Monthly archives "September 2017"

Aharei Mot (Leviticus 16)

Aharei Mot (Leviticus 16)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel” (Leviticus 16: 7-8).

“Aharei Mot,” the title of this parasha, means “after the death,” referring to “the two sons of Aaron who died when they were too close to the presence of the Lord” (JPS translation) [1]. These words are a time reference as we continue the great biblical story to the Day of Atonement we call Yom Kippur, a set day to be kept forever. All of Leviticus 16, in fact, is devoted to the expiation of sin and consequent purification. Great detail is given as to how the priests prepared for this time of atonement, which Jews all over the world honor (even if it is the only time they go to the synagogue). Scrupulous attention is paid to the priestly white linen attire and a host of other atonement rituals, including the choice of a bull for sacrifice and a pair of he-goats. Of the latter, only one is chosen by lot to be sacrificed. The second, marked for Azazel, is to carry all the sins of the Israelites into the wilderness. Like casting our bread crumbs into natural waters at Rosh Hashana, sending Azazel into the wilderness is reminiscent of the banishment of Cain and of Hagar and Ishmael as well. Cain eventually found respite in Edom, where he and his descendants prospered. Hagar and Ishmael were comforted that God would make of the Israelites two great nations.

But what of Azazel, who symbolically carried all our sins away? Did he find respite on the mountain that some think was near Mount Sinai? Different rabbis of old have different explanations. The one that I like best is that of Ibn Ezra. “According to Saadia [Gaon],” he writes, Azazel is “the name of a mountain, so called because it was precipitous”[2].  Possibly the goat driven into the wilderness would eventually stumble on the rocky cliffs and fall to its death, but it would not be slaughtered as a sacrifice. Other commentators explain that “Azazel” is a compound word (more common in Aramaic than in Hebrew). Thus “az azel” means “the goat went” [3]. Rashi, however, translates Azazal as meaning “to the goats;” in other words, the goat was released alive into the wilderness, presumably to dwell among the other wild goats. The “el” at the end of the word is simply a grammatical suffix. I am comforted by Rashi’s explanation [4].

I was born in January, you see. My astrological sign is the goat, a designation with which I was never comfortable until I visited Arizona, Scottsdale to be exact, where a single, dry, brown mountain dominated the arid landscape. As my stay there grew longer, though, I began to discern shapes on the rocky mountain. Animals, living being of different kinds. And the most agile among them were goats. Surprisingly beautiful to my newly opened eyes, they were mountain goats. One of them stood high on a cliff, looking out beyond the mountain, protecting the flock below. I began to think that being a mountain goat was perhaps a wondrous thing. To me, it signified that Azazel was cast by lot to be a survivor, a goat that could withstand the barren wilderness and create a family there. Perhaps, in overcoming the sins with which it had been burdened as a form of sacrifice, the biblical goat had also endured.

Watching God’s creatures, the nimble goats, I was so moved at the time that I wrote a poem about this experience. I called it “Born in January,” like me. Now, with a little more humility – fitting for Yom Kippur — I am giving it a new name: “Azazel.”

Azazel [5]

Mountain goats in their whiteness

clamber up the stony cliffs,

scale rocky heights,

melt age-old snowcaps

with heated vision.

Flock protected beneath his

Fortress, a monarch stands

alone atop the tajo.


[1] Aharei Mot, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999) 244.

[2] Ibn Ezra. Quoted in Michael Carasik,

[3] Michael Carasik, 120

[4] Ibid., 121.

[5] First published in the 10th Anniversary Issue of “Voices Israel,” Haifa, Israel, 1982.

©️Corinne Copnick, Toronto, 1974. All rights reserved.

For those who would like to read a story about a spiritual awakening related to the Book of Jonah, which is usually read the afternoon of Yom Kippur, please see my earlier posting, “Kiss a Whale and Lick Cancer,” in the section headed “Musings.”


Who? [1]

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Who can dry the tears of God?

Is it the earth forever

quivering with remorse

or space itself curving

to cradle such pain?

Who can share the fears of God?

Is it man and wife grown

old in friendship, enfolding

family before and

after their ending?

Who can light the face of God?

Is it an artist’s fiery spirit

steeping red-blossomed in

a rose-petal’s clear

white water?

Who can feel the touch of God?

Is it our sleeping child

caressing once more

the wounded world

with wakened wonder?

Who can know the mind of God?


©Corinne Copnick, Toronto, 1992; Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

[1] “Who?”– my anthropomorphized concept of God in the spirit of poetic license — was originally narrated in “Altar Pieces (1992)” a collage of my poems and stories that was screened nationally many times on Canada’s “Vision TV” over a period of  five years.

