Monthly archives "July 2017"

DEVARIM (Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22)

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“See, I place this land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them” (Deut. 1:8).

The word “Torah” simply means “instruction.” Its history of the ancient Israelites teaches us how they grew into a nation, how, as a people, after 400 years of enslavement in Egypt, they made a covenant with God to follow the Ten Commandments; how, deep in the desert, they developed a purity code to augment the Commandments; and, finally, how – in accordance with God’s directions and considerable loss of life — they took possession of the Holy Land. Through the example of the early Jews, we learn how to govern ourselves and our nations. Circumstances change, but human nature doesn’t. Amazingly, it makes good sense today, thousands of years later.

The Torah contains five books (the Greeks call it “the Pentateuch” in the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into a foreign language, other than Aramaic). The Hebrew Bible itself contains three sections: the Torah (the first five books), the Prophets (which includes the writings of the former and latter prophets and the 12 minor prophets), and Writings (which includes Psalms, Proverbs, and other well-known biblical books).

But today let’s talk about the Torah and its familiar five books:

The Book of Genesis not only describes the process of Creation, it is also about the development of human relations. As individuals multiply (according to the first command ever given) and form families, the Torah also teaches how we should treat or not treat one another.

Exodus is about the development of a nation, as first the Jews seek freedom from tyranny in Egypt, and then, as a covenanted yet still tribal people, learn to work together collectively towards a common goal – to travel through the wilderness toward the Promised Land.

Leviticus, said to have been written by the priests, is about the development of a holiness code. This is how a covenanted people must live, as individuals and as a nation, in order to be worthy of the Holy Land.

Numbers is a very practical book. It assesses the strength and determination of the Israelites gathered in the desert – and their worthiness – to enter the Promised Land and, in conquering it, to make it a holy land.

Deuteronomy is a different kettle of fish. On one level it represents the words of Moses addressing all of Israel: It is thus the long monologue of a courageous leader who understands his time is done, and that he must hand over leadership to a proven younger man (Joshua, son of Nun), who belongs to the next generation, which has grown up in freedom. “Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel” (Deut. 1: 38).  

On another level, it is the summary of the four previous books, of all that has gone before. If you can only read one book of the Torah, read Deuteronomy – that’s the common wisdom. You might, however, find it a little drier in its rendition than the previous chapters. It’s a history, after all.

“Deuteronomy occupies a unique position in the Hebrew Bible and in the history of biblical scholarship,” writes biblical scholar William W. Hallo. “More nearly than any other biblical book, it can lay claim to having been a book in its own right before it was incorporated into the Bible”. In an accompanying article, Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes that it is a combination of Homily, Cult Libretto, Law Book, and History.

Who wrote Deuteronomy? This question has been a source of speculation for centuries. “The question,” writes my favorite medieval commentator, Abarbanel (who always asks a lot of questions), “is whether this book is from heaven like the first four books, or whether – since it is all in Moses’ voice – these are the words of Moses and not of God.” Was Moses the author, as some contend? If so, why does the last verse announce his death? Obviously, Moses couldn’t do that! Of course, the announcement of his death could have been tacked on to a previous account at a later date. Other authorities think that Deuteronomy was written much later than the earlier books. Still others think that what we call Deuteronomy is the missing scroll that good King Josiah “discovered” as the Temple was being repaired (ca. 640 BCE), the scroll that caused him to henceforth centralize religious ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem (at least that was the reason given at the time). No more rites (with their pagan potential) were to be held at spurious altars outside of the Holy City. All sacrifices henceforth had to take place in Jerusalem.

Follow the Mikvah!

