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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.  

Yom Yerushalayim—The City of Peace On the 50 year-Anniversary of the 6-Day War

on Thursday, 25 May 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we read the Torah portion of Bamidbar, which describes a census taken of the people of Israel as we are about to go to war to capture our land.  The timing is fascinating, for today we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim on the Jewish calendar, the holiday that commemorates the reunification of the city of Jerusalem in the miraculous Six Day War of 1967.  It has been exactly 50 years on the Jewish calendar since we were finally able to return to the Kotel, the Western Wall, holiest place on earth for Jews; 50 years since the commander of the troops who captured the Old City from Jordanian forces, Motta Gur, announced, Har HaBayit B’yadeinu—the Temple Mount is in our hands.

We Bring Mt. Sinai with Us

on Thursday, 18 May 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Behar-Bechukotai 5777

his week we read the sedrah of Behar-Bechukotai, the double portion at the end of the book of Leviticus.  In these final sections of the middle book of the Torah there are interesting oddities—and lessons—both at the beginning and the end of each portion. 

Behar begins with the statement that “God spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai saying”, a seemingly unambiguous phrase. And at the end of the opening covenantal section of Bechukotai the Torah reiterates that God gave all the regulations and laws contained here at Mt. Sinai.  Finally, Bechukotai concludes the book of Vayikra by telling us “these are the commandments that God commanded Moses for the Israelites on Mt. Sinai”. 

All well and good.  These rules of holiness and personal conduct must have been commanded at Mt. Sinai.

Yet earlier in Leviticus it makes it pretty clear that God has given most of these commandments not at Mt. Sinai itself, but in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Ohel Mo’eid, the Tent of Meeting, as the people wander around.  In fact, the whole book of Leviticus is apparently given after we have left Sinai and begun our journey to the Promised Land.  Clearly, as Behar begins the Israelites don’t actually seem to still be at Mt. Sinai at all.

What gives?

Jerusalem, City of Peace…

on Saturday, 13 May 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Emor 5777

In addition to counting the Omer now, we are in a unique period of the year where Israel is concerned.  We celebrated Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day last week, Israel’s 69th birthday, and in less than two weeks, on May 25th, we will rejoice on Yom Yerushalayim, the day that commemorates the reunification of the city of Jerusalem in 1967.  This will mark the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the remarkable, miraculous Israeli victory that allowed Jews to return to the holiest place on earth for us, the Kotel, the Western Wall, and to the Old City of Jerusalem.  This anniversary, while extraordinary, is also controversial.  You cannot help but see criticism of Israel and its half-century long “occupation”, whatever that means to you, and see criticism of how the nation has handled a highly complex and challenging situation for the past five decades.

Over the next weeks I’ll continue to explore this theme, and discuss the West Bank and the possibility of a Palestinian State.  

Speak Low When You Speak Love

on Wednesday, 10 May 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

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

Emor, our Torah portion this week in Leviticus, begins as so many others do: God gives commands to the people of Israel.  But the language this time is a little different.  Usually, commandments begin with the Hebrew word “Dabeir, speak to the Children of Israel” or occasionally, “Tzav, command the Children of Israel.”  This time the much softer word “Emor, say to the priests, the Children of Aaron” is used.  Why?

There is a clue in the continuation of the first sentence of our portion, Our sedrah actually begins, “Say to the priests…” and then adds “and say to them…”  As the commentators do not believe that the Torah is ever truly redundant, the Talmud (in Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 114a) teaches that there is a subtle message here: be cautious in how we adults speak to children.  Emor means to speak softly and kindly.  Good advice in instructing children at any time.

But why specifically is this word, emor used twice in regard to the priestly commands?  The priests are not children.

How We Create Our Holy Congregation

on Tuesday, 09 May 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777 New Member Shabbat

With the advent of the internet and its daily overdose of information, nowadays you can learn how to do almost anything just from watching a YouTube video. 