Yizkor: Remembering

Yizkor: Remembering [1]

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


We have to accept that our flesh and blood, earthly lives – all life, our lives, the lives of our parents — eventually come to an end. But that understanding does little to reduce the pain of watching an ailing parent, a beloved parent, decline and deteriorate when there is nothing more we can do to reverse the effects of nature. In many instances — if we are lucky — this is our first personal encounter with death, and it brings into question our own mortality.  It is painful to lose our beloved protector, not the protector of theology or the supernatural one of fiction, but our own personal protector who participated in giving us life.

Death is a homecoming, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the final analysis, in the same way one prepares for life, one must prepare for death and depart with a sense of peace. “The Jewish mystical tradition sees old age in a positive light,” writes Rabbi A. J. Seltzer. “Aging is not seen as a defect to be eliminated by medical science. Old age presents the opportunity for the divine soul to assert primacy over the animal soul….The more the powers of the body subside and the fires of passion ebb, the stronger the spirit becomes…and the greater its joy over what it knows.” _

* * * *

Dr. Irving (Israel) Copnick

As I helped feed my father in the dining room of the hospital for the aged where he was confined, I slowly became aware of an incessant refrain. It came from a nearby elderly female body, twisted and deformed. Professionally, a uniformed attendant continued spooning soup into the old lady’s mouth. The soup dribbled down her chin while she chanted over and over again in Yiddish, “Ich vil nor leben, ich vil nor leben!” (“I want to go on living. I still want to live.”)

The confused floor for the totally helpless. Despite all assurances, I was not prepared for my father’s placement in surroundings where his companions were those who had lost their way in the world. My father had been a member of a healing profession. Now the healer could not be healed. I was not ready for this reality.

Nor was I prepared for the fact that my mother would be spending part of every day at the home-hospital and feeling guilty if she missed a morning. She had already tended him, confused and incontinent, for nine years by herself at home. She had been coming to the hospital every day for four years. She had exhausted her self and her financial resources. And so we moved the man that we both loved from this friendly, sectarian hospital to a larger government hospital – bright and airy – twenty miles away. My father had been an officer in the army, and this was a hospital for veterans.

When I walked through these halls lined with men occasionally saluting one another, reliving their days as heroes, remembering when they were healthy and went to war for their country, I could remember myself as a little girl, standing proudly beside my father, so handsome in his new Captain’s uniform. Together we peered through the venetian blinds at the parade of soldiers smartly marching in unison several stories below.


My father….

I have come to accept that even when the loved one does not know you anymore, even when a gleam in the eye can no longer be evoked, there is still a breath of fresh air, a ray of sunshine, a taste of cool ice cream. These were the things my father could enjoy. Or the touch of my hand even if he didn’t know it was mine. And when, just once, he tapped his foot in sudden response to a familiar song, I knew my father was, for those few seconds, alive in spirit for me.

In this more distant setting, we do not visit as often now. We feel the need to detach ourselves from the accumulation of what is now more than twenty years’ witness to suffering, to remove ourselves from continually reliving the pain. But although he know longer knows us, he is still ours. Still a part of us. Neither can we abandon him.

“You understand, darling,” my father had written to me during the war when I was just a little girl, “your father is a doctor and a soldier. I dream of you every night, and I pray to God to protect  you while I am gone. I miss you terribly, but soon, very soon, I shall come home again.”

I knew that I had brought my father to his last home. For that is the dread of placement – that it is final – a stepping stone to death. Only death will secure one’s release, once admitted, from these walls. And you can’t get out of death alive. That is what is so hard to face. That in placing someone you love, you must come to terms with your own mortality too.

What placing my father, with all its attendant sorrows, has given me that is positive, is a deeper understanding of the sanctity of life. That while the heart beats, there must be dignity, and that while the heart beats, there must be joy.

There is always compensation. When we placed my father here – his death in life – my mother began to live again. Who can know the mind of God?

* * * *

There is so much that we do not know about life and death in this world and the next. My father had not been able to utter a word for eleven years, nor to give any evidence that he heard the tender words with which my mother and I caressed him when we visited. Then, on a day that was earth-shaking for me, I told him that I was going to teach a course at McGill University (something I knew that he would prize), and for the next thirty seconds or so, my father burst into speech. He spoke to me in Yiddish (his first language as a young boy, but one with which he never addressed me), and the cascade of words told me how much he loved me, that I was the finest, the best. These words were the last my father, my earthly protector, ever spoke to me – or to anyone. They were his last words.

I will always remember.


©️Corinne Copnick, Toronto, 1992, Los Angeles 2015, 2017. All rights reserved.

