Religion and Peace: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Parshat Lech Lecha 5776

October 23, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

An old Jewish man is taking a walk in the desert. He comes across a banged up old lantern, the kind Aladdin would have played with.  As he rubs off some of the dust, lo and behold, a Genie appears!  The Genie asks the man for his favorite wish. Thinking a bit, the man says, "I used to live in Chicago and I still love the Cubs. They just lost in the league championship series.  I want that the Cubs should win the pennant and the World Series next year."

The Genie shakes his head and begs the man to reconsider his wish.  "The Cubs? They haven't won the World Series in 107 years. Can't you ask me to fulfill a wish that’s a bit easier?”

The old man takes a minute to think, and then he says with a smile, "Ok, how about making peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?"

The Genie strokes his beard slowly and responds, "Would you like the Cubs to win in seven, or do you insist on a four game sweep?"

My apologies to all Cubs fans present tonight…  Yitgadal v’Yitkadash…

Read more: Religion and Peace: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Parshat Lech Lecha 5776

Yom Kippur 5776, Ne’ilah - From Gehenna to the Gates

September 23, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizon

My favorite High Holy Day quotation of all time comes from that great font of Jewish knowledge, Charles Schultz’s cartoon “Peanuts”. Charlie Brown, the every-man nebbish, says “Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask where have I gone wrong?” And then a voice comes and says to me, “This is going to take more then one night.”

Teshuvah is like that. We repent, and repent, and repent, not only one night but the following morning and afternoon and into the evening, one whole long day. And yet still, in our hearts, we have the sense that remaking ourselves might just take more than this single Day of Atonement.

But on the other hand, as Tevyeh used to say, maybe not. Maybe this will prove to be enough… if the conditions are just right. If we have gone our very best to atone for our sins. If we have apologized to all of those we have wronged. If our hearts are open, our defenses down, our awareness of God and the sanctity possible in this world heightened. If we have come to know our own failings and repent them and seek to return to what is sacred and best within ourselves. Then, maybe, this Yom Kippur will prove to be enough.

After all, we have been at it now for nearly 24 hours, since we began Kol Nidrei last night. By this time we have probably apologized for sins we didn’t even dream of committing…

Now we come to Ne’ilah. Ne’ilah is a unique time. According to the tradition, this is time on Yom Kippur, on the Day of Atonement when the very gates of repentance are beginning to close. Ne’ilah in Hebrew means the “locking of the gates”, and as the Book of Life is sealed, the gates of repentance, too, are locked. This is the time for our final appeal to our Creator, and to ourselves, to live a better life in 5776 than we managed to achieve in 5775. It is our last hurrah, our final curtain, the fading rays of the sun on this day of fasting, penance, and prayer. To paraphrase an old cliché, if the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings, Yom Kippur isn’t over until the gates are locked.

Read more: Yom Kippur 5776, Ne’ilah - From Gehenna to the Gates

Yom Kippur 5776, Yizkor - Laughing at Death

September 23, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

Zaide lay dying. His pulse was thready, his breathing was labored, the children and grandchildren stood around his bed waiting for the end. He’d been fading in and out of consciousness all afternoon. And now, as the time for departure drew near, a wonderful smell wafted upstairs from kitchen below. Zaide’s eyes opened, and smile crept across his tired face.

“I smell your Bubbie’s rogelach baking!” he said weakly. “What a smell! Those are the most delicious rogelach in the world. Oy, what I would give for one last taste… Please, go and get me one to eat, and then I can die happy…”

A grandson was quickly dispatched to the kitchen; after a few minutes he returned empty-handed.

“What’s wrong?” Zaide asked feebly. “Where’s the rogelach?”

And the grandson answered, “Bubbie says they’re for the shiva…”

Gallows humor; the need to laugh, if just a little bit, in the face of death, is essential. As someone once said, this world is a very tough place; you’re lucky if you can get out of it alive. Or, as Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to be immortal—I just want to live forever.” In the face of this, we sometimes try to reduce the inevitable end to a punch line.

Read more: Yom Kippur 5776, Yizkor - Laughing at Death

5776 Yom Kippur - The Holiest Places of All and the Apikorus

September 23, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

One of the best stories I ever heard in person came from the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, may his memory bring blessing, the long-time president of the UAHC/URJ, our Reform movement.  Rabbi Schindler told it on himself when he visited my congregation in Santa Barbara many years ago.  

It seems that on a trip to Israel Schindler had gone to the Kotel, the Western Wall, and was walking towards this holiest place in Judaism when a old man approached him and asked him to put on a kipah, a yarmulke, worn by traditional Jews at all sacred places.  Schindler, no traditionalist and head of the most important Reform organization in the world, said grandly that he didn’t need a yarmulke because “the sky is my kipah.”  The old Jew looked at Schindler and shook his head slowly, saying, “Such a big kipah for such a small head…”

Read more: 5776 Yom Kippur - The Holiest Places of All and the Apikorus

Kol Nidrei Eve, Yom Kippur 5776 - The Superpower in Being Human

September 22, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

I recently learned a surprising and strange fact.  Many of the highest grossing films in America and in the entire world are installments of some kind of superhero movie series, based on humble comic books.  In fact, six of the top 10 highest opening-weekend box office grosses of all time are superhero movies.  And we are not just talking about Superman or Batman or Spiderman, superheroes I actually heard of growing up.  These are movies about Iron Man and The X-Men and the Avengers and the Justice League and Fantastic Four and Thor and, save us, the Green Lantern and the Green Hornet.  I have never really related to comic books, but I was amazed at the variety of preposterous scenarios that spawned first the animated cartoons that used to fill drug store shelves and now the videogame-style films that fill our movie theaters.

Perhaps our fascination with heroes with impossible superpowers saving us from apocalyptically gruesome caricature villains has been animated, if you will, by the rise of real-life villains who seem quite as bizarre and evil.  I’m not at all sure Lex Luthor or The Joker or the Green Goblin are any worse than the leaders of ISIS.  Clearly we enjoy watching superheroes on the side of good triumph over evil, twisted bad guys. 

Read more: Kol Nidrei Eve, Yom Kippur 5776 - The Superpower in Being Human