Being There - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Nitzavim 5776

September 30, 2016

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

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.

Read more: Being There - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Nitzavim 5776

It is All Us: 9/11 Fifteen Years Later - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Shoftim 5776

September 9, 2016

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

It’s the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this coming Sunday, a decade and a half since the horrific events that traumatically changed our world in so many ways.  For over a decade I chaired the 9/11 commemorations here in Tucson, and usually our own Temple Emanu-El hosted the annual multi-faith service held in memory of those who died, and recognizing the first-responders and others who assisted the victims and their families.  It was an honor to do so, but to be honest we began that interfaith effort because we realized in that crisis that we had a true poverty of religious community from which to respond.  I have made many good friends and met outstanding colleagues because of those 9/11 services, but as all things seem to do, those efforts have diminished over time.  The last of those annual events here was two years ago.  It was moving and beautiful, but no longer well-attended.  People move on… 

A few observations from the perspective of 15 years.

Read more: It is All Us: 9/11 Fifteen Years Later - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Shoftim 5776

Opening the Door - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Re’ei 5776

September 2, 2016

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

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?

Read more: Opening the Door - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Re’ei 5776

The Lessons of the Heart - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Ekev 5776

August 26, 2016

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

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.

Read more: The Lessons of the Heart - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Ekev 5776

The Olympics, Politics, and Tisha B’Av - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Devarim-Hazon 5776

August 12, 2016

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

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. 

Read more: The Olympics, Politics, and Tisha B’Av - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Devarim-Hazon 5776