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The Ultimate Punishment

on Wednesday, 03 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Masei 5776

This week’s portion Masei includes the final chapters of the book of Numbers.  In this concluding section of Bamidbar an important and unusual institution is created: the city of refuge. 

In the days before police forces and criminal courts were common, justice in cases of manslaughter or murder was typically accomplished by the family of the victim.  What we would probably consider vigilante action was the normal means of addressing the moral and social disruption created by a killing.  If you killed someone, intentionally or accidentally, or even if the family of a person who was killed thought you had done the killing, you would likely be killed by their kinsmen.  It was the Hatfields and McCoys: kill and you would be killed, and then your family would avenge the killing, and the other family would respond in kind, and on and on it would go. 

Love Israel, but Love Judaism Here, Too

on Friday, 29 July 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon Sermon Parshat Masei 5776

I spent two busy days this past week in the Colorado mountains visiting friends and talking about Israel and the American Jewish community’s relationship to it.  I had the chance to listen to and talk with a variety of prominent American Jewish figures about just how we here in the United States now view Israel; among them were Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the extraordinary Orthodox rabbi who more or less invented Jewish pluralism, and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, head of CLAL; and then on the drive down from the mountains to the Denver Airport I participated in a rabbinic conference call with two outstanding Israeli figures, Rabbi Michael Marmur and Gershom Gorenberg, on very much the same subject.

The question that was addressed in public debate and in many private conversations and on the webinar, was just how we Jews here in America perceive Israel right now, and how much of what we actually think about Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians we can say publicly.  As you know, generally speaking, Jews aren’t afraid of saying anything about anything in public, so this is a little bit of a surprising topic.  But in view of the current situation in Israel and the West Bank, and the politics of the American Jewish world, this has become a significant flashpoint.  

Magical Sticks and God’s Will

on Wednesday, 27 July 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Matot 5776

Turkey has been all over the news the last two weeks with its abortive coup, and President Erdogan retaining power.  It reminded me of an unusual experience I had a few years back in Turkey.

On a visit to Istanbul, we visited Topkapi Palace, the center of power for the mighty Ottoman Empire from 1450 to the 1800’s, 400 years in which they dominated a huge portion of the globe.  I had not been in Istanbul in many years, and they had built a new section of the large museum within Topkapi’s ancient walls called The Chamber of Sacred Relics.

While Topkapi Palace is literally filled with rooms and objects of great historical and religious importance, carefully curated with dates and sources, this particular area is actually put together by a Muslim religious agency and it includes what can only be called a collection of pious forgeries and frauds.  As tourists shuffle past the elegantly lit displays arrayed behind thick bulletproof glass, they learn that they are viewing the cooking pot of Abraham, the turban of Joseph, Aaron the High Priest’s breastplate, King David’s armor, and Mohammed’s sword and tooth, plus a hair from his beard.  I think they might also have had a footprint of Noah’s in preserved rock.  In imitation of the medieval Christian veneration of fake religious objects in ornate reliquaries, each of these pseudo-relics is reverently presented with an appropriate Biblical verse from the Tanakh or New Testament or Koran, and each is treated as though it were the Hope Diamond or a Sultan’s bejeweled coronation robe.  

Terrorism Always Fails

on Friday, 22 July 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Cohon's Sermon Pinchas 5776

This has been a busy three weeks in the news, domestically and abroad, and in the course of it my wife Wendy and I went on vacation to France.  We did this only partly to escape the bombastic noise of the US presidential election.  In any case, we were in Paris for Bastille Day, the French national holiday, and on the morning of July 14th the newspaper headlines highlighted a scandal involving French President Francoise Hollande.  He is accused of employing a hairdresser to cut and style his hair at the cost to the French treasury of over 9,000 euros a month, roughly $10,000, as much as a cabinet minister makes.  Hollande is a Socialist, who became president in part by claiming he would make the job more normal and less imperial.  Apparently his hair was not covered by that campaign promise.  This he has in common with other leading world figures, I believe.

