Mezuzot, and our goal – to make our lives praiseworthy.

(3) the duty to remember the Exodus from Egypt, the primal victory of physical independence that opened the way to moral and spiritual identity.

And finally,

(4) a warning not to be tempted by mixed marriage and idolatry.

Pitfalls await the conquering Israelites, and Moses describes them vividly. They will take over great cities that they did not build.  They will inhabit fine houses full of good things they did not produce.

Maybe the so-called “seven nations” they are replacing knew something they didn’t know?  Maybe those tribes had a better way of life?

Forget it, he tells them: “Not because you outnumbered all the other nations did G-d value you and choose you.  You are the smallest of the nations.  Because G-d loved you, that’s why He rescued you from Egypt.”

Today some people still ask: Why are Moses’ heirs still here?  Why did Jews survive all their defeats, the exile and persecution and genocide?

Not because there were more Jews in the world than there were Egyptians or Greeks or Romans or Huns or Turks.   Still a global minority, we are still able to listen.  Granted, we can listen to the wrong voices.  So we still sometimes get tripped up by idolatries from Communism to Scientology.  Today more than ever, our Torah challenges us to listen to a message from Moses.

If you read the whole Sedrah every week, more power to you.  If not, take the time to read this one.  And since this week included the Ninth of Av when we fast to mourn the destruction of the Temple twice on the same date, take a look at the beautiful Haftorah, the prophetic passage that gives its name to this Sabbath – Shabat Nachmu – the Sabbath of Comfort, as Isaiah sings: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your G-d.”

Wishing you a week of strength and comfort, Shabat Shalom.

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HERE ARE THE WORDS – D’varim – Deut. 1–3:22, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HERE ARE THE WORDS – D’varim – Deut. 1–3:22, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we begin reading Sefer D’varim, (literally “the book of words”), Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book of the Torah.  The 120-year old leader Moses gives his people a farewell message in three magnificent monologues.  How did a man that age make himself heard to an audience of some 2 million?   No use guessing.  Given some of the other miraculous events in his career, let’s just assume that those who listened, heard.

What they heard was hardly likely to please them. Moses reminds them of all the places where they did wrong, where they rebelled and rejected Divine guidance, where they brought disaster on themselves.  And he relays G-d’s message: “Not one man of the generation that left Egypt will see the good land that I promised to your ancestors.”  The exceptions are just two: Caleb, one of the only 2 spies who brought a good report, expressing faith and confidence that Canaan could be conquered; and Joshua, the other favorable spy, who will lead the conquest.

As we will re-read Moses’ stirring messages over the coming weeks, we will find a variety of examples of how the Exodus generation failed.  All of those failures stem from one sad source.  They lost faith.  Sometimes they lost it so completely that they were really considering going back to Egypt.  They remembered eating meat there, and the desert diet contained G-d-given manna, but precious little meat.  So they would be slaves again.  So what? Was that any worse than fighting off desert tribes, only to stand hungry at Mount Sinai and accept hundreds of new obligations?

Yet those rebels, those losers of faith, could not forget the dream – the Great Promise – a land of their own.  Freedom and home and future.  Now their leader tells them that not only will he himself not live to cross the Jordan, but neither will they.  Only their heirs, their children and grandchildren, will follow Joshua to build the nation’s freedom and home and future.  Freedom from Pharaoh; home to the land vouchsafed to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; and a future full of hope for prosperity and power, population and prophecy.

After 40 years in transit, the second generation knew the hardships of the desert, the dangers from hostile tribes, the thirst and the hunger and the squabbling that they and their parents went through.  What a blessed relief it would be to leave that behind and find a fertile homeland – the place they heard about all their lives – their ancestral country.  If taking it over meant war, they were ready.

Or were they?  Maybe their parents lost faith, but what about them?  Were they innocent of the slavish doubts and rebellious urges that turned some of their parents against Moses and his message?   How could they qualify to inherit the Land of Israel, being the sons and daughters of the Exodus generation?

Pharaoh, faced with a slave rebellion, planned genocide.  And he lost his battle by a miraculous Red Sea defeat. Not one death camp remains in Egpyt. Ever since the Red Sea crossing, we have been reading about the  trials and the progress of the Exodus generation.   They received the Torah, they survived armed attack and sexual epidemic, and some of them lost faith.  Their distant descendants, some of them victims of a genocide much more successful than Pharaoh’s, also included some who lost faith.  None of the remaining death camps of Europe show any different treatment for the faithless.  But they also included many who regained it, and once freed, gathered together with believers – both political and religious – to cross the Jordan and the Mediterranean and, yes, the Red Sea too – to return to the Land of Israel.  Did some of them lose faith?  They did. But this time they were not excluded.

