Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Tzav/Shabbat Hagadol 5777


Offering Thanks in a Season of Freedom

Posted on April 5, 2017

This week’s Torah portion is the second in the Book of Leviticus, Tzav, the section that establishes rules for the various sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Mishkan. These same sacrifices were later also offered in the Temple in Jerusalem for a thousand years. 

There are many different types of sacrifices commanded in Tzav: burnt offerings, guilt offerings, sin offerings, and so on.  But one group of sacrificial offerings stands out: the offerings of peace, the zevach shlamim.  And among this higher category of offerings one in particular stands out the highest: the zevach haTodah, the thanksgiving offering. 

The rabbis thought so highly of thanksgiving to God that they are quoted in the Talmud saying that, “when the Messiah comes all sacrifices will have completed their mission, and all will be discontinued, with one exception: the thanksgiving offering.”  That sacrifice will last forever, even after the Messiah!  Why?  Because even in a perfect world we must remember to give thanks, to be grateful for what we have. 

Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Tzav/Shabbat Hagadol 5777

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777


The Triumph of Hope over Experience

Posted on March 23, 2017

Hope is a tangible, unstated presence in our Torah portion this week, Vayakhel-Pekudei, the double sedrah at the end of the book of Exodus.  On the surface, this parashah is nothing more than a listing of how the Tabernacle in the Wilderness was constructed by our ancestors, lists of materials used, processes employed, structures and implements assembled.  So many pieces of wood or gold or skins of animals used to make this item; these artisans employed on that project; Moses asked for these materials and they were graciously donated.  And so on and so forth.

But in another sense, this is an incredibly hopeful Torah portion, a section that truly represents the triumph of hope over experience.  For in last week’s Torah portion of Ki Tisa the people of Israel dramatically failed both God and Moses: they made a Golden Calf, and worshipped it, and bowed before it, and insisted that it was their god.  Just 40 days after receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai they forgot the Revelation and abandoned monotheism and morality and everything they had just been taught, including the Second Commandment prohibiting the worship of idols.  It was a devastating moment for Moses.  It must have been a fundamentally depressing time for God, too.

Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777

Truth and Values

Invocation for State of the City 2017
Tucson, Arizona

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Senior Rabbi
Temple Emanu-El

The Chinese have perhaps the only continuous culture that is older than Judaism.  And they have a famous curse: it is, “May you live in interesting times.”

My friends, we live in interesting times. 

The last five months in America have been about as surprising as any in the last 15 years, and we have all learned that many things we believed may not actually be true.  And we have even learned that some important people believe things we know not to be true. 

There are many lessons in such a period in history, some of which may not be evident for a while.  But one of the lessons is surely about appreciating what is real, and meaningful, and true.

Read more: Truth and Values

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


Lost and Found God

Posted on March 15, 2017

This week we read the portion of Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf.  While Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 commandments the Israelites start to worry he’s not coming back.  And so, while God is carving the words “You shall have no other gods besides Me, nor make any image of them” into a stone tablet, the faithless people persuade his brother Aaron to make them an idol of gold, a calf, that they can call their new god.  Pleased with the result, they worship it and then throw a big party, a bacchanal, a carnival, Mardi Gras in the Sinai.

Coming down the mountain, Joshua and Moses hear the noise from the camp below, and are astonished.  Joshua thinks it must be the sound of battle, but Moses knows what a party sounds like when he hears it.  And when Moses sees all the cavorting, and the Chosen People worshipping a golden idol, he throws down the sacred stone tablets of the commandments, shattering them.  The music and dancing stop suddenly.  It is a shocking scene.

For the rabbis this is one of most dramatic and distressing portions in the entire Torah.  The problem is acute: according to the text, our people witnessed the divine power of the Ten Plagues, were personally saved at the shore of the Sea of Reeds by God, received the direct revelation at Sinai—in short, experienced God more directly than any other group in history ever has—and almost immediately afterwards turned around and rejected that God in order to worship a cow made out of their own jewelry.

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


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