By the end of the night the news cycle had changed dramatically.  We went to see the fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower celebrating Bastille Day, and it was a great show indeed, wonderful pinwheels of fire and color all up and down the famous landmark, carefully coordinated with thematic music.  There were many thousands of thrilled spectators, mostly French, and large numbers of heavily armed French troops and police controlling the area.  But when we returned to our hotel room we learned of the horrific attack on the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, the murder of 84 people, including many children, with over 200 more innocent people wounded.  And shortly after the events, and a bit after midnight in Paris, there was Francoise Holland on the TV news in a suit, speaking movingly about how terrorism would not defeat France, "France is afflicted, but she is strong, and she will always be stronger than the fanatics who want to strike her today," and emphasizing that Bastille Day celebrated France’s dedication to liberty and freedom.

His hair looked perfect…

Bald Truths: How Rebellion Teaches us About Leadership

on Friday, 01 July 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon on Korach 5776

Korach chronicles the greatest rebellion in the entire Torah, the palace revolt of the Levite Korach and his 400 followers against the divinely ordained leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron.  As so often seems to be the case, we Jews are our own worst enemies.  The result of this insurrection is disastrous, at least for the rebels.  The earth opens and Korach and all of his misguided followers are swallowed up, never to be heard from again. 

By tradition, the rebellion of Korach is the absolute worst revolt of its sort in Jewish history.  But this is hardly the first rebellion of the Israelites against Moses’ leadership, and it is certainly also not the last.  In a couple of weeks the Torah portion of Pinchas will conclude yet another episode of an insider revolution, that one solved by the point of a spear.  And the rebellions against Moses and God have been pretty continuous: the criticism on the very shore of the Red Sea, the Golden Calf episode, the intense unhappiness of the Children of Israel throughout their peregrinations in the desert right up to last week’s story of the failed spies in Shlach L’cha.  Our ancestors had a very bad habit of constantly being dissatisfied and continuously trying to overthrow the proper order of things.  Whoever was in charge always got the brunt of the criticism and the lion’s share of the hostility.

Korach chronicles the greatest rebellion in the entire Torah, the palace revolt of the Levite Korach and his 400 followers against the divinely ordained leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron.  As so often seems to be the case, we Jews are our own worst enemies.  The result of this insurrection is disastrous, at least for the rebels.  The earth opens and Korach and all of his misguided followers are swallowed up, never to be heard from again. 

By tradition, the rebellion of Korach is the absolute worst revolt of its sort in Jewish history.  But this is hardly the first rebellion of the Israelites against Moses’ leadership, and it is certainly also not the last.  In a couple of weeks the Torah portion of Pinchas will conclude yet another episode of an insider revolution, that one solved by the point of a spear.  And the rebellions against Moses and God have been pretty continuous: the criticism on the very shore of the Red Sea, the Golden Calf episode, the intense unhappiness of the Children of Israel throughout their peregrinations in the desert right up to last week’s story of the failed spies in Shlach L’cha.  Our ancestors had a very bad habit of constantly being dissatisfied and continuously trying to overthrow the proper order of things.  Whoever was in charge always got the brunt of the criticism and the lion’s share of the hostility.

On Arrogance and Reverence

on Wednesday, 29 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Korach 5776

This week our portion features drama and tragedy, rebellion and punishment.  To recap last week’s events, the people of Israel have come to the borders of the Promised Land just two years after leaving Egyptian slavery. But a team of spies comes back with a poor report: we aren’t strong enough to conquer the land.  Shocked, the Israelites rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.  The rebellion fails, and a verdict is proclaimed: a lack of faith in God lies at the heart of the problem, and God decides this generation can never come into the Holy Land, and will have to live in the Sinai for 38 more years, until they are all gone.  Only then can a new generation, fresh with the optimism of youth and untainted by slavery and its mentality, come forward into the Promised Land.