* * * *

[1] “Yizkor” originally titled“ The Loss of the Protector,” is reprinted from an editorialized version in my 2015 thesis, “The Staying Power of Hope in the Aggadic Narratives of the Talmud.” It was first told in “Altar Pieces” (1992), a narrated collage of my original stories and poems that was videotaped and screened nationally many times on Canada’s “Vision TV” over a period of five years.


Dried Brown Ink

With the resurgence of Nazi ideology in many places in the world, including, sadly, America, my story, “Dried Brown Ink,” written in 2007 (when my sister was still alive), is a reminder of what happened once – and must never happen again. It is also a testament to the human spirit.

Dried Brown Ink (1)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick (2)

The little old lady presents the kind of idyllic grandmother you see in a commercial: perfectly waved white hair, no make-up, metal-rimmed glasses, a simple, white dress flecked with black, pearl necklace and earrings. And a soft voice. Her name, it turns out later, is Edith Reimer. Could be an Ashkenazi Jewish name, but she is not Jewish.

I am wearing a necklet, a small Jewish star. She leans forward and whispers in my ear, “People say it didn’t happen. But I saw it with my own eyes. I have the photographs. Of Bergen Belsen. I took them with my own camera.”

We are both sitting at an elegantly set lunch table at the British Home in Sierra Madre, California. On the white tablecloth, place settings of English china are framed by silver flatware in an antique pattern. English antiques, their polished dark wood glowing, stand stalwartly like guardians around the perimeter of the dining room. The tranquil, civilized setting amid five acres of green, rolling landscape seems a million miles away from horror. Yet all the inhabitants of the room are witnesses to history.

I am only a visitor to this room, a 21st century Canadian immigrant to Los Angeles who will leave after lunch. Considerably younger than the other diners, I have just entered my seventies, but I remember well what happened in the middle years of the twentieth century. I am a witness too.

The British Home in California is a private corporation with a connection (not financial) to the Daughters of the British Empire (a classy, long-distinguished organization) since the 1930s. It offers a retirement home in a beautiful setting to seniors living in California who come from the countries of the commonwealth. I learned about this remarkable facility from the Women’s Canadian Club in Los Angeles. I am checking it out for my sister, also a Canadian by birth. She lives in New York, and I would like to bring her to California. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the continuing terrorist activities that destroy innocent people, it seems so important to gather your loved ones close to you. Unfortunately, the Home is not licensed for wheelchairs. Walkers yes, wheelchairs, no.

“I worked for the United Nations after World War II,” Edith confides. She does not need a walker. “In the refugee camps. I was a nurse in England, and my husband was stationed in Germany. I came to be with him. My second child was born in Wittenberg.” The last city that was bombed in Germany. Her first child, a son, was killed in the blitz in England. He was five years old.

“I am sure he is in your thoughts every day,” I respond.

“Yes,” she nods simply, continuing to eat her salad. “My daughter was born in America. She comes every second Saturday to take me shopping. I was a nurse in America too.”( One of the longest residents, Edith had been living at the British Home for more than ten years when she told me her story.)

All of the men and women in the room – there are twenty-two at the Home at the moment, but there is a capacity for forty-one people in pretty bungalows framed by verandahs and placed like paintings at distances permitting privacy – have stories to tell, and most have distinguished backgrounds. A lady at the next table, just back from the hospital, was born in Winnipeg. She taught creative writing. “If you come from freezing Winnipeg, you can get through anything,” I joke.

“If you come to my room after lunch, I’ll show you the photographs,” Edith offers. We dispense with dessert, a frothy strawberry mousse, and walk up a slight incline to her bungalow. “I have the best view,” she chortles.

In her room, Edith shows me the handicrafts she makes for children – dolls , and crayon boxes, and dresses. Then she takes a small folder of photographs from her dresser drawer. The bed-sitting room is large enough to hold only a few of her cherished momentoes. She has parted with most of her fine furniture and china and silver, but she has hung onto these photos for half a century and carried them with her to this place of final residence. The folder still bears the imprint of the German photo shop that printed them.

The photos are inscribed with faded brown ink in Edith’s handwriting on the reverse and the dates. One photo shows Jewish bodies stacked up like cordwood for the furnaces. Another shows the bodies laid out decently for burial by American soldiers. The subject of another photograph is an American soldier offering a cigarette to a survivor; another refugee is crouched against the wall in the background. Then there are bombed-out views of Hitler’s house, Goering’s house. The destroyed houses of fanatical leadership whose followers exploded bombs on her little son.

We are silent for a few moments together. What is there to say? We both know.