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Have you ever immersed yourself in a mikvah? Probably not, unless you are an orthodox woman. Modern mikvahs look like what would be a very tiny swimming pool in Los Angeles. Yet going to the mikvah is an age-old requirement for Jewish women, as a kind of ritual purification after menstruation or an illness. Immersion in the mikvah – you have to be squeaky clean before you descend its steps into the water — can be a celebratory ritual, too – before a wedding, or after the birth of a child, or as part of a conversion ceremony. There are attendants to help you, like a spa. You recite beautiful prayers and feel wonderful afterwards. I immersed completely – not a strand of hair can show above the water — in the mikvah the day before I was ordained as a rabbi. I’m not orthodox. You don’t have to be orthodox to go to the mikvah. If you can’t swim, the attendant will kneel beside the pool and hold your hand.

Men can go as well, separately, and religious Jews often do – as bridegrooms perhaps or before the Sabbath. If it’s a conversion, the supporting Rabbi will accompany you.

There are strict standards to maintain, though. The mikvah’s water must be natural, spotlessly clean, and constantly circulating from a fresh source (oceans, rivers, spring-fed lakes, even rainwater or ice or snow collected to meet specific transport and handling regulations). It is usually housed in an enclosed space either built into the ground or attached to a building. It can’t be a portable arrangement. Most mikvahs today have water-purification and filtration systems, which makes the plumbing expensive to maintain.

Alternatively, you can simply immerse yourself completely in the sea three times and say the prayers, but there is the danger of currents sweeping you away, and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. So mikvahs are indoors. Of course, with indoor plumbing, hot water, and even luxury bathtubs available in North America today, many Jewish women no longer feel the need to go to the mikvah. Like an appendix, it seems unnecessary, an anachronism.

But the mikvah is not just about cleanliness of the body. It’s not a bath. You have to take a bath or shower and clip your nails BEFORE you enter the mikvah squeaky clean. There is a strong spiritual dimension involved. It’s a Jewish RITUAL bath, in which you immerse ALL of you. Three times, and with each immersion you say a special prayer, ending with the core Hebrew prayer, the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord I One”). Guests may sit behind a screen and offer prayers and blessings, even songs, as well. It’s an occasion.

And where there is a mikvah, you can be sure there will be a synagogue. Some people say, “Follow the money!” In this case, you can say, “Follow the mikvah!” That’s why people in Brazil were so excited when a centuries-old mikvah was discovered in Recife in the year 2000. Interested archeologists, who already possessed old maps and records, had started to dig – eight floors down — beneath a building in the old Street of the Jews (Rua dos Judeus). And they found it! So they knew. That’s where the oldest synagogue in the Americas had once been.

Yes, it was the site of the old Kahal Zur Israel synagogue, founded in 1630. A congregation of Jewish refugees from the Inquisition in Europe had prayed there until the conquering Portuguese banned Judaism in Brazil. So by 1654, the Jews were forced to flee again. Or else to hide their religion as conversos, sometimes in the interior wilds of Brazil. Eventually, they created prosperous sugar plantations and other thriving businesses and are credited with building up the economy of Brazil in many ways.

Although many Brazilian Jews left for Israel in 1948, about 120,000 Jews still populate Brazil today, largely centered in the big cities of Sao Paulo or Rio de Janiero, home of Carnival. Unfortunately, in latter years, there has been some anti-Israel sentiment in Brazil, with its recently deposed President holding strong pro-Palestinian views.

But the Jewish community is still strong. And today, directly across the street from the recently rebuilt Kahal Zur Israel (which means “Rock of Israel”) synagogue in Recife stands a Jewish museum and cultural center. What makes the complex extraordinary is that part of the excavated mikvah is on display right there — protectively covered by glass. It was this ritual bath’s discovery that reactivated philanthropic interest in rebuilding the old synagogue in the spot where it once stood.

Although the museum and cultural center are stunningly beautiful, throughout the time I was there, my eyes kept returning to the excavated mikvah; my heart was in the mikvah, my thoughts spilling into its protected waters.