Rabbi Cohon at the Tucson Vigil in Response to the Orlando Attack

on Saturday, 25 June 2016. Posted in Community Events

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon speaking at the Tucson Vigil in Response to the Orlando Attack on June 12, 2016

 

The Right Kind of Spies

on Friday, 24 June 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon on Shlach Lecha 5776

The Chabad House at Harvard challenges the Harvard University oarsmen to a rowing contest. but soon discovers that the Harvard crew is recording practice times that are twice as fast as their own. So the Chabad captain sends a spy across to Harvard to find out why and how they row so fast. A few hours later the spy returns.

“Nuh,” says the Chabad captain, “tell us!”

“Well,” says the spy, “They do everything the opposite of us.”

“Explain,” says the captain.

“It's simple,” says the spy, “They've got eight men rowing and one man shouting!”

This little joke has relevance for this week’s Torah portion of Shelach Lecha, for two reasons.  For the question of what makes for a good spy, and  just where you find the professional qualities necessary for doing espionage work are central to our parshah, and can teach us some important things.  And the need for more people to row, and fewer to shout, is always important in the Jewish circles…

I’m sure that there are all kinds of tests available today for determining who makes a good subject for intelligence work and who just can’t pull it off.   In spite of the oft-repeated slander that the definition of an oxymoron is military intelligence, no doubt both armed services and civilian agencies have lots of ways of figuring out who is good at this stuff and who isn’t.  

Got the Blues? Talisses and Rainbows

on Wednesday, 22 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Shelach Lecha 5776

When we see light it usually appears white.  As you may recall from elementary school science projects, white is a mixture of all the possible colors of light.  If you rapidly spin a wheel with a variety of colors it will appear white.  When you hold a prism up to a white light it separates into the variety of colors.  And when light reflects through water vapor in the air a rainbow appears. 

In this week’s Torah portion of Shelach Lecha we are commanded to place fringes on the corners of our clothing, tzitzit.  The fringes are mostly white, the color that includes all the colors of the rainbow.  However, one fringe is to be dyed techelet, a purplish blue. Today most Jews do not wear the thread of blue, since the precise procedure for making the dye has been lost since the destruction of the Temple, although some think it was made from the shell of a mollusk called Murex that lives off the coast of Lebanon.  Almost all tzizit remain white to this day. 

But once they had this colorful thread.

The Heat is On: A Time to Act A Response to Orlando

on Saturday, 18 June 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Cohon's Sermon Beha’alotecha 5776

Perhaps you have seen the weather predictions for this weekend: according to the soothsayers, fortune-tellers, and diviners who get paid to guess our future atmospheric conditions professionally, the high temperature in Tucson this coming Sunday is projected to be 117 degrees Fahrenheit.  If true, this will tie our all-time record hottest day in Tucson, which happened in June of 1990, 26 years ago.  It will also be so hot that all the jokes about frying eggs on the pavement, and it’s-a-dry-heat-but-so-is-the-inside-of-a-pizza oven will actually come true.  And our common defensive response—“it’s hotter in Phoenix!”—will be only marginally appropriate.  They are expected to hit 118 degrees, a statistically insignificant difference.

Frankly, my friends, the heat is on.  Of course, as has been noted before, that while everyone talks about the weather no one does anything about it.  They simply kvetch.  Like me.

Which, at times, seems to be what we Jews spend much of our time doing, kvetching, complaining.  In fact, you can make a case that the two principle Jewish occupations are kvetching and eating. 

But that’s not actually what our tradition teaches us.  Pirkei Avot, the great ethical chapters of our ancestors in the Mishnah, tells us Lo hamidrash ha’ikar, ellah hama’aseh—the main principle is not study, but practice; or, to put it more succinctly, “it’s not the talking that matters, it’s the doing.”

I thought a lot about this principle this past week, in the wake of the horrifying shooting in Orlando, Florida early Sunday morning.  

Add a Little Light

on Wednesday, 15 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Beha’alotecha 5776

This week we read the Torah portion of Beha’alotecha in the Book of Numbers.  It begins with a description of the menorah, the lamp that burned in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, our people’s central worship places for God.  That golden menorah was a way to keep track of the days of the week—a new light was lit each day from Sunday through Friday until, finally, all seven branches shone on the holiest of days, Shabbat. 

