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The Triumph of Hope over Experience

on Wednesday, 22 March 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777

Hope is a tangible, unstated presence in our Torah portion this week, Vayakhel-Pekudei, the double sedrah at the end of the book of Exodus.  On the surface, this parashah is nothing more than a listing of how the Tabernacle in the Wilderness was constructed by our ancestors, lists of materials used, processes employed, structures and implements assembled.  So many pieces of wood or gold or skins of animals used to make this item; these artisans employed on that project; Moses asked for these materials and they were graciously donated.  And so on and so forth.

But in another sense, this is an incredibly hopeful Torah portion, a section that truly represents the triumph of hope over experience.  For in last week’s Torah portion of Ki Tisa the people of Israel dramatically failed both God and Moses: they made a Golden Calf, and worshipped it, and bowed before it, and insisted that it was their god.  Just 40 days after receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai they forgot the Revelation and abandoned monotheism and morality and everything they had just been taught, including the Second Commandment prohibiting the worship of idols.  It was a devastating moment for Moses.  It must have been a fundamentally depressing time for God, too. 

Truth & Values

on Thursday, 16 March 2017. Posted in Community Events

Invocation for State of the City 2017

The Chinese have perhaps the only continuous culture that is older than Judaism.  And they have a famous curse: it is, “May you live in interesting times.”

My friends, we live in interesting times. 

The last five months in America have been about as surprising as any in the last 15 years, and we have all learned that many things we believed may not actually be true.  And we have even learned that some important people believe things we know not to be true. 

There are many lessons in such a period in history, some of which may not be evident for a while.  But one of the lessons is surely about appreciating what is real, and meaningful, and true.

Lost and Found God

on Wednesday, 15 March 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Ki Tisa 5777

This week we read the portion of Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf.  While Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 commandments the Israelites start to worry he’s not coming back.  And so, while God is carving the words “You shall have no other gods besides Me, nor make any image of them” into a stone tablet, the faithless people persuade his brother Aaron to make them an idol of gold, a calf, that they can call their new god.  Pleased with the result, they worship it and then throw a big party, a bacchanal, a carnival, Mardi Gras in the Sinai.

Coming down the mountain, Joshua and Moses hear the noise from the camp below, and are astonished.  Joshua thinks it must be the sound of battle, but Moses knows what a party sounds like when he hears it.  And when Moses sees all the cavorting, and the Chosen People worshipping a golden idol, he throws down the sacred stone tablets of the commandments, shattering them.  The music and dancing stop suddenly.  It is a shocking scene.

For the rabbis this is one of most dramatic and distressing portions in the entire Torah.  The problem is acute: according to the text, our people witnessed the divine power of the Ten Plagues, were personally saved at the shore of the Sea of Reeds by God, received the direct revelation at Sinai—in short, experienced God more directly than any other group in history ever has—and almost immediately afterwards turned around and rejected that God in order to worship a cow made out of their own jewelry.

Memory and Redemption

on Wednesday, 08 March 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor 5777

This week we observe Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance in Jewish tradition.  By custom, after reading our weekly Torah portion of Tetzaveh from Exodus we add a short section of text that recalls the attack by the enemy nation Amalek on our Israelite stragglers as we escaped Egypt during the Exodus.  This vicious and cowardly attack is memorialized each year on the Shabbat prior to Purim.  The short maftir section both begins and ends with words of memory: Zachor et asher asa lecha Amalek, it begins, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” and it concludes with the powerful statement timcheh et zecher Amalek mitachat Hashamayim; al tishkach, “Obliterate the memory of Amalek under heaven; don’t forget!”   

What the Heck Can Ritual Sacrfice Teach Us Today?

on Wednesday, 01 March 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

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

Asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, “Make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them,” God commands in this week’s Torah portion of Terumah, and the sanctuary ordained is for the purpose of ritual animal sacrifice. Defunct in Jewish tradition for over 1900 years, since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, just what the heck can ritual sacrifice teach us in the year 2017 CE?

Mishpatim & Freedom

on Sunday, 26 February 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Mishpatim 5777

The great 1960’s comedian, Alan Sherman, most famous for his song “Hello Muddah Hello Faddah”, once wrote a book about restrictions on human behavior. In it, he decided to invent a new religion, which would have only one commandment: Thou shalt not stuff 37 tennis balls down the toilet. In great excitement he went to a sign painter to create the tablet of this new covenant, and asked him to make up a huge sign with that commandment on it. But the sign painter refused.

“Friend,” he said, “I’m going to do you a big favor. I’m not going to paint your sign. Because if I paint it, the day after the sign goes up, there will be a run on sporting goods stores. Tennis balls will sell like hotcakes, and plumbers will be working round the clock. The virtuous among us will only stuff 36 tennis balls down their toilets. Normal sinners will stuff 37 tennis balls down their toilets. And the truly wicked will stuff 38 tennis balls down their toilets. Friend, we human beings are many things; but we all of us are perverse.”