In Los Angeles, where I live, I serve from time to time as one of the dayanim – one of the three rabbis that make up a rabbinic court known as a Beit Din (House of Justice). After a conversion acceptance, it is a joyful part of our task to accompany the applicant to the mikvah to complete the conversion process. For me, each time it is a mystical moment, connecting all of those present to the Divine. Each time I have tears in my eyes, just as I did looking into this mikvah dating back to the 1600s — and excavated at the very beginning of the third millenium in what, for me, no longer felt like a foreign land.

May you find only beauty and fulfillment

Within the embrace of Judaism.

May it illuminate your path, enrich your life,

And elevate your soul.

May you bring to the diverse people of this world

All the sweetness and goodness you have to offer.

May you continue to grow from strength to strength,

And may you always be a blessing for the Jewish people.


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The Torah portions of Mattot-Mase’ei, which conclude the Book of Numbers, are considered a pair, usually read at the same time, and they cover a lot of ground. Mattot continues from the previous chapter, in which Pinchas takes the law into his own hands by killing an Israelite man who couples with an idolatrous Midianite (apparently not Moabite, as some have contended) woman in his tent. Perhaps it is Pinchas’ act that fuels Moses’ vengeful anger towards the Midianites, whose sexual as well as religious practices are unacceptable to the Israelites.

As their leader, Moses orders the Israelites to wreak vengeance on the Midianites: Any Midianite, man or woman, who has had carnal knowledge is to be killed. Only women who have not had carnal relations are to be spared. Idolatry must not enter the Holy Land. These are difficult passages to read. According to Rabbi Asher Lobatin, we are meant to be shocked by the ferocity of the killing. There is trauma involved in the taking of life, any life. (This extends to the life of an animal, at the root of our dietary laws.)

The Torah recognizes that killing deeply affects the soul of the killer. (Today we call it post-traumatic stress syndrome.) Furthermore, those who have slain others or touched a corpse must remain outside the camp for seven days for ritual cleansing. Only then was the booty shared (booty was acceptable then).

In terms of the modern day Diaspora’s connection with the State of Israel, chapter 32 is emotionally affecting. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, who own a lot of cattle, ask Moses for permission not to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. They want to stay where they are, on this side of the Jordan, where the arable land is perfect for the raising of cattle.

Moses is furious. “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” he asks (verse 6) and goes into a tirade. Rabbi Vered L. Harris notes that scribes traditionally render the Torah with a space between verses 15 and 16. The moment of silence gives the leader time to reconsider. He accedes to the request of the Reubenites and Gadites with certain conditions: first, they must cross the Jordan and fight with their brothers as shock-troops. Only when the Holy Land has been secured, only then can the tribes of Reuben and Gad return to the land on the other side of the Jordan and remain to prosper there.

This passage is instructional, it seems to me, for those of us who live outside of Israel. Stand with your brothers in Israel in their time of need, we are told, even if you don’t want to live there.  Only when you have done your duty can you live anywhere you choose. Only then can you devote yourselves to your own prosperity. We might not like it, but that’s what the Torah says.

There is so much more to discuss in these chapters. For one thing, in Parashat Mase’ei, the enumeration of all the locations where the Israelites encamped in the desert is fascinating. (I counted 47 sites –try it; it’s in chapter 33). So the Israelites were not randomly “wandering” for 40 years; rather, Moses led them on a specific route, and they stayed in some places for varying lengths of time. During that time, Aaron died on Mount Hor. It was to be a new generation, one that had grown up in freedom, that settled the Holy Land. “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess” (33:53). Then, in the following verses, the biblical boundaries of the land are set forth, something worthwhile to know when there is still controversy over where lines should be drawn in regard to the modern State of Israel (34:1-12). Boundaries are important in the Torah.

Six cities of refuge (35:6) were also set up for those who had committed accidental manslaughter (as opposed to murder). If they reached a “city of refuge,” no one could touch them – as long as they stayed within that city indefinitely.

