You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: But What Part of Me is Me? - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayakhel/Pekude/Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

March 24, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

Two years ago on my sabbatical trip around the world, I visited with a high-ranking member of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey.  A significant prelate and an important assistant to the Patriarch, he grew up in suburban Chicago and spoke English fluently, of course, and we had a wonderful conversation about theology and ritual.  As I endeavored to understand the intricacies of the Greek Church, he explained carefully to me how central the concept of the rewards of eternal life are for Orthodox Christians.  The goal for every believing person, in his faith, was to achieve eternal reward in a much better world than this one.  And then he said, “I don’t understand how you can get people to be good if they aren’t trying to get to heaven, and afraid of going to hell.” 

I did my best to explain that in Judaism we seek to inspire people to live ethical lives through observing mitzvot, fulfilling commandments designed to make life moral and holy.  And I told him what I always say, respectfully: we Jews are much more interested in the quality of life before death than in theoretical rewards or punishments after death. 

But that’s not really the whole story.

Read more: You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: But What Part of Me is Me? - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon...

Mishpatim and Freedom - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Mishpatim 5777

February 24, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

The great 1960’s comedian, Alan Sherman, most famous for his song “Hello Muddah Hello Faddah”, once wrote a book about restrictions on human behavior. In it, he decided to invent a new religion, which would have only one commandment: Thou shalt not stuff 37 tennis balls down the toilet. In great excitement he went to a sign painter to create the tablet of this new covenant, and asked him to make up a huge sign with that commandment on it. But the sign painter refused.

“Friend,” he said, “I’m going to do you a big favor. I’m not going to paint your sign. Because if I paint it, the day after the sign goes up, there will be a run on sporting goods stores. Tennis balls will sell like hotcakes, and plumbers will be working round the clock. The virtuous among us will only stuff 36 tennis balls down their toilets. Normal sinners will stuff 37 tennis balls down their toilets. And the truly wicked will stuff 38 tennis balls down their toilets. Friend, we human beings are many things; but we all of us are perverse.”

Read more: Mishpatim and Freedom - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Mishpatim 5777

For Argument’s Sake - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayeitzei 5777

December 9, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

The noise we have been hearing in the past few weeks about a rising tide of Anti-Semitism right here in America is disturbing.  The thing about Anti-Semitism is that just when you think it has receded from view and is no longer a serious problem in one sector of society or one nation in the world, it comes back…  and there is now increasing concern that Anti-Semitism is making strong inroads here in the United States.

The new American Jewish concern about heightened degrees of Anti-Semitism comes as a result of some of the very ugly themes of the recent presidential election campaign, particularly the focus it brought to what is called the Alt-Right movement, and the alternative—that is, fake—news that some of its elements have spawned.  There were a number of instances during the presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath of anti-Semitic chants, of reporters blasted with anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi harangues, of commercials that hinted at Nazi-era slurs about Jewish control of world finance or the media, and other disturbing incidents that we haven’t seen in America in many years.

Read more: For Argument’s Sake - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayeitzei 5777

The Good News/Bad News Dichotomy - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayera 5777

November 18, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

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…

Read more: The Good News/Bad News Dichotomy - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayera 5777

The Social Covenant - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Noach 5777

November 4, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

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. 

I must note that in addition to the coincidence of rain, there is another great confluence in our portion that goes, perhaps, a little deeper into current events and the present climate, although the political rather than the weather-related climate.  After the flood there is a great covenant, a brit, established in our Torah portion.  A covenant—what an elevated word that is!—in more prosaic terms is a contract between God and humanity.  We agree to certain things, and God agrees to certain things.  In this case, after the dove brings back the olive branch and the waters subside from the earth, God agrees to never again wash away humanity and all other terrestrial life through a great deluge.  Noah doesn’t say that we won’t have the capacity to do so, say through creating global warming, but it does definitely testify that God won’t flood us all again.  In exchange, Noah and all his descendants—that is, all of us—agree to abide by certain stipulations. 

The sign of this covenant, of course, is the rainbow in the sky after a storm, favored subject of many songs and myths, from Judy Garland singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the show Finian’s Rainbow to Tony Bennett warbling “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” to the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” to The Muppets, “The Rainbow Connection…”  Heck, Kermit the Frog even started his song in The Muppets Movie by saying, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows…”  But I digress.    

Read more: The Social Covenant - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Noach 5777

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