Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה


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Dedicated to the Good End

on Wednesday, 05 October 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Vayelech 5777

If you knew that you were living your final day on earth, how would you spend your last hours?

According to the traditional commentaries, on Moses’120th birthday he spent his last day dedicated to addressing the needs of his community.  He visited each of the tribes and offered words of encouragement.  Even on his very last day of life, Moses dedicated himself to the Israelites, devoting himself to his congregation.  

The Chai Year: The Best You Can Be

on Monday, 03 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777

“Hi, there everybody, and a very pleasant good afternoon to you wherever you may be.”  So began the final broadcast of the marvelous Los Angeles Dodgers’ announcer Vin Scully yesterday, as he completed an unbelievable 67-year career as the best sports broadcaster who has ever lived.  67 years, three score and seven in Biblical terms… The last day of our Jewish year 5776 was also the last day Vin Scully announced a Dodgers’ game.  For some perspective, his first game as an announcer was in the Jewish year 5710; Harry Truman was president of the United States.  Scully started as the 21-year old voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, palling around with Jackie Robinson, and he retired nearly seven decades later with accolades from Sandy Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, and movie star Kevin Costner.  Vin Scully was not only an incredibly talented and enjoyable broadcaster, he remains a thoughtful, humble, and generous gentleman.  And he was something more.  He was an inspiration.

Flat Tires

on Sunday, 02 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Opening Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

There was a woman’s post on Facebook that struck home recently.  It read, “I saw my ex broken down with two flat tires this morning which made me late for work.   Nine times I drove past before he noticed me laughing at him.”

Well, this past year I have taken up cycling in earnest.   I’m not sure this is something that should interest anyone besides me, but after struggling for a couple of years to come up with an exercise regimen to replace running, it turns out that road biking works.  I ran for 35 years or so, and then I needed a new hip, and now after a couple of other tries it turns out pedaling a road bike for a couple of hours very early in the morning is just the ticket. 

There are fabulous bike paths that run next to our dry Tucson riverbeds.  Unlike our potholed streets, these bike paths are also very well maintained.  You can ride as far as you like—my longest rides are 50 or 60 miles—without competing with cars or trucks.  You get to enjoy our magnificent Southern Arizona scenery early in the day before it gets too hot, there are lots of interesting and dangerous forms of wildlife you zip past in safety—oh, look that was a rattlesnake!  and five or six hungry coyotes—and in my experience bicycle people are incredibly helpful and polite when something goes wrong.

Like a flat tire.

Being There

on Friday, 30 September 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Nitzavim 5776

Do any of you remember a film from about 35 years ago called "Being There"?  It starred Peter Sellers and Melvyn Douglas—who were both Jewish, by the way—and was based on a novel by controversial Holocaust survivor Jerzy Kosinski.  It was about a mentally challenged middle aged man trained as a gardener who finds himself, accidentally, suddenly enshrined as the economic and social guru of the president of the United States and a media icon.  It's about, well, being there, being in the right place at a particular time.  You could say that two other films, Woody Allen's Zelig and the classic Forrest Gump were more or less modeled on Being There, fine examples of how sometimes just showing up is all that matters.

We can see many examples of this phenomenon in our own lives: people who seem to succeed just by being in the right place at the right time.  It's certainly not true that most of us are just taking up space in this world, for everyone is created in the image of God… but there are times when you do wonder a little bit about whether some folks have achieved great heights simply by showing up.

But perhaps this isn't the right approach to the question of what it means to simply be there.  Without venturing too far into Zen Buddhism—or, as we say on the Too Jewish Radio Show, Zen Judaism—perhaps we should explore what simply being present, truly present, can mean in our world.

Teshuvah: God is Here, Now

on Wednesday, 28 September 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Nitzavim 5776

This week we celebrate the final Shabbat of the year, which means that our Torah portion is one of the great sections of the entire year, Nitzavim: you stand here today, all of you, from the oldest to the youngest, from the wealthiest to the poorest, the most famous to the most humble, the leaders of your community and the strangers visiting with you.  You are all part of the covenant with the Lord your God.  You, and every other generation to come who will be descended from you.  You are all engaged in this great berit, the covenant that affirms you will be God's people, and God will be your Lord.

What's Missing?

on Wednesday, 21 September 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Ki Tavo 5776

Whenever we carry the Torah around the sanctuary during a hakafah we sing Al Shloshah Devarim, the passage from Pirkei Avot in the Mishnah: on three things the world stands.  On Torah, on work, and on acts of kindness.  Torah is listed first, making it the most important part of our tradition. 

And you may be familiar with the great Labor Zionist Achad Ha’Am’s related concept that Judaism is made up of three great elements: God, Torah, and Israel.  Torah, here, is at the very center of it all.

So what are we to make of a central Jewish text that completely omits Torah?