The children of the Exodus generation went on and produced a King Solomon who built the Temple.  This week we mourn for that Temple and the Second Temple as well, both destroyed by enemies on the same day, tish’a b’av, the ninth day in the month of Av which actually falls on this Shabos when we read this section.   Therefore we will observe the fast of mourning on Sunday.

Our scholars tell us that the Third Temple will be built only when the Moshiach arrives.  It will shine Divine light to all Jews, and hopefully to the whole world.

Let’s hope that whenever that happens, our people will not lose faith, but will inherit a blessed future.

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COME TO THE PU’UHONUA – Matos-Mas’ey – Num. 30:2 – 36:13, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

COME TO THE PU’UHONUA – Matos-Mas’ey – Num. 30:2 – 36:13, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read the last two sections in the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbor, otherwise known as Numbers. Forty trying years now bring our ancestors to the banks of the Jordan, gateway to the Promised Land.   As we might expect, these two sections contain a variety of themes.  Review of laws, historic accounts of travel through empty land and then fighting enemies who refused to let them pass — all increase the leaders’ load – plus several internal conflicts with those who wanted to take the leaders’ places.   Of all the rulings Moses made in these last years of his life, a unique one takes place in Chapter 35.

Here we learn about A-rey miklat –Cities of Refuge, to be established, six in all – three east of the Jordan where two and a half tribes chose to live, and the other three west of the Jordan, in the Land of Israel proper.  These cities offer a safe haven to someone who has killed by accident.  No enmity existed between killer and victim. Therefore, the next of kin, called the “blood redeemer – go’el hadom”must be prevented from taking revenge as was expected otherwise.  The accidental killer is to find refuge in this place and remain safe there until the death of the High Priest – the Kohen gadol – after which the “blood redeemer” loses his opportunity for vengeance.

Some commentators question the number of these cities.  Why should just two and a half tribes have as many refuge cities east of the Jordan as nine and a half tribes would have in the west?  Good question.  Maybe those two and a half tended to be more careless about whose life they risked? The Torah offers no explanation. But since the religious and administrative centers were all on the west side, we might imagine that life was more civilized there.  Moses foresaw these conditions, of course.

Another question: what constitutes killing by accident?   In Deuteronomy’s section called Shoftim (Judges), this ruling is treated again, and a classic example appears:   two men are chopping trees in the forest, and as one of them swings his axe the iron head flies off and the blade hits his friend’s neck, killing him!   The man with the axe has every right to go to the City of Refuge.   Immediately, the Torah goes on to stress that if, on the other hand, the killing was a deliberate murder and that is proven, then the people have the duty to remove the killer and put him to death.  Uviarta ha-ra mi-kirbecha –“Remove evil from your midst!”  Compare this act of justice with a recent case in California where a convicted “hatchet murderer” lived some 35 years in prison before being condemned to death this year.   Was that cell his city of refuge?

The whole plan of the City of Refuge rings particularly in my memory, ever since my first trip to Hawaii.   One sightseeing boat trip brought us to a cave, accessible only by water, where an inadvertent killer could escape the revenge of the victim’s next of kin.  Pictures in the cave’s artistic displays confirmed that under old Hawaiian law a qualified resident of this refuge was entitled to protection until the death of the Big Kahuna.  In the Hawaiian language, of course, a kahuna is a priest – very close to the Hebrew word kohen.  So the Big Kahuna would be the Kohen gadol.  And the other elements of the practice exactly parallel Torah law. Here in mid-Pacific was an outpost of Judaism!  Amazed by the similarity, I contacted a friend who at that time was the only rabbi on the island, and discussed the question with him.  Where did the Hawaiians learn Torah?   His answer never left me:  When tribesmen from primitive Polynesia decided to move to then-uninhabited Hawaii, they needed pilots, navigators to help them across all those miles of Pacific waters.  The best pilots available were Jews, refugees from European persecution who were living on the Chinese coast and looking for work.  They were hired.  As they guided the settlers to their new home, they also taught them some language—about 200 words in Hawaiian that have similar sound and meaning to those words in Hebrew.   And they taught them some ideas too.  Like Torah principles.  Like Cities of Refuge.  True, the Hawaiians later changed the particulars somewhat over the centuries, but the Kahuna still rules.

To the credit of the U.S. Department of the Interior, one of these cities is preserved and is planned to be restored to its historic identity.  It is called the Pu’uhonua of Honaunau.  There Hawaii will honor the tradition of protecting the innocent and removing evil.

This Shabat morning when we honor the completion of the book of Numbers, we will chant Khazak khazak v’niskhazek – “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other!”  By all means.  Just like we strengthened those Hawaiian pioneers.

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