Each day, we added a bit more light.  Each day, our ancestors added to the illumination of God’s holiness.  Each day, they remembered to bring just a bit more brilliance into their lives.  And finally, on the Sabbath, all their light truly shined.

The Three-Fold Blessing of Presence

on Wednesday, 08 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Naso 5776

This week we read the second Torah portion in the book of Numbers, Naso, which includes a variety of instructions ranging from priestly organization to the ordeal of jealousy to the voluntary-but-binding vows of the Nazirite.  It is a kind of catch-all parshah, but it is a portion raised to the status of greatness by one particular passage. 

Just before the princes of the people bring offerings to mark the beginning of formal worship in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim, to bless the people.  He ordains a famous formula for that blessing, which we know as the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing.  This three-part sequence has become the most famous benediction of all:     

“May God bless you and keep you.

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.

May God’s face be lifted up to you and place upon you peace.”

In Naso, God makes it clear that this is quite a blessing indeed, adding that it is through this that the Kohanim will “Place My Name on the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” 

Most of us have heard this triple blessing hundreds, even thousands of times.  It is chanted or invoked at weddings, bar mitzvahs, brisses, and babynamings, even milestone birthdays and anniversaries.  It is included in the traditional Amidah every morning, and receives special musical and ritual treatment on major festivals.  It is considered the most important of all of our ritual blessings.

But what does it really promise?  

Yom Yerushalayim—City of Peace?

on Friday, 03 June 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Cohon's Sermon Bamidbar 5776

This Sunday in Israel they will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim on the Jewish calendar, the holiday that commemorates the reunification of the city of Jerusalem in the miraculous Six Day War of 1967.  It has been 49 years since we Jews were finally able to return to the Kotel, the Western Wall, the holiest place on earth for Jews; 49 years since the commander of the troops who captured the Old City from Jordanian forces, Motta Gur, announced, Har HaBayit B’yadeinu—the Temple Mount is in our hands.

On third of the incredible six days of war, Israeli paratroopers captured the Western Wall and the Temple Mount without using air power or artillery, lest they damage the many sacred sites.  They restored Jewish presence to the Old City of Jerusalem that Arabs had forcibly denied us.  That same day, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan declared, famously, 

Finding Faith in the Wilderness

on Wednesday, 01 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Bamidbar 5776

This week we read the Torah portion of Bamidbar, the first in the book of Numbers, which is given its English name by the census that occupies a good part of the beginning of the Torah portion. The Hebrew name for this portion, and this book, Bamidbar means “in the Wilderness”.  While the name comes from the first words of the book, it has a greater resonance and meaning than simply its lexicographical location.  It also speaks of place in a unique and powerful way. 

Every time we Jews seek inspiration, it seems, we must head out into the desert.  It was true of Abraham and Jacob; it’s certainly true of Moses; and after the Exodus it is true as well for the whole people of Israel, who wander for 40 years in the Wilderness of Sinai, the Midbar Sinai, seeking God and revelation. 

Why must we head out into nothingness to find truth?

Who Goes to Shul Anymore?

on Friday, 20 May 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Cohon's Sermon Behar 5776

A friend of mine asked me recently, “Does anyone go to services Friday night anymore?”  It was an innocent question, reflecting the fact that he doesn’t go to services on Friday night, of course.  But it highlights a cultural change in American Jewry over the last forty years. 

Today there is a sort of consensus opinion in the American Jewish community that Reform and Conservative Jews simply don’t go to synagogue on Shabbat any more.  I am here to tell you that while there is a kernel of truth in that assumption, it is not actually true.  The week my friend asked that question we had three different Friday night services, Shabbat Rocks! in the sanctuary with Avanim, the Chapel service with Adult Choir, and Downtown Shabbat with Armon Bizman at the Jewish History Museum, the Old Stone Avenue Temple, our original home.  There were 140 people at Shabbat Rocks!, 35 in the chapel service, and a full house of 65 downtown.  All three were filled with active, engaged, Jews energetically enjoying Shabbat.  

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