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We Bring Mt. Sinai with Us

on Thursday, 18 May 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Behar-Bechukotai 5777

his week we read the sedrah of Behar-Bechukotai, the double portion at the end of the book of Leviticus.  In these final sections of the middle book of the Torah there are interesting oddities—and lessons—both at the beginning and the end of each portion. 

Behar begins with the statement that “God spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai saying”, a seemingly unambiguous phrase. And at the end of the opening covenantal section of Bechukotai the Torah reiterates that God gave all the regulations and laws contained here at Mt. Sinai.  Finally, Bechukotai concludes the book of Vayikra by telling us “these are the commandments that God commanded Moses for the Israelites on Mt. Sinai”. 

All well and good.  These rules of holiness and personal conduct must have been commanded at Mt. Sinai.

Yet earlier in Leviticus it makes it pretty clear that God has given most of these commandments not at Mt. Sinai itself, but in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Ohel Mo’eid, the Tent of Meeting, as the people wander around.  In fact, the whole book of Leviticus is apparently given after we have left Sinai and begun our journey to the Promised Land.  Clearly, as Behar begins the Israelites don’t actually seem to still be at Mt. Sinai at all.

What gives?

Jerusalem, City of Peace…

on Saturday, 13 May 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Emor 5777

In addition to counting the Omer now, we are in a unique period of the year where Israel is concerned.  We celebrated Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day last week, Israel’s 69th birthday, and in less than two weeks, on May 25th, we will rejoice on Yom Yerushalayim, the day that commemorates the reunification of the city of Jerusalem in 1967.  This will mark the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the remarkable, miraculous Israeli victory that allowed Jews to return to the holiest place on earth for us, the Kotel, the Western Wall, and to the Old City of Jerusalem.  This anniversary, while extraordinary, is also controversial.  You cannot help but see criticism of Israel and its half-century long “occupation”, whatever that means to you, and see criticism of how the nation has handled a highly complex and challenging situation for the past five decades.

Over the next weeks I’ll continue to explore this theme, and discuss the West Bank and the possibility of a Palestinian State.  

Speak Low When You Speak Love

on Wednesday, 10 May 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Emor 5777

Emor, our Torah portion this week in Leviticus, begins as so many others do: God gives commands to the people of Israel.  But the language this time is a little different.  Usually, commandments begin with the Hebrew word “Dabeir, speak to the Children of Israel” or occasionally, “Tzav, command the Children of Israel.”  This time the much softer word “Emor, say to the priests, the Children of Aaron” is used.  Why?

There is a clue in the continuation of the first sentence of our portion, Our sedrah actually begins, “Say to the priests…” and then adds “and say to them…”  As the commentators do not believe that the Torah is ever truly redundant, the Talmud (in Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 114a) teaches that there is a subtle message here: be cautious in how we adults speak to children.  Emor means to speak softly and kindly.  Good advice in instructing children at any time.

But why specifically is this word, emor used twice in regard to the priestly commands?  The priests are not children.

How We Create Our Holy Congregation

on Tuesday, 09 May 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777 New Member Shabbat

With the advent of the internet and its daily overdose of information, nowadays you can learn how to do almost anything just from watching a YouTube video. 

Want to know how to erect a barbed wire fence?  Watch a YouTube video.  Need to build your own septic system?  Watch a YouTube video.  Trying to learn to dance the skanky leg?  Watch a YouTube video.  Have to make baked Alaska?  Watch a YouTube video.  Wish to sing opera?  Watch a YouTube video.  Seek to pilot a jet airplane?  Watch a YouTube video.  Have to deliver a baby in the back seat of an Uber ride?  You got it: watch a YouTube video.

If only United Airlines had watched a YouTube video on how to treat customers when you oversell a commercial airline flight…

But for one thing there is, as yet, no YouTube video available.  I know this because I looked for it this week.  There is no YouTube video for the commandment given at the very beginning of Kedoshim.

How To Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

on Thursday, 04 May 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777

This week we read the double Torah portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, which includes the Holiness Code, a description of the ethical injunctions that lie at the heart of Jewish practice.  The code itself includes mitzvot that require us to assist the poor, treat strangers, widows, and orphans with generosity and kindness, and insists on fair business practices.  It obligates us to live moral lives.

It’s important that this remarkable section comes in the precise center of the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus.  Kedoshim, the holiness code, is in the middle of the middle of the Torah—that is, it forms the heart of the heart of our most sacred text.  And at that heart is the ethical injunction to love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

This is an amazing, and perhaps utopian ideal—love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.  If