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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.

Who is Israel? Wrestling with God and Family

on Wednesday, 14 December 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Cohon’s Torah Talk on Vayishlach 5777

We are in the midst of sequence of splendid Torah portions, rich in complexity, action, and misdeed, all blended together with serious family dysfunction.  This week’s sedrah of Vayishlach in Genesis continues the tale of Jacob, the most intriguing of the patriarchs, a man who rises above his own duplicitous nature to become the father of almost all of the tribes of Israel. 

As our story begins, Jacob is returning home to Canaan, having made good in the old country of Sumeria—in Harran, in today’s Turkey near the Syrian border.  He has four wives, 12 children—including 11 sons—and large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, truly great wealth.  As he is about to cross into Canaan he learns that his brother Esau, whom he wronged so seriously just before leaving home in a rush twenty years before, is coming to meet him with an army of 400 men.  Jacob is panicked, deducing that Esau is not heading his way with 400 men with spears just to welcome him home.  

For Argument’s Sake

on Monday, 12 December 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Vayeitzei 5777

The noise we have been hearing in the past few weeks about a rising tide of Anti-Semitism right here in America is disturbing.  The thing about Anti-Semitism is that just when you think it has receded from view and is no longer a serious problem in one sector of society or one nation in the world, it comes back…  and there is now increasing concern that Anti-Semitism is making strong inroads here in the United States.

The new American Jewish concern about heightened degrees of Anti-Semitism comes as a result of some of the very ugly themes of the recent presidential election campaign, particularly the focus it brought to what is called the Alt-Right movement, and the alternative—that is, fake—news that some of its elements have spawned.  There were a number of instances during the presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath of anti-Semitic chants, of reporters blasted with anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi harangues, of commercials that hinted at Nazi-era slurs about Jewish control of world finance or the media, and other disturbing incidents that we haven’t seen in America in many years.

Finding God in the Wilderness

on Wednesday, 07 December 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

The urge to journey out into the unknown is a major motivation in the Torah.  We saw it with Abraham a few weeks ago.  We find it in the lives of most of our ancestors.  And we encounter it perhaps most powerfully in the story of this week’s great Torah portion of Vayeitzei.

At the start of the tale, Jacob is fleeing from his brother Esau’s potential revenge for cheating him out of both birthright and blessing.  He leaves his family and his home, both of which are in Be’ersheva, in Canaan, and journeys towards Harran, Abraham’s adopted hometown.

Harran is located just north of the current Syrian border in Eastern Turkey, near Sanliurfa, between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, in the cradle of civilization.  I visited the area of Harran during my Sabbatical trip two years ago; it was filled with refugees from the Syrian Civil War.  3700 years ago, when Jacob headed there, Harran was an important city-state in ancient Syria, and Abraham’s kin still lived there.  

Troubled Family, Great Destiny

on Wednesday, 30 November 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

The story of the twins, Jacob and Esau, begins in utero.  Rivals from before birth, wrestling in their mother Rebecca’s womb, the red-haired outdoorsman Esau and his grasping, domestically inclined younger brother Jacob spend our portion of Toldot vying for their father’s and mother’s love and attention.  Each is partly successful, and each partly fails.  That sibling rivalry shaped the course of our people’s early history, but it also can teach us something about ourselves.

First, a word about words: Toldot is rich in real-life details told in spectacularly perfect writing.  Rebecca, pregnant with the two boys wrestling inside her, tells God, “If it’s like this, why am I alive?” prefiguring the words every pregnant mom thinks (or says!) at some point. Esau is hairy and rough at birth, Jacob is smooth, born holding fast to Esau’s heel.  Esau, famished from a long hunt, trades his birthright for a bowl of stew and then “ate, drank, stood up, left, and disdained,” the series of active verbs delineating his turbulent, thoughtless character.  Jacob, smooth-faced and smooth-talking lawyer that he is, audibly calculates the coming consequences of each action.

Negotiating Our Future

on Wednesday, 23 November 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Chayei Sarah 5777

This week we read the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, which marks a transition in our Genesis narrative from the tales of Abraham and Sarah, our first Jewish father and mother, towards the next generation, which will feature Isaac and Rebecca.  But first we begin with an ending.  

At the start of the portion we are told of the length of Sarah’s life, and almost by accident learn of Sarah’s death.  “The life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years,” the sedrah begins, and the famous Midrash on it tells us that Sarah was just as beautiful at the age of 100 as she was at 20, and that she was just as free of sin at 20 as she had been at 7.  It is a fine encomium for a significant figure who has now passed from the scene.

The Good News/Bad News Dichotomy

on Friday, 18 November 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon on Vayera 5777

Members of the Board of Directors are visiting the rabbi, who is in the hospital.  “I have good news and bad news,” the delegation leader says.

“What’s the good news?” the rabbi asks.

“The board voted to wish you a refuah shleimah, a speedy healing.”

“Thank you!” says the rabbi.  “But what’s the bad news?”

And the delegation leader says, “The vote was 10 to 9.”

Good news/bad news indeed…

I Argue Therefore I Am—Jewish

on Wednesday, 16 November 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

What do you think is the essential Jewish characteristic?  Is it the ability to survive, as we have been doing for 3800 years, since the days of Abraham and Sarah?  Is it the enjoyment of food, without which no event seems truly Jewish?  Is it our profound and ancient commitment to learning that is our most unique quality?

Or is it the willingness to argue that makes us truly Jewish?

Leaving What We Have Known

on Friday, 11 November 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Lech Lecha 5777

This week we read the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, which includes God’s great commandment to Abram, lech lecha meartzecha umimoladetcha umibeit avicha—leave, go from your country and your homeland and the house of your father, to a land that I will show you.  It is the beginning of monotheism, the belief in one God.  It is the beginning of Judaism.  And it will prove to be the beginning of our connection to the land of Israel as well.  It is a dramatic and powerful moment. 

The fascinating thing about Lech Lecha is not that God commands Abram—soon to be renamed Abraham—to leave everything he has known.  After all, if he is to create a new religion and remake belief in our world he will need to leave polytheism and a pagan society that doesn’t recognize the concept of supreme justice and divine power, a corrupt, dishonest, and ethically failed civilization. 

If you want to live a life of goodness and blessing, sometimes you need to leave home to do it.

The Social Covenant

on Friday, 04 November 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon on Noach 5777

It is so remarkably appropriate that it rained, hard, this week, because of course on this Shabbat we are reading the greatest rain story of all time, the tale of Noah, the truly ancient mariner, when it poured for forty days and forty nights and the world was inundated with water.  Sometimes the Torah syncs up so beautifully with the natural world around us… although in the Sonoran Desert it takes more than a single hard rain to create a flood, or even a steady flow in the Rillito River.  I should note that it also rained quite a bit the night of Simchat Torah ten days ago, just after we had offered the prayer for rain, the t’filat geshem, during Shemini Atzeret services that morning.  Apparently, we are very good at directing divine intervention here at Temple Emanu-El, at least of the meteorological sort.  

Be Moderately Good

on Thursday, 03 November 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

It’s an old story, and we know it well: God sees that wickedness and corruption have spread throughout the world, and that human beings are acting in ways that should have been predictable to an all-knowing deity—lying, cheating, stealing, committing adultery, smearing political opponents, the usual.  In response, God decides to destroy the world in a great flood, rain falling for 40 days and nights, the whole of humanity drowned in the deluge.

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