Want to know how to erect a barbed wire fence?  Watch a YouTube video.  Need to build your own septic system?  Watch a YouTube video.  Trying to learn to dance the skanky leg?  Watch a YouTube video.  Have to make baked Alaska?  Watch a YouTube video.  Wish to sing opera?  Watch a YouTube video.  Seek to pilot a jet airplane?  Watch a YouTube video.  Have to deliver a baby in the back seat of an Uber ride?  You got it: watch a YouTube video.

If only United Airlines had watched a YouTube video on how to treat customers when you oversell a commercial airline flight…

But for one thing there is, as yet, no YouTube video available.  I know this because I looked for it this week.  There is no YouTube video for the commandment given at the very beginning of Kedoshim.

How To Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

on Thursday, 04 May 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777

This week we read the double Torah portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, which includes the Holiness Code, a description of the ethical injunctions that lie at the heart of Jewish practice.  The code itself includes mitzvot that require us to assist the poor, treat strangers, widows, and orphans with generosity and kindness, and insists on fair business practices.  It obligates us to live moral lives.

It’s important that this remarkable section comes in the precise center of the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus.  Kedoshim, the holiness code, is in the middle of the middle of the Torah—that is, it forms the heart of the heart of our most sacred text.  And at that heart is the ethical injunction to love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

This is an amazing, and perhaps utopian ideal—love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.  If our society was actually rooted in such a conception how much better it would be for everyone!  

Lashon ha’Ra: Slander Destroys

on Thursday, 27 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Tazria/Metzora 5777

This week we read the double Torah portion of Tazria/Metzora in the book of Leviticus, and a wholly unappetizing set of Torah portions it is indeed.  Metzora, in particular, focuses on the question of leprosy, a dreaded disease of the ancient world.  It’s true that leprosy was an awful thing, and needed to be eliminated if at all possible, in particular by using the concept of quarantines to isolate it.  But exploring what our ancestors believed to be an infectious disease at great length in a Sabbath service could scarcely be called a spiritually meaningful experience.

Yom HaShoah 5777 Invocation

on Sunday, 23 April 2017. Posted in Community Events

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Invocation for Yom HaShoah

Six weeks ago, in the cold heart of a frozen Central European winter, I stood at Thereisenstadt Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic.  Thereisenstadt was famous as the show-camp used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes, demonstrating to the Red Cross and other casual observers of the Shoah how wonderfully the Nazis treated the Jews.  There are parts still in existence of a film called, “The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City!” which is shown daily in the theater there, as a reminder.

Silence & Action

on Friday, 21 April 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Shemini 5777

We Jews are talkers.  We are, in fact, among the most famous talkers in all of history. We are a people renowned for our words, and our leaders are legendary for their verbosity.  Even Moses, a man with a speech impediment who protests that he is a man of few words, manages to orate the entire Book of Deuteronomy, supposedly in one long sermon.

There is a reason we are lawyers, comedians, entertainers, and public speakers of all kinds.  We truly have a tremendous oral tradition.

Rabbis, of course, are no exception.  There is a classic Jewish joke.  One friend says to another, “My rabbi is so brilliant he can talk for an hour on any subject.”

And his friend answers, “My rabbi is so brilliant that he can speak for two hours on no subject.”

But sometimes speech is actually an impediment.

Silent Comfort: On Profound Loss

on Thursday, 20 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week’s Torah portion is the third in the Book of Leviticus, Shemini, and it includes a very dramatic, and traumatic event.  The Tabernacle in the Wilderness has just been consecrated, and the priests, Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons, are entering into their office.  God’s presence fills the Tabernacle, and all is right with the people. 

And then, suddenly, disaster strikes.  Aaron’s eldest sons, newly ordained priests named Nadav and Avihu, offer what is called eish zarah, strange fire to the Lord.  They are immediately struck down and devoured by divine fire, dying before the Lord. 

In the aftermath of this tragic shock, Moses consoles Aaron with strange words: “God says, ‘By those brought near to Me I am consecrated, and honored before the people.’”

There is no word on whether Aaron accepted this as a just ending for his sons.  The text merely says “Vayidom Aharon”, Aaron was silent.

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