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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?

The Start of Something Big

on Wednesday, 18 January 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we begin reading Exodus, second book of the Torah, with the great Torah portion of Shemot.  I admit to being a bit biased here, as this was my own bar mitzvah Torah portion, but certainly Shemot is one of the greatest sections of Torah of all.  It begins with a kind of coda on Genesis, recounting how the first family of Breisheet, made up of Jacob and his many sons and their descendants, all move down to Egypt, where Joseph is the effective ruler of the country.  They settle in Goshen, in the north of Egypt, and flourish there.

And then the fateful events that set the future of our people begin: Joseph and his generation pass away, a new dynasty takes over in Egypt which doesn’t remember Joseph and his contributions, and the Israelites are now viewed differently.  As they grow in numbers and wealth the new Pharaoh worries: these immigrants might serve as a fifth column in the event of invasion.  They speak a different language, worship a different God.  Their hair is curlier, their noses larger, their skin a bit darker, perhaps.  They certainly have funny accents.  They look like trouble.  

Choosing Our Own Destiny

on Wednesday, 11 January 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we complete the story of Joseph, and of his great father Jacob, with the final Torah portion of the book of Genesis, Vayechi.  It begins with the description of the death of Jacob, now also known as Israel, and the final blessings that Jacob gives to his many sons.  These blessings contain predictions about the future success or failure of the tribes that will descend from Jacob’s sons, the b’nai Yisrael.  The prophecies for the sons are delivered in the form of an extended poem.

In the midst of this literary serving of blessing and prediction, there is a brief narrative episode in which Joseph, who knows his father is dying, brings his own two sons, Jacob’s grandsons Menasseh and Ephraim, to him for a blessing.

In keeping with an ongoing theme in Genesis, Jacob blesses the younger son, Ephraim, before the older son, Menasseh.  When Joseph tries to correct his father, Jacob assures him that this blessing order is intentional: both boys will father great tribes, but the younger will exceed the older in accomplishment.  We still use this blessing each Friday night when we bless our own sons today, both in temple and at home.

Magnanimity and Grace

on Tuesday, 03 January 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week’s Torah portion of Vayigash begins with the climax of the great Joseph story that fills the last sections of the book of Genesis.  Joseph is the powerful ruler of Egypt, richest country in the ancient world.  His miraculous ascent from slavery and prison to the heights of political power is the stuff dreams are made of, and he is the master of all he surveys, subservient only to a Pharaoh who trusts him completely.  He is handsome, rich, hugely powerful, with a wife and two fine sons, completely assimilated into Egypt’s elegant culture, and still comparatively young.  The world sits at his manicured feet.

Be The Light

on Wednesday, 28 December 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

Once there was a Chasid who was afraid of the dark.  “Tell me, Rebbe,” the Chasid asked, “How can I chase the darkness from the world?”

So the Rabbi sent the Chasid into the deep darkness of the shul’s basement.  Handing him a broom he said, “Go sweep the darkness out of the basement.” 

Before long, the Chasid returned. “Rebbe, I swept and swept, but the darkness did not budge an inch!” The Rabbi nodded, and murmured sympathetically.  Darkness can be stubborn thing… He reached into his drawer and took out a ruler.

Family, Fate, and You

on Wednesday, 21 December 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we read the Torah portion of Vayeshev, which begins the story of Joseph, one of the great narratives in all literature.  We will continue with this fateful tale throughout the rest of the book of Genesis, and the extraordinary plotlines involving Joseph eventually set up the rest of early Jewish history.

But first Vayeshev starts by further illustrating the exploits, good and mostly bad, of one of the truly, spectacularly dysfunctional families in all of history, the great patriarch Jacob and his four wives and 13 children.  If you thought the Borgia family had problems, if you believe that Oedipus had a bad home life, if you feel that the Kennedys were cursed, if you think that the Kardashians—OK, never mind about the Kardashians.  In any case, none of these epic familial failures have anything on Jacob and his brood. In fact, you can make a case that the Jacob clan has some of the troubles of each.

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