“These photos are historical documents,” I suggest finally. “They should be in a place like the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.”

“Ah,” she says dismissively. “They have plenty of these.”

“Not taken by your camera,” I offer softly. “Not seen with your own eyes.”

As she puts them away carefully, I prepare to take my leave. We kiss goodbye. Born in companionate countries as members of the British Commonwealth, immigrants to the Southwestern United States  — one Jewish, one not — in different centuries, we have shared a memory that has faded for much of the world. Like the dried brown ink.

(1) “Dried Brown Ink” was first published in the 40th year edition of “Western States Jewish History,” Vol. XL, No. 2, Winter 2008, pp. 117 -199, ©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2007. The author has made a couple of small alterations to the story here.

(2) Corinne Copnick entered rabbinic school at AJRCA in 2009 and graduated as an ordained rabbi in 2015. Many of her original stories are featured on her website:




In the brilliantly evocative Song of Moses that appears as Ha’azinu at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses assures the Israelites that all of Creation is indeed God’s work. The language and imagery is passionate: It was I, God says, “Ani, Ani,” that did all this. In Hebrew, the language is even more gripping, and when God finally says, “I, Anochi,” you know God means business. It’s a word that it used in the Bible, but not in rabbinic times, and it refers only to God.

In this unforgettable passage, we are assured of all the good things that will happen if we follow the moral path divinely outlined for us: feasting on the yield of the earth, honey from the crag, oil from the flinty rock, curd of kine and milk of flocks, the best of lambs, rams, and she-goats, the very finest of wheat, and foaming wine from grapes. This was fantastic fortune in an agricultural society. But then we are warned about the catastrophic things that could happen if we do NOT cleave to God’s moral path: consuming fire and misfortune, wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence, fanged beasts, and so on. God will reduce us to naught. The whole catalogue is terrifying.

In a world that has been so recently beset by disasters both natural and man-wrought, these biblical consequences seem dangerously close to us: economic woes, earthquakes, famine, disease, fire, oil spills, floods, tsunamis, nuclear contamination, revolution, chemical attacks on one’s own people. But there are also courageous volunteers who risk their own lives in small boats to save others they don’t even know.

The Song of Moses is undoubtedly a passage about the distinction between good and evil, and the consequential choices our free will allows us to make. This passage clearly presents good and evil as both coming from the hand of God in response to moral or evil behavior. It is certainly something to consider during the week of Selichot, as we deeply reflect in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the New Year to come in only a few days, when traditionally we recite the “Una Tana Tokef” prayer, often to soul-stirring music. Life or death. Choose.

If we are basically good people, we reflect, if we try to follow a good life, then why, as has been repeated so many times, do bad things happen to good people? As we read scary news headlines and listen to and watch horrendous media reports, it’s something we can’t help thinking about. If God is good, as the Jewish tradition teaches, if the created world is good, as the Bible tells us, then why is there evil?

That is why I was so interested to read a lengthy interpretation by the noted scholar, Jon D. Levinson, called “Creation and the Persistence of Evil,” but very disturbed by its pessimistic tone.[1] Why does evil persist? His article has a somewhat gnostic feel to it, suggesting that evil is a separate, adversarial force.

Even though God promised Noah never to flood the world again, that promise is not so easy to maintain; it requires God’s vigilance. “The world is not inherently safe,” Levinson asserts; “it is inherently unsafe…. Creation endures because God has pledged in an eternal covenant that it shall endure, and because he has also in an eternal covenant, compelled the obeisance of adversarial forces. If either covenant comes undone, creation disappears.”

I wept when I read Jon Levinson’s views because at a time when an evil force like ISiS, with its many variant names, is infecting the world with a fanatic ideology, or when neo-Nazi ideology is re-infecting the globe, it is indeed possible to conceive of the world breaking down to the extent that chaos results, that we, we may return figuratively to the tohu va bohu, the void.

My own view, however, remains more optimistic. As moral human beings, as Jews continually renewing the Covenant, I do believe with all my heart that – together – we can dismember the mythical Leviathan representing the forces of evil, and that we can bring the beneficent side of God that represents love and compassion firmly back into our world.

Last week’s parasha emphasized choosing life. In this week’s portion, the choices are set clearly before us. As God’s partners in creation, we have the gift of free will. We have been taught to remember that, with Divine help, we survived Pharaoh, and we will survive, as best we can, whatever comes our way. This Rosh Hashana, 5778, it’s up to us to transcend the headlines; we must continue to choose life, and all that it requires from us to maintain a world that is inherently safe because we work hard to make it so. And because we have faith that it can be good.

[1] Levinson, J.D. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: the Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. xxxiv + 182.