Building Society One Law at a Time

on Thursday, 23 February 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Mishpatim 5777

This week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim includes as many laws as any other part of the entire Torah. After the last few weeks of spectacularly dramatic Torah portions featuring some of the greatest highlights in the entirety of Jewish tradition—indeed, of all religious history—Mishpatim comes as a major let down.

Last week, amid the smoke and thunder of Mt. Sinai, we received the Ten Commandments; the week before God parted the Sea for us and we miraculously crossed on dry land; and in the weeks before that 10 plagues struck the Egyptians, and Pharaoh and Moses had their duel of wills in the desert.

But Mishpatim is nothing more than a collection of laws about how to interact with other human beings—civil legislation. How exciting: how to handle someone else’s property fairly. How to assess punitive damages for a man who injures another person, or destroys someone else’s property. How to act when someone puts his or her property in trust with you. The laws of manslaughter and theft and damages. 

By Heart

on Thursday, 16 February 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Yitro 5777

Can you recite the Ten Commandments by heart?

I suspect not; most of us can’t.  We usually remember, “Thou shalt not murder”—often misstated as “Thou shalt not kill”—and “Thou shalt not steal.”  Most people kind of recall that there is something in there about honoring father and mother, and not swearing. Others might get the adultery part, or perhaps even the Sabbath.  Few people remember all ten.

But whether we know them by heart or not these “Ten Statements” (the translation of the Hebrew Aseret haDibrot)  from this week’s Torah portion of Yitro are supposed to be the only words God ever spoke directly to our people.  Yet they are not really at the heart of our Judaism today.  Why not?

Song to the Violent God

on Thursday, 09 February 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On B’Shalach/Shabbat Shirah 5777

“God (YHVH) is a man of war!  YHVH is His Name!”  -- Exodus 15:3

The Torah portion of B’Shalach is justly famous for two reasons.  First, it tells the great tale of the crossing of the yam suf, the Sea or Reeds (or perhaps the Red Sea itself) and the redemption of the people of Israel from destruction at the hands of Pharaoh’s army.  Second, after the crossing, Moses and the people of Israel sing the magnificent Az Yashir Moshe, Moses’s Song, about their salvation through divine action.  B’Shalach is always chanted on Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, and it is celebrated with special musical services in virtually every Reform and Progressive synagogue in the world.

The story itself couldn’t be much more familiar, not only from the Torah text itself and every Passover Seder you have ever attended, but from the arts.  The Exodus is featured in paintings, novels, and poems, and there have been a variety of mediocre film interpretations, ranging from “The Ten Commandments” to “The Prince of Egypt” to last year’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”  Still, the story is worth hearing yet again.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Rabbinic Mission Trip, Fourth Report

on Friday, 03 February 2017. Posted in Travel

Budapest, Hungary, January 29, 2017: Forming Jewish Identity Anew

Budapest undoubtedly has the largest and most active Jewish community in East Central Europe, the area that includes Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, among other countries located between Russia and Germany.  In our meetings with Jewish community leaders here the complexity of the Hungarian Jewish community’s composition became clear. 

Zsuzsa Fritz and Katja at the Balint JCC

We began at the Balint JCC, which we visited twice, where we met with the Director of the JCC, Zsuzsa Fritz, and Katja, who works for the Joint Distribution Committee.  Zsuzsa grew up not knowing that she was Jewish at all.  In fact, her first inkling was when she attended her grandfather's funeral under the Hungarian communist regime, and was surprised to discover that it was a Jewish funeral.  She realized that her grandfather had to be Jewish, and she must be as well.  Figuring that something so important that it had to be hidden must have value, she started engaging in Jewish activities.  It wasn't much at first, but her involvement grew and grew.  When she started there wasn’t much in the way of Jewish organizational or congregational life.  Today, 26 years after the end of Communism in Hungary, there are 45 different Jewish organizations in Hungary, mostly in Budapest. 

Katja’s story is equally interesting.  The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she had almost exclusively very negative impressions of religion from communist background, and her parents certainly did not encourage her connections to Judaism.  But when she began to travel she had many positive and varied Jewish experiences around the world, in places as unexpected as Christchurch, New Zealand.  She went on Birthright, and then worked for Birthright for several years.  She took Judaic Studies at university, and eventually became a Jewish tour guide in Budapest, finally getting the JDC job, which includes working in a variety of capacities to connect young Jews to their heritage, helping out at the very important Jewish camp in Southern Hungary, and more.  

"Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places"

on Thursday, 02 February 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Bo 5777

This week's portion of Bo features the actual Exodus from Egypt.  The climactic text is very familiar from Passover Seders and movies, but it is no less dramatic for its familiarity.  Moses and Aaron warn Pharaoh that the final plague is coming.  God tells the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on their doorposts to protect themselves from the coming calamity. At midnight the Angel of Death visits the homes of every Egyptian, from the Pharaoh on his throne to the prisoner in the dungeon, and the firstborn male son of every household dies.  Even the livestock lose their firstborn sons. 

