Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Emor 5777


Speak Low When You Speak Love

Posted on May 10, 2017

Emor, our Torah portion this week in Leviticus, begins as so many others do: God gives commands to the people of Israel.  But the language this time is a little different.  Usually, commandments begin with the Hebrew word “Dabeir, speak to the Children of Israel” or occasionally, “Tzav, command the Children of Israel.”  This time the much softer word “Emor, say to the priests, the Children of Aaron” is used.  Why?

There is a clue in the continuation of the first sentence of our portion, Our sedrah actually begins, “Say to the priests…” and then adds “and say to them…”  As the commentators do not believe that the Torah is ever truly redundant, the Talmud (in Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 114a) teaches that there is a subtle message here: be cautious in how we adults speak to children.  Emor means to speak softly and kindly.  Good advice in instructing children at any time.

But why specifically is this word, emor used twice in regard to the priestly commands?  The priests are not children.

Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Emor 5777

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777


How To Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Posted on May 4, 2017

This week we read the double Torah portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, which includes the Holiness Code, a description of the ethical injunctions that lie at the heart of Jewish practice.  The code itself includes mitzvot that require us to assist the poor, treat strangers, widows, and orphans with generosity and kindness, and insists on fair business practices.  It obligates us to live moral lives.

It’s important that this remarkable section comes in the precise center of the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus.  Kedoshim, the holiness code, is in the middle of the middle of the Torah—that is, it forms the heart of the heart of our most sacred text.  And at that heart is the ethical injunction to love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

This is an amazing, and perhaps utopian ideal—love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.  If our society was actually rooted in such a conception how much better it would be for everyone! 

In a world in which violent wars tear apart nations like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in which desperate refugees from famine and evil are turned aside from many rich nations, when terrorist attacks can strike anywhere at any time, the idea of loving one’s neighbor as oneself may seem particularly visionary.  How can we believe in such a concept in a world in which horrible human violence can destroy anything?  Can this utopian ideal of true love for all possibly be made real?

Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Tazria/Metzora 5777


Lashon ha’Ra: Slander Destroys

Posted on April 27, 2017

This week we read the double Torah portion of Tazria/Metzora in the book of Leviticus, and a wholly unappetizing set of Torah portions it is indeed.  Metzora, in particular, focuses on the question of leprosy, a dreaded disease of the ancient world.  It’s true that leprosy was an awful thing, and needed to be eliminated if at all possible, in particular by using the concept of quarantines to isolate it.  But exploring what our ancestors believed to be an infectious disease at great length in a Sabbath service could scarcely be called a spiritually meaningful experience.

The rabbis of our tradition recognized this problem long ago, and came up with an ingenious and meaningful reinterpretation: the word Metzora, which means leprosy, was itself, they said, an abbreviation for the term in Hebrew Motzi shem ra—which means slander or evil speech.  Their interpretation was based on evidence in the Torah itself: Moses’ hand became leprous when he expressed doubt about the willingness of the people to believe in his mission (Exodus 4: 6-7), while Miriam was struck by leprosy when she spoke against Moses (Numbers 12: 1-15). The leper was a person who spoke badly about others.

Evil speech, lashon ha’ra, and it’s even darker partner, motzi shem ra, slander, were considered by the sages to be among the worst sins of all.  What needed to be eliminated from society was not just the biological illness of leprosy but these terrible infections of slander and gossip.

Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Tazria/Metzora 5777

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Shemini 5777


Silent Comfort: On Profound Loss

Posted on April 20, 2017

This week’s Torah portion is the third in the Book of Leviticus, Shemini, and it includes a very dramatic, and traumatic event.  The Tabernacle in the Wilderness has just been consecrated, and the priests, Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons, are entering into their office.  God’s presence fills the Tabernacle, and all is right with the people. 

And then, suddenly, disaster strikes.  Aaron’s eldest sons, newly ordained priests named Nadav and Avihu, offer what is called eish zarah, strange fire to the Lord.  They are immediately struck down and devoured by divine fire, dying before the Lord. 

In the aftermath of this tragic shock, Moses consoles Aaron with strange words: “God says, ‘By those brought near to Me I am consecrated, and honored before the people.’”

There is no word on whether Aaron accepted this as a just ending for his sons.  The text merely says “Vayidom Aharon”, Aaron was silent.

Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Shemini 5777

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Pesach 5777


Freedom for All

Posted on April 12, 2017

The Torah readings on Passover are some of the most dramatic and interesting of the entire year.  We remember the Exodus from Egypt in a variety of ways: in prose, in poetry, by recalling the sacrifices of our ancestors, and by delineating rituals that we still observe. 

We use Torah during Passover in the same way that we use the Haggadah at the Seder: to teach, remind, and refresh our understanding of the great blessing and value of freedom in every possible permutation.  Freedom is too easy to take for granted.  We must always remind ourselves of its blessings.

We do so on Pesach by celebrating freedom in word and song, by observing dietary restrictions that remind us of the servitude of our ancestors.  Even the food teaches us to value the hard-won freedom of the Exodus story.

May we always enjoy the liberty to do so in this society, and in every society in which we find ourselves. 

And may the many people of every faith who are not yet free become free soon.

Please join us for our Wandering Jews’ hike in the Wilderness at 5:30 PM this Friday night, our Shabbat Passover morning services at 9:30 this Saturday, including the chanting of the Song of Songs, and our 7th Day Passover morning services Monday including Yizkor memorial prayers at 9:30 AM.  And have a zissen Pesach, a joyous and healthy Passover! 


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