This week we read the portion of Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy, which begins with an unusual declaration: when we come into the land that the Lord our God will give us as an inheritance we are to take the first fruits of our produce, and bring them to the priest, and say this formula: “Arami oveid avi, my father was a wandering Aramean, and he came to Egypt few in number, and became a great nation there; the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and enslaved us; but God brought us out with a great hand and an oustretched arm… and brought us to this place, flowing with milk and honey.”  In addition to its central role in an important Biblical ritual, this passage was quoted often in rabbinic literature, most famously in the Pesach Haggadah.

War and Peace

on Sunday, 11 September 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Ki Teitzei 5776

Last Sunday was the 15th anniversary of 9/11, so it is appropriate that this week we read a Torah portion that deals very directly with war, Ki Teitzei. 

Most of us who feel positively about religion believe strongly that nations should live at peace, that war will someday become an ancient, bad memory.  “They shall beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall men learn war anymore” our prophet Isaiah predicted.  And almost every religion has similar injunctions about peace.

But Isaiah predicted this great time of peace 2700 years ago, and it still seems as far away as ever.  The historical truth of human civilization is that a war is always going on somewhere, and sometimes everywhere, in the world, and that the number of years in which this planet has been free of war is very few.  One calculation says that of the 3400 years of recorded human history only 250 years have been free of a documented war—that is, once every 15 years or so we have had a year without war.  To be honest, that seems wildly optimistic.  In my lifetime I cannot recall a single year in which warfare has not been waged somewhere on the globe.

Applied Justice

on Friday, 09 September 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

All Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or something else, come originally from a religious culture shaped by its process of applying divine law to a very human, fallible, earthbound population. Our heritage is based on the kind of thinking that takes great, idealistic proclamations designed to further morality and applies them to mundane daily life with sometimes fascinating results.

A core ideal of Judaism is to work to create a society based on justice, which will lead, ultimately, to peace and goodness.  But it is justice that is always the focus, which is embodied in a Torah portion we’ll read Saturday called Shoftim, “Judges”, that is filled with the concept of justice.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, we are commanded here: pursue true justice!  It is a powerful and remarkable ideal.  Our societies must strive for absolute fairness, must be just in every way.  But justice is more than high ideals.  It is applying sacred principles to the mundane reality of daily life, including rules of ritual observance.  Judaism makes not distinction between ethical and ritual laws.  All are part of creating a society based on justice.

Opening the Door

on Friday, 02 September 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Re’ei 5776

Should we choose safety or opportunity?  That’s a question we often ask, in our lives, our professions, our investments, our relationships.  It’s not a new question in this generation, however. 

This week’s Torah portion of Re’ei begins with a powerful statement of choice: I set before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing if you follow God’s commandments, the mitzvot; the curse if you turn aside and choose to do evil.  It is a stark, even harsh statement—but it is also a remarkable and powerful one.

Judaism believes that we each have complete free will to make our own decisions about how we will live our lives.  There is no notion of predestination, no sense that we are living according to someone else’s script.  Every woman and man has the chance, and the responsibility, to choose the kind of life he or she will live.

That’s not to say we are able to choose how wealthy or happy we will be.  It’s simply that we each have the opportunity and the ability to act in ways consistent with what we believe, to live open lives of character and commitment, of mitzvot.  If we do, the rewards will be there for us: connection to God, our people and our tradition, respect and love and honor. 

But knowing the limitations of our actual ability to influence events, what
precisely does it mean to say that we have true free will, that we can actually choose the course of our own lives?

Benefit of the Doubt

on Wednesday, 31 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Re’ei 5776

We celebrate the new month of Elul on this Shabbat with Rosh Chodesh Saturday and Sunday, the beginning of the last month of the Jewish year.  It's the time of year for us to think about the state of our relationships, to prepare to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, to reflect on where we are in our lives, where we've been, and where we are headed.

The opening lines of this week's parsha, Re'ei, are famously about choice.  In that passage Moses says to us, the people,

Re'ei, anochi noten lifneichem hayom bracha u'klalla.
Et habracha asher tishm'u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem asher anochi m'tzaveh etchem hayom.
V'haklallah im-lo tishm'u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem…

“See, I give you today a blessing and a curse.
The blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot of your God that I command you today.
And the curse if you don't obey or listen.”

On the surface, this seems like a simple restatement of the central message repeated all through Devarim: if you do good, you will be blessed; if you do evil, you will be cursed.  This Deuteronomic covenant lies at the heart of the Torah’s understanding of ethics.

The Lessons of the Heart

on Friday, 26 August 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Ekev 5776

Do you know this classic joke?  An Orthodox, a Conservative, and a Reform rabbi are each asked whether you are supposed to say a brochah over a lobster.