The concluding comments concern the five daughters of Zelophedad: Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah. If you recall, after they had presented a respectful argument to Moses, they were granted the right to inherit their father’s land – since there were no sons as heirs – in order not to blot out their father’s names.  In Mase’ei, a restriction is added: they may marry anyone they wish, as long as they marry within their tribes. Thus their father’s land will remain within the tribe’s ancestral share. Everyone seemed amenable to this arrangement, and the five daughters did indeed marry accordingly “so their share remained in the tribe of their father’s clan” (36:12). So ends the Book of Numbers.

The Sands of Time

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

During 2016, I spent 100 days at sea as Guest Rabbi on several cruises to disparate parts of the world – and consequently was out of the United States of America. I have now conducted all the Festivals/Hags as well as many Shabbats and some Interfaith services on the ocean in many lands, and it has been a life-changing experience in terms of my feeling of connection to Jews, past and present, in so many parts of the world.

It was so moving, for example, to stand in the beautifully restored old synagogue (rebuilt in 1636 as the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue) in Recife,* Brazil. Originally

, the synagogue had sand floors, one of five in the world. I realized that I was standing where, centuries ago, 23 courageous Jewish people departed from this congregation, fleeing persecution from the Inquisition that had travelled from Europe to Brazil. It was the second time they were fleeing the Inquisition; in 1497, they had already escaped the Inquisition in Portugal for what they hoped was safety in a new, faraway land. That land was Brazil (colonized by the Dutch until the Portuguese defeated them).

The Jewish refugees came in the guise of New Christians or conversos, but secretly most of them practiced Judaism and married only within their own group. Now, with the emergence of this threat of the new Inquisition, a small group risked sailing to Peter Stuyvesant’s fledgling New Amsterdam, where they pleaded for admittance as refugees. That is how Jewish people who did not want to live in hiding or masked as Christians, as many others did, but rather continue to conduct their lives by the Holy Laws of Judaism, came to dwell in what was to be New York in America.

Other secret Jews fled to Curacao, where there is a second sand-floor synagogue in Willemstad, where I also visited (Mikve Israel Emmanuel).

With about 200 congregants today, it was built in 1732 by the descendants of the Jews who fled there). Some fled to areas of the Caribbean.

In fact, three more synagogues with sand floors can also be found in Kingston, Jamaica; Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands; and Paramaribo, Suriname (the latter is technically in South America. They still maintain the sand-floor tradition.

Why did these Portuguese secret Jews fleeing the Inquisition put sand on the floor of their synagogues? The reasons given are symbolic. First of all, the sand was to remind them of the 40 years the biblical Israelites had spent wandering in the desert. Secondly, it was a reminder of how their Portuguese ancestors had placed sand on the floor of their basement synagogues in Portugal to muffle the sound of their sacred rituals.

In 1665, the Portuguese, who had by now defeated the Dutch, closed the Kahal Zur synagogue in Recife and expelled 1,200 Jews. Judaism was banned. Although since the early 1900s, Jews have once again prospered in Brazil, it was not until 2002 that, funded by the Safra banking family, the synagogue’s doors reopened for the first time since the 17th century.** It had been closed for 347 years. It is said to be the oldest existing synagogue in the Americas. (In North America, the oldest shul is the Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.)

And in the winter of 2016, when I traveled from Brazil to Willemstad, Curacao, where other members of old Recife congregation had fled, I took my shoes off in the sanctuary of Mikve Israel Emmanuel and stood gratefully in prayer. On the sand floor.

*In Recife the name is pronounced as Hecife. The “R” at a beginning of a word is pronounced as an “H.” When you get to Rio de Janiero, Recife is pronounced the way it is spelled, with an “R” sound.

**See http://www.Jewishvirtual and multiple other sites on the Internet.

Raisin Bread and Hot Chocolate

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Like the United States or Canada, Australia spans a vast territory. When my four children were growing up in the 1970s, our family took lengthy road trips all over North America. Over several years, we visited every single province in Canada – our goal was to reach the Easternmost tip in St. John, Newfoundland and, the next year, the Westernmost tip in Tofino, Vancouver Island (our hardy, beige and brown station wagon traversing log roads stretched over canyons, our luggage doing a balancing act atop the car). “Don’t look at the scenery,” we would call out to my husband, who was driving. “We’ll watch the scenery. Just keep your eye on the road!”

