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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.

I Think Therefore I Create

on Thursday, 27 October 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This coming Shabbat, we read the spectacular Torah portion of Breisheet, Genesis, the beginning of all things.  

It begins with those still amazing words, Breisheet Barah Elohim, “At the beginning of God’s creating,” or, “In the beginning God created...”  Simple, lucid, and clear, all creation emanating from one point and place, a divine force or intelligence or energy starting the great process of existence and eventually of life.  A singularity.  A poem to the holy unity of all being.  We all come from the same source.

And yet, the text of Genesis is deliberately ambiguous to encourage exploration and debate, the essential tools we human beings have for learning truth and discerning meaning.  Questions abound: why God at all?  As the great Jewish poet Paul Celan wrote, “No one kneads us again out of earth and clay.  No one summons our dust… Blessed art Thou, No One.”  I would argue with Celan that such a wonder as creation did not come into being purely by accident.  But there is room for argument, which is good, and perhaps God-given as well, and very Jewish.

Gratitude and Faith

on Thursday, 20 October 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk for Sukkot 5777

This week we read special selections from the Torah in honor of the holiday of Sukkot, which began last Sunday night and lasts for eight days.  This season is an embarrassment of holiday riches for Jews, and the Torah readings reflect this. 

Sukkot marks the great fall thanksgiving festival, the feast of Tabernacles or booths, and we are commanded to remember the transitory nature of our ancestors’ wanderings through the Wilderness of Sinai, as well as the transitory nature of our own lives.  In the season of the fall harvest, when we eat the first and best of the produce of the natural world, we take a week to demonstrate our gratitude for the necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing.  And in this week’s Torah reading we receive the mitzvah of building a Sukkah, a temporary Tabernacle, a booth or hut, outdoors, designed to last just a week—actually, eight days—to eat in and perhaps sleep in.  We decorate it with the symbols of the harvest, fruits and vegetables, and enjoy a fall harvest festival to celebrate the goodness of the world God has given us. 

Expectations & Every Day

on Thursday, 13 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Yom Kippur Yizkor 5777

A guy goes to see his rabbi.  He tells the rabbi’s secretary that he must see the rabbi because he is so depressed.

He starts by reminding the rabbi his father died just three weeks before.  The rabbi says, “I know, I’m so sorry.  Your father was a wonderful man.  Everyone loved and appreciated him.  I did his funeral and was at the shiva.”

“I know, rabbi,” the man says.  “Thank you again.”

“Of course,” says the rabbi.  “You are depressed because you need to talk about the loss of your father.”

“Well, rabbi, not so much,” the man answers, “But I do need to tell you that my dad left me five million dollars.”

“Oh,” says the rabbi, “Well he was a remarkably successful businessman, and I’m sure he wanted you and your family to be well provided for.”

“Yes,” the man continues, “But what you don’t know, rabbi, is that two weeks ago, the week after my dad died, my uncle passed away, too.”

“Oy,” says the rabbi, “And is that why you are depressed, so much loss all at once?”

“No,” says the man, “But you should know that he, too, left me five million dollars.”

“Goodness!” says the rabbi.  “That was very generous.”

“Yes,” says the man, “And then, just last week, my cousin Bernie the orthodontist died also, he had several clinics, and he left me five million dollars, too.”

“All this death must be very devastating and terrible.  You have my deepest condolences,” says the rabbi.  “No wonder you are depressed.”

“No, rabbi,” says the man, “You don’t understand.  I’m depressed because so far this week—NOTHING!”

Giving: the Secret of Survival

on Thursday, 13 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Yom Kippur Kol Nidre 5777

Last week on Rosh HaShanah I spoke about flat tires, and particularly, bicycle flat tires, of which I have had a plethora of late.  Thank you for your kind comments about that sermon, and those who shared their own cycling stories with me, including suggestions on how to avoid flats.  One of you even suggested we start a new program at Temple, in which we bike 25 miles and then stop and have coffee and argue about the Torah portion.  We would call it “The Weekly Torah Cycle”, or maybe, more appropriately, “Ride and Rant”.

In any case, a week ago, on the morning of 2nd Day of Rosh HaShanah, before I helped lead our Northwest 2nd Day Rosh haShanah service with Rabbi Appel, I decided to go out for a quick ride—20 miles on a cool morning, perfect way to start the second day of the new year.  I ended up riding at the same speed as another guy, and we struck up a conversation about biking.  And then—you probably guessed it—I got a flat tire. 

My new friend stopped and helped change the tire, and as we were finishing I said, “I really hate getting flat tires.  But I’m a rabbi, and at least I got a sermon out of it this week.”

He looked at me strangely, and said, “Did you just say you are a rabbi?  Then I have something to tell you.  You now have a story about a rabbi and a priest.  Because my name is Jim, and I am a Jesuit priest…”


on Thursday, 13 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Opening Yom Kippur, Kol Nidrei 5777

There is something surprising about a Jewish year that begins in October.  Mostly, it’s that we expect Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to fall in September.  Last year, for example, the beginning of the 5776 year, Rosh HaShanah was in the expected range, September 15th; Yom Kippur was September 23rd.  By this time, October 11th, we were nearly done with Sukkot.  Three years ago, in 2013, Rosh HaShanah actually began September 4th, and Yom Kippur was September 13th.  So of course this year everyone is saying that the High Holy Days are so late…  especially Yom Kippur.  October 11th and 12th!  That’s much too late, rabbi.

Actually, I kind of agree with writer Mitch Albom, of Tuesdays with Morrie fame: he says, “It’s never too late or too soon.  It’s when it’s supposed to be.” 

That is, Rosh HaShanah always begins on the 1st of Tishrei, and Yom Kippur comes on the 10th of Tishrei, according to a Jewish calendar established more than 1500 years ago.  Rabbi Hillel haNasi, the president of the Sanhedrin, balanced the astronomical cycles of the moon, sun, and earth and created most of the remarkable Hebrew Calendar we still use today.  It has been adjusted several times, most recently in the Middle Ages, but it has served our people all around the world through the better part of two millennia. I think we can safely assume that this is the correct date for Yom Kippur 5777.  It’s when it’s supposed to be.

And yet it seems late…

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