After long refusing freedom to the Israelites, after ten plagues and every underhanded manipulation he could invent, Pharaoh finally gives up.  He literally throws the Israelites out of Egypt saying, "Go away from my people!" 

There is an ironic twist at the end of this freedom narrative in Bo, even before the Pharaoh's fruitless quest to recapture the Israelites at the Sea ends badly for the Egyptians in next week's portion of B'Shalach. Pharaoh has already ordered Moses and Aaron to leave his land, but before they can go, when he says,

"Be gone! But bless me first."

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Rabbinic Mission Trip, Third Report

on Wednesday, 01 February 2017. Posted in Travel

Budapest, Hungary, January 28, 2017

Shoes on the Danube Memorial, Budapest, HungaryOn a cold, dark January afternoon our group of Reform rabbis and spouses stands on a high bank over the Danube River, looking down at sheets of ice floating in the grey river below.  Lined along the edge of a concrete shelf are pairs of bronze shoes of many varieties: men’s work boots, women’s fashionable heels, children’s shoes worn at the toes, practical shoes, silly shoes, all varieties.  Each shoe has small yahrzeit candles in them or next to them, symbols of loss and mourning.  The long row testifies to the death of 3500 human beings, many of them Jews, shot to death into the Danube River by Hungarian Arrow Cross murderers in the winter of 1944-1945.  The victims were forced to remove their shoes on the bank and then shot so that the icy river would carry away their bodies.

We join in a mourner’s kaddish, and then sing “Am Yisrael Chai”, the people of Israel lives.  As we do so, one of the rabbis suddenly starts singing much louder, and shouting out the words.  We all join, not quite sure of the motivation for his emotional response, but quickly it becomes clear: a passerby has chosen to give the “Sig Heil” salute to our group, and as we all raise our voices he turns and runs away.  At the most emotional moment of our trip, at this powerful and viscerally disturbing monument commemorating one of the ugliest acts in all human history, we are forcibly reminded that hatred of the other is not extinct, or even dormant.  It is always with us.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Rabbinic Mission Trip, Second Report

on Thursday, 26 January 2017. Posted in Travel

Vienna, Austria, January 25, 2017

Ambassador Talya Lador FresherOur second full day in Vienna began with a meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to Austria, Talya Lador Fresher, a brilliant and charismatic speaker and the first female Israeli ambassador to Austria after 19 men.  She began by noting that last Yom Kippur she spent at the Reform congregation in Vienna, Or Hadash, breaking precedent, a fact that was received with great interest by our group of Reform rabbis from all around the US and Canada.

Last year, 2016, the two countries celebrated 60 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Austria.  Jewish history in Austria is an undercurrent to all contemporary relations with Austria, but it is much more than the Shoah.  The Austrian Jewish community, in particular the Viennese Jewish community, was large, influential, and a central part of the highest level of cultural, intellectual, and artistic achievement.  Austrian Jews called Franz Josef “Our Kaiser” because of the way he supported the Jewish community, and the beauty of the accomplishments of the great Jewish community here have left a lasting legacy.

Will the Wicked Continue to Flourish? No—Plagues and Justice

on Thursday, 26 January 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Va'era 5777

As this week’s portion of Va’era begins, the Israelites are in Egyptian slavery, and the mysterious figure of Moses has returned to try free them from bondage.  In Va’era, God brings about a series of plagues that traumatize the Egyptians, and bedevil the Pharaoh, king of Egypt: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, boils, and cattle disease serially afflict the land and its inhabitants, or at least the non-Israelite inhabitants.  In next week’s portion of Bo, three more plagues will come—hail, locusts, and darkness—all leading up to the final plague and the climactic death scene of the slaying of the first-born and the Exodus, the great moment in which our ancestors are freed from slavery.  It is the model for narratives of deliverance and emancipation ever after. 

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Rabbinic Mission Trip, First Report

on Tuesday, 24 January 2017. Posted in Travel

Vienna, Austria, January 24, 2017

I have been many places over the years, but I had never before been in Vienna, Austria until this week.  I’m not certain that traveling 23 hours to reach a place where the high temperature today was 27 degrees testifies to great intelligence—it’s very cold indeed!—but it is a fascinating and stimulating city, and its Jewish history is complex.

The Golden Age of the Jewish community of Vienna produced some of the most important figures in modern intellectual, political, and cultural Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" Belvedere Castle Museum Vienna, Austriahistory.  Theodore Herzl, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Martin Buber, Viktor Frankl, Simon Wiesenthal, and many other luminaries spent their most productive periods in Vienna, the capital of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.  The German-Jewish Viennese culture that produced the founder of modern Zionism, the developer of psychoanalysis and modern psychiatry, the greatest composers and innovators of modernism in music, and a multitude of great authors, philosophers, art patrons, and activists, flourished as few Jewish communities have.  But that world began to disappear in 1918, and by 1938 the incredible hothouse of Jewish Vienna was gone.  What Judaism would we find today?

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