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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…

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.

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