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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.

Invocation for Pima County Board of Supervisors

on Tuesday, 18 April 2017. Posted in Community Events

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Invocation for Pima County Board of Supervisors April 18, 2017

We have just completed the holiday of Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom that has become the model for liberation struggles everywhere in the world.  While Passover commemorates freeing the Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage well over three thousand years ago, we are constantly reminded throughout the week of Pesach to view the world as though we, personally, had come out of slavery.  The Hebrew phrase that typifies our holiday: B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatzah miMitzrayim, in each generation everyone is obligated to see oneself as though he or she came out of Egypt.

It is this personal relationship to liberation from bondage that has made the story so powerful: Benjamin Franklin thought the symbol of America should be the Israelite slaves exodus from slavery; African-Americans sang “Go Down Moses” as an anthem about their own servitude and quest for freedom; in our time, Nelson Mandela used the Exodus as a model for his own people’s fight against apartheid.

We can all relate to the essential human need for freedom from servitude.

But there is another central aspect to the Passover story, and it begins once the Israelites, the ancient Jews, escape violence and tyranny.  It is the tale of the refugees themselves, who flee brutal oppression and seek a new life.  

Freedom for All

on Wednesday, 12 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Shabbat Pesach 5777

The Torah readings on Passover are some of the most dramatic and interesting of the entire year.  We remember the Exodus from Egypt in a variety of ways: in prose, in poetry, by recalling the sacrifices of our ancestors, and by delineating rituals that we still observe. 

We use Torah during Passover in the same way that we use the Haggadah at the Seder: to teach, remind, and refresh our understanding of the great blessing and value of freedom in every possible permutation.  Freedom is too easy to take for granted.  We must always remind ourselves of its blessings.

We do so on Pesach by celebrating freedom in word and song, by observing dietary restrictions that remind us of the servitude of our ancestors.  Even the food teaches us to value the hard-won freedom of the Exodus story.

May we always enjoy the liberty to do so in this society, and in every society in which we find ourselves. 

And may the many people of every faith who are not yet free become free soon.

Please join us for our Wandering Jews’ hike in the Wilderness at 5:30 PM this Friday night, our Shabbat Passover morning services at 9:30 this Saturday, including the chanting of the Song of Songs, and our 7th Day Passover morning services Monday including Yizkor memorial prayers at 9:30 AM.  And have a zissen Pesach, a joyous and healthy Passover! 

Offering Thanks in a Season of Freedom

on Wednesday, 05 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Tzav/HaGadol 5777

This week’s Torah portion is the second in the Book of Leviticus, Tzav, the section that establishes rules for the various sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Mishkan. These same sacrifices were later also offered in the Temple in Jerusalem for a thousand years. 

There are many different types of sacrifices commanded in Tzav: burnt offerings, guilt offerings, sin offerings, and so on.  But one group of sacrificial offerings stands out: the offerings of peace, the zevach shlamim.  And among this higher category of offerings one in particular stands out the highest: the zevach haTodah, the thanksgiving offering.

Arguing for God and Unity

on Friday, 31 March 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon on Vayikra 5777

One of the most distinctive qualities of Jews everywhere in the world has always been our ability to disagree and remain in dialogue.  That is, we argue but stick together.  Jewish families are typically loud, contentious, and verbally energetic.  Jewish organizations are active, engaged, and often contentious.  But we have an ability, after thousands of years of overcoming adversity, to pull together in spite of our many, many differences.  Most of the time.

Getting Up Close and Personal With God

on Thursday, 30 March 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we begin reading the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra or Leviticus.  Vayikra presents an entirely new challenge to the student of Torah: how do we find relevance in a portion that reflects religious practices that have been obsolete for nearly 2000 years?

You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: But What Part of Me is Me?

on Monday, 27 March 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

Two years ago on my sabbatical trip around the world, I visited with a high-ranking member of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey.  A significant prelate and an important assistant to the Patriarch, he grew up in suburban Chicago and spoke English fluently, of course, and we had a wonderful conversation about theology and ritual.  As I endeavored to understand the intricacies of the Greek Church, he explained carefully to me how central the concept of the rewards of eternal life are for Orthodox Christians.  The goal for every believing person, in his faith, was to achieve eternal reward in a much better world than this one.  And then he said, “I don’t understand how you can get people to be good if they aren’t trying to get to heaven, and afraid of going to hell.” 

I did my best to explain that in Judaism we seek to inspire people to live ethical lives through observing mitzvot, fulfilling commandments designed to make life moral and holy.  And I told him what I always say, respectfully: we Jews are much more interested in the quality of life before death than in theoretical rewards or punishments after death. 

But that’s not really the whole story.

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?

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