Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776 - Praise God & God Prays

September 13, 2015

Rabbi Batsheva Appel

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson Arizona

It was Erev Rosh Hashanah, in a small synagogue, in a small town, according to the Hasidic story. As the services proceeded, an illiterate shepherd entered the synagogue.  He was moved by the words and the music, but was unable to join with the congregation because he could not read and he had never learned the prayers. Out of desperation, out of a desire to become part of the congregation and connect with God, he took out the flute that was in his pocket, and began to play the music that he always played when he was tending the sheep. Immediately there was an uproar as many of the worshippers were outraged. Who was this? How dare he desecrate services on one of the holiest days of the year? People yelled at the shepherd to stop and there were calls for him to be thrown out immediately.  The rabbi ended the geschrei. He thanked the shepherd and explained why to the congregation, “As we were praying, I could feel our prayers being blocked from ascending to heaven. The shepherd’s prayer came from his heart and it was so pure that it helped our prayers ascend with his, straight to the Holy One.”

Read more: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776 - Praise God & God Prays

Rosh Hashanah 5776 - It’s a Small, Small Jewish World

Introduction to the High Holy Days

September 13, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

A mother comes into her son’s bedroom to wake him up to come to temple.

“Oh, ma,” he says, “I don’t want to go to shul today.  It’s boring and no one likes me there.  Give me two good reasons to get up and go.”

“I’ll give you two good reasons,” his mother answers.  “You’re 54 years old, and you are the rabbi!”

Read more: Rosh Hashanah 5776 - It’s a Small, Small Jewish World

Ki Tavo 5775: Hard Work Serves God? A Jewish Understanding of Labor, and Labor Day

September 4, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona are celebrating Labor Day this weekend, which in many parts of the country means the last hurrah of the summer, barbecues and beach time and a final celebration of the season of relaxation and indolence.  For us here in the Sonoran desert, Labor Day is just a brief interruption in a fully busy schedule.  We started public school a month ago, after all, and Religious and Hebrew school are going full bore.  Selichot is tomorrow night, and Rosh HaShanah is now just nine days away.  Aside from Labor Day sales, there isn’t really much to recommend this as a relaxing three-day weekend.  In fact, in Tucson, Labor Day is more like a quick breath before plunging into the deeper end of the swimming pool of hectic fall activity...

But long before this holiday became another American excuse for a three-day weekend, a last flutter of vacation before putting our noses to the post-summer grindstone, Labor Day was a significant statement about the value of a human being’s hard work.  When it started, the very concept that labor had value, morally and economically, was controversial—as it remains in some quarters today.

Originally, Labor Day was created in the 1880’s as a way to celebrate and support the workingman and woman, and as an expression of the increasing importance of organized labor as a political force in America.  It was a way of saying that labor mattered, that capital wasn’t the only positive value in the economy and society.

We Jews have always believed labor has moral quality.  One of the great sentences in Pirkei Avot, completed in the year 225, the Ethics of our Ancestors, says “Al shlosha devarim ha’olam omeid: al hatorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al gemilut chasadim: the world is based on three things: on Torah, on work, and on acts of selfless kindness.  Some people take the Hebrew word Avodah, labor, to mean religious service—but it is just as appropriate when applied to more practical and prosaic work, and it is likely that the connection of labor to Divine service is intentional.  In other words, honest work is a form of prayer.  This exaltation of basic labor as a foundation of society—and a way to serve God—is consistent throughout Jewish tradition. 

Read more: Ki Tavo 5775: Hard Work Serves God? A Jewish Understanding of Labor, and Labor Day

Ki Teitzei 5775: Teshuvah and Change

August 28, 2015

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

We are nearly halfway through the final month on the Jewish calendar, Elul, which means Rosh HaShanah is just two weeks from Sunday night.  This is the time of year when we examine our lives in the past year, think about how we have lived, and decide how we can improve and change in the coming 5776 year.

Around a synagogue like Temple Emanu-El, Elul is always an interesting time—that is a Chinese curse, by the way, may you live in interesting times—a period of accelerating preparations and steadily increasing stress leading up to the great pressure-cooker of the wonderful, awesome, overwhelming High Holy Day season.  In this swirling maelstrom of activity we need to find the time and energy to figure out how we need to change in the coming year.

Hot Dog httpsflic.krp8JznR6

My favorite joke about change is the one about the Zen Buddhist hot dog vendor.  A man walks up to the Zen Buddhist hot dog vendor and says, “How much is a hot dog?”  And vendor says, “$4.”  So the guy says, “OK, I’ll take one with everything” and hands him a $20 bill.  The Zen Buddhist hot dog vendor hands him the hot dog, takes the $20, puts it into his cash drawer and closes it.  The guy says, “Hey, where’s my change?!”  And the Zen Buddhist vendor says, “Change must come from within.”

Read more: Ki Teitzei 5775: Teshuvah and Change

Blessings in Advance - Rabbi Cohon's Sermon on Re’ei 5775

August 15, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El

Tucson, Arizona


The sun is still hot, and the weather unpredictable and monsoony.  But while I know it's slightly unbelievable, public school started last week, our Kurn Hebrew School begins soon, and Religious School kicks off next Sunday.  The seasons are changing. 

The High Holidays are coming up in about a month, four weeks for Sunday if you must know.  We bless the new month of Elul on this Shabbat because Rosh Chodesh Elul is Sunday, the beginning of the last month of the Jewish year.  It's the time of year to think about the state of our relationships, to prepare to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, to reflect on where we are in our lives, where we've been, and where we are headed.

We are just beginning the yearly journey of getting ready for the chagim, the Jewish fall holidays, examining the choices we continually make and the way our choices have worked out for us in the past year.

The opening lines of this week's parsha, Re'ei, are famously about choice.  In that beginning passage Moses says to us, the people of Israel,

Re'ei, anochi noten lifneichem hayom bracha u'klalla.
Et habracha asher tishm'u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem asher anochi m'tzaveh etchem hayom.
V'ha klallah im-lo tishm'u el-mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem…

“See, I give you today a blessing and a curse.
The blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot of your God

that I command you today.
And the curse if you don't obey or listen.”

Read more: Blessings in Advance - Rabbi Cohon's Sermon on Re’ei 5775