The Orthodox rabbi asks, "What’s a...'lobster'?"

The Conservative rabbi says, “Some say yes, some say no.”

The Reform rabbi says, "What's a brochah?"

Or, what are the main differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism?

At an Orthodox wedding, the mother of the bride is pregnant.

At a Conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant.

At a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant.  And so is her wife.

And so on.  Back in the olden days of the 20th Century, when I was growing up, we used to know that there were three kinds of Jews: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.  That was it.  Then I learned that there were other divisions among us: Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean and Oriental Jews from parts east and south, as well as Ashkenazic ones like us; Israeli Jews, who were different from North American Jews; and English and Australian and South African Jews who spoke funny.  As our horizons broadened we learned that there were other types: Hasidic Jews, who were Orthodox but dressed like they were Amish, and Reconstructionist Jews, who didn’t believe we were the Chosen People; even Renewal Jews, who were very touchy-feely and wore Birkenstocks.  We even learned that there was something called Secular-Humanist Jews, who didn’t believe in God but did believe that they were Jews and got together in minyans to not pray.

Real Cardiac Jews

on Wednesday, 24 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Ekev 5776

Have you heard about the new movement in Judaism?  It's not Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, or even Reconstructionist or Renewal.  It's "cardiac Jews."  You know - "I'm Jewish in my heart."  While we usually think of this as a kind of abdication, meaning "I'm Jewish in my heart but I don't do anything about it in my actual life," there is one sense in which being a cardiac Jew can have real meaning.

In the middle of our weekly Torah portion of Ekev a great question is asked: "What does the Lord your God ask of you?  "That you have awe of the Lord your God, and walk in all of God's ways and love God, and serve the Lord your God with

 all your heart and all your soul."   But it then follows this wonderful spiritual and moral instruction with a puzzling passage in which it tells us to do something physically impossible.  We are commanded to "circumcise the foreskin of our hearts."  This is a new kind ofberit milah, and one that smacks of flat-out self-murder.  

Learning to Listen, and So to Love

on Wednesday, 17 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Va’etchanan/Nachamu 5776

This week we read the second portion in the book of Deuteronomy in the Torah, the remarkable sedrah of Va’etchananVa’etchanan includes truly spectacular texts: the Shema, the central statement of God’s oneness in the world, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One, followed immediately by the Ve’ahavta, the commandment to love God with all of our hearts, minds, and strength.  

As if that were not enough honor for one Torah portion, Va’etchanan also includes the recitation of the Ten Commandments, the Aseret Hadibrot, for the second time in the Torah.  If you were to rank Torah portions you could easily put Va’etchanan near the top in quality of content.  It is no accident that this powerfully affirming portion is read the week after Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation, for we take comfort in our knowledge that morality and holiness will ultimately bring justice.

The Olympics, Politics, and Tisha B’Av

on Tuesday, 16 August 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Devarim-Hazon 5776

The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are well under way, and there is much to celebrate, gold medals and world records and new heroes and heroines for the world, as there are at every Olympics.  There are Jewish Olympic stars this year, too, American born and Israeli, both. After an 8 year wait, Israel won its first Olympic medal since 2008 this week when Yarden Gerbi claimed a bronze medal in the women’s judo competition at the Rio games. She became the fourth Israeli judoka to take an Olympic medal, joining Yael Arad, Oren Smadja, and Arik Ze’evi in earlier Olympics. Israel’s four other Olympic medals have come in sailing or canoeing, two courtesy of Gal Fridman, including Israel's only gold medal.  Gerbi also became just the second Israeli woman to win a medal.  And American Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman added to her two Olympic golds and a bronze from 2012 in London with another team gold and an individual silver in the all-around gymnastics category, with some of her events left to go. 

Superstar Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky isn’t Jewish—she is a practicing Catholic—but some of her remarkable motivation comes from her Jewish grandmother, Berta.  When Katie was 10, Berta took her to a Jewish cemetery in Prague and showed her the graves of her family members who died during the Holocaust.  The memory clearly stuck with Katie, and that visit is often on her mind, according to interviews.  

Speech, Listening, and Practice

on Tuesday, 16 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Devarim/Hazon 5776

This week we begin the great final book of the Torah, Devarim or Deuteronomy, which is also known as Mishnah Torah.  The people of Israel have arrived at the very borders of the Promised Land, and our great leader Moses begins a long sermon--three, actually--that will carry us forward through the entire book of Deuteronomy.  If you thought some rabbi's sermons were on the long-winded side, try this: Moses first speech in Deuteronomy starts this Shabbat and doesn't conclude until next week--and that's by far the shortest of his sermons in Devarim.

Nowadays, most rabbis wouldn't dream of delivering a sermon that lasted for several weeks...  Perhaps even rabbis have the capacity to learn from their predecessors!

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