Then, over the next couple of years, we tackled the vast landscape of the United States. We were already familiar with much of the Eastern seaboard, all the way from Montreal, Quebec in Canada to the east coast of Florida, but now our goal was to visit 48 of the 50 states. Only after most of our family had moved to Los Angeles, California did I have the opportunity to visit Alaska and Hawaii (three times, so far) to make 50.

Not until many years later, when I served as Guest Staff Rabbi on a cruise ship, did I get to learn words like “Oceania” (Oceania is a vast, arbitrarily defined expanse of the world where the Pacific Ocean – rather than land borders – connects the nations) and “Australasia”(a region within Oceania that consists of Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and the neighboring islands of the South Pacific Ocean). Finally, there was Australia, so like North America in its grand assortment of gorgeous landscapes and diversity of people. So like Canada in many ways, with a history linked to Britain. I felt at home in Australia.

On arrival, though, I was taken aback by the graphic signs in the bathrooms at customs; the signs instructed visitors to sit down on the toilet seats with their feet on the floor, and NOT to place their feet on the toilet seats and squat. For some Oceanic or Australasian countries, even those with relatively modern plumbing, toilets are a hole in the floor.

I was surprised, too, by the people just ahead of me who tried to smuggle in food (there are stiff fines for doing so) like raw veal and even a whole, plastic-wrapped, cooked duck in their suitcases. They didn’t see anything wrong with it. “If I pay the fine, can I keep the duck?” one young man (a Chinese student) asked. He was bringing the duck to his relatives. No, he couldn’t, was the answer.

Maggots were already infesting the bottom of the suitcase belonging to the Asian lady who was bringing in veal as a present for her friend who had a restaurant in Sydney. “My friend will cook it for me,” the lady explained with a winning smile. But the customs officials confiscated the suitcase, maggots and all, anyway.

Visitors don’t have to worry about finding food in Australia. It is readily obtainable in all price ranges, fresh and delicious. But I must say that everywhere I went, it was the raisin bread and hot chocolate I first tasted in the rolling Blue Mountains that won my heart.

The Blue Mountains are a two-hour or so bus trip from Sydney. Our plans included a cable car over a spectacular canyon, a trip to a recommended animal park featuring kangaroos, wallabies (smaller than kangaroos), monkeys, sloths, and, of course, koala bears. Then we were to take a small boat trip back to Sydney Harbor.

Amid all this scenic grandeur, it was the charming town of Laurel in the heart of the Blue Mountains that captured my heart. The atmosphere is traditional in a way that evokes the English cottage country in earlier times, almost Victorian in feeling. In that little town was a shop that sold soaps and perfumes and a whole repertoire of romantic items, things that had pretty little flowers all over them. I purchased a sturdy shower cap that looked like a Victorian night cap; it had delicate mauve and pink flowers on it too.

Conveniently situated next to this shop was a small café. It was not yet lunchtime, but we had risen early, and we were hungry. I will never forget my first taste of Australian, perfectly toasted raisin bread. It was sliced like a Jewish mother would slice challah (there were two slices), an inch thick and lathered with butter. Accompanying it was the best hot chocolate I have ever had. Not cocoa. Not packaged hot chocolate from a processed powder. No, this was thick hot chocolate sauce topped off with absolutely delicious, warmed, whole milk from Blue Mountain, grass-fed, Australian cows. Then this gorgeous concoction was well mixed, not in a blender but by hand, to perfection, and, in something approaching ecstasy, I finished it to the last drop. If ever the perfect red heifer the ancient Jews sought for Temple rites is found, it will be in Australia.

I was hooked. I kept ordering raisin bread and butter and hot chocolate all over Australia, and not once was I disappointed. Better yet, we did so much walking that I didn’t gain weight!