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Economic Justice for All

on Thursday, 17 August 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Re’eh 5777

It’s one of the great quotations in the entire Torah, and it’s from this week’s reading:  “Look, today I set before a blessing and a curse.  The blessing if you listen to God’s commandments…”

This is a wonderful a statement of ethical choice, and the foundation of the upcoming season of Teshuvah, return and repentance that begins with the month of Elul which starts in a week.  But as important a sentence as it is, it doesn’t match the content of the most valuable teaching in this week’s reading.

On the Outrage in Charlottesville, Virginia Over the Weekend

on Monday, 14 August 2017. Posted in Community Events

A Note from Rabbi Cohon to Temple Emanu-El

Dear Friends,

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend were horrifying and tragic.  The acts of violence and rioting, perpetrated by un-American thugs, should remind every Jew—and every responsible adult—of the long and brutal history of death and destruction caused here and around the world by Nazis and neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, and other racists.  It is no surprise that these cowards marched under the banners of the Nazis, who were the greatest enemies of the United States of America, and of the Klan, who hid under bedsheets to murder fellow American citizens.  It is also no surprise they shouted anti-Jewish slogans, for we Jews have always represented the values that make America truly great.

Morality and the Dalai Lama

on Friday, 11 August 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon on Ekev 5777

This week we read the great Torah portion of Ekev, which tells us how to be morally good.  It is a simple but high standard that is commanded here: listen and observe God’s rules in order to live life as we should. 

But even beyond our own standards of conduct, there are a few individuals in the world who transcend ordinary measures of human quality, and cross all boundary lines of national, religious, and ideological approval.  These are the exceedingly rare people who teach us profound things about our essential nature, and who, in their own lives, demonstrate true moral greatness.  The list is short, and some of the most prominent members have died fairly recently: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Elie Wiesel, for example.  You may have your own candidates.

How Should We Live?

on Thursday, 10 August 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Ekev 5777

As a people, we Jews are good at many things: at kvetching, of course; at lashon hara, gossip, telling people things we shouldn’t; at eating.  Perhaps most importantly, we Jews are good at asking questions.

In fact, the greatest of all Jewish questions was asked in this week’s Torah portion of Ekev, the third sedrah in the Book of Deuteronomy.  It reads:

V’atah, Yisrael, mah Adonai sho’eil mei’imach?, “And now, Israel, what does God ask of you?”

The passage in Ekev then answers this great question, “That you have awe of the Lord your God, and walk in all of God’s ways and love God, and serve the Lord your God will all your heart and all your soul.”

This big question—what does God ask of you?—and Ekev’s answer begin a series of statements in Jewish tradition, attempts to distill from our large moral storehouse just what the essence, the ikar of Jewish ethics really is.  What is it that God wants?  What is the true standard we need to uphold to be considered morally good?

On, and Off, the Temple Mount

on Friday, 04 August 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Shabbat Va'etchanan-Nachamu 5777

SecurityI know that some of you may be here to find out what it was like to meet the Dalai Lama, and hear him teach, as I did while I was in northern India in July.  I can tell you tonight that it was inspirational and amazing, that he is an extraordinary human being, and that I will speak more about it next Shabbat.  That is, this is a teaser, and you have to tune in next week for the story of that experience, the rabbinical version of “what I did on my summer vacation.”

What I do want to talk about tonight is Israel, from which I returned early this past week.

Listen = Love

on Thursday, 03 August 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Va’etchanan/Shabbat Nachamu 5777

You are all familiar with the most important text in this week’s Torah portion of Va’etchanan.  It might be the very first Hebrew words you ever learned: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.  Most commentary on the Shema focuses on the word Echad, One, the core idea of our belief in one God, monotheism itself.  But for me the most interesting word in the Shema is not the word Echad, “one”; no, the most interesting word in that seminal sentence is the very first word, Shema.

What does Shema mean?  Essentially, it means “listen” – or, since it is in the Tzivui, the command form of Hebrew, it means “Listen up!  Pay attention!  Hear what is about to be said.”   So why was it necessary to order the Israelite people to listen? 

Well, of course, if everyone was always listening we would never have to command that.  No one insists that people pay attention when they already are doing so. 

This is a verbal effort to grab the wandering focus of the Israelites and get them to hear what is about to be said.  Listen!  Pay attention!  This is important!  And with the Jewish people that is never an unnecessary summons.

Blessings from Curses

on Thursday, 06 July 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Balak 5777

This week we read the Torah portion of Balak in the Book of Numbers, which includes some of the best words an outsider ever delivered about our people.   In the portion, one of just two in the entire Torah named after a non-Jew, 40 years of wandering have passed and the Israelites have finally arrived on the borders of the land of Canaan.  They are about to move in and they seem unstoppable to their opponents.  Balak, King of Moab, comes up with a novel plan: he will hire Balaam, a pagan sorcerer, to curse the Israelites, which will destroy their chances of defeating his own army and entering his land.

The Price of Holiness, and Healing

on Thursday, 29 June 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Chukat 5777

This week in the book of Numbers we read the odd, ritualistic Torah portion of Chukat, the rites of the red heifer.  In order to achieve true ritual purity ancient Jews were required to find a completely unblemished young red female cow, slaughter it, burn it to ashes, and mix the ashes with water to create a liquid of purification in which to wash away ritual impurity. 

Hot Enough for You?

on Monday, 26 June 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon on Korach 5777

You know, it was a little bit hot this past week—like 116 degrees hot, like hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk hot, like the devil left here and went to hell for a break from the heat hot, like "It's so hot today I saw two trees fighting over a dog" hot. As the saying goes, “it’s a dry heat,” but so is the inside of a blast furnace and that doesn’t make it a great place to live and work.

Bald Truths: How Rebellion Teaches Us Leadership

on Thursday, 22 June 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Korach 5777

Korach chronicles the greatest rebellion in the entire Torah, the palace revolt of the Levite named Korach and his 400 followers against the divinely ordained leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron. As so often seems to be the case, we Jews are our own worst enemies. The result of this insurrection is disastrous, at least for the rebels. The earth opens and Korach and all of his misguided followers are swallowed up, never to be heard from again.

Changing Culture

on Thursday, 15 June 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Shelach Lecha 5777

This week we chant the dramatic portion of Shelach Lecha in the book of Numbers, the story of the meraglim, the spies. The Israelites have journeyed to the borders of the Holy Land, just a year and a half after leaving Egyptian exile. Under God’s direction, Moses sends 12 spies, one from every tribe, princes of the people—wealthy men of standing—into the land of Canaan to scout out the land and see if it can be captured.

The spies take a month and they see the whole land—and report back to Moses that the land is very good, flowing with milk and honey. They bring back a huge cluster of grapes, so large it needs to be carried by two men on a pole, now the enduring symbol of Israel’s tourism ministry. Everything’s going to be great—only it’s not. Ten of the twelve spies then report that the people of the land are huge—“we felt like grasshoppers next to them”—and numerous, the cities fortified and unassailable. The Israelites have no chance, in spite of having God’s support.

Lighting the Lights

on Friday, 09 June 2017.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Behe’alotecha 5777 Volunteer Recognition Shabbat

I know I mentioned last week that I would continue to explore over the next few weeks the results of the 6-Day War from the perspective of half a century, the 50th Anniversary of which we remembered on the American calendar this past week.  I promise to return to that subject next week, when it will not be Volunteer Recognition Shabbat, but I do want to begin with one image that connects this signal anniversary with tonight’s special service.

Talk About It: The Ethics of Speech

on Thursday, 08 June 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Be’ha’alotecha 5777

This week our portion, Beha’alotecha from the Book of Numbers, is filled with a series of incidents and events from the Wilderness Days, as well as a couple of important commandments.  It’s in this week’s portion that instructions are given to create the first menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that has become the most enduring symbol of Judaism.  It’s also here that we get the first rumblings of rebellion that will explode into full-fledged revolt against Moses and Aaron in just a few more weeks, the disastrous story of Korach.  But most significant in this week’s sedrah is a peculiar little story about gossip. 

The 6-Day War 50 years later, Part II: The Sinai, the Golan, and Gaza

on Friday, 02 June 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Naso 5777

There are times when the difference between the Jewish lunar calendar and the American solar calendar provide and opportunity for additional reflection and exploration on important subjects.

This week is one of those times.  Three weeks ago we began providing some perspective on the 50th Anniversary of the 6-Day War, in advance of Yom Yerushalayim, which fell on the Hebrew calendar about two weeks ago, the holiday that commemorates the unification of the holy city of Jerusalem in 1967.  In May we explored the extraordinary events and miraculous military results of the 6-Day War itself in context.  We talked a great deal about the capital city of Israel, both the Old and New City, East and West Jerusalem.  

All You Really Need

on Thursday, 01 June 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Naso 5777

This week we chant the second portion of the book of Numbers, called Naso, which includes a remarkable blessing.  The Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, is really three distinct brachot, three separate prayers, with which the ancient priests are commanded to bless the people. 

From its inception this three-part blessing had exceptional importance.  As the Torah quotes God saying, “with this blessing you will place My Name on the people of Israel, samu et shemi al b’nai Yisrael”—that is, this very blessing conveys God’s presence among us, and offers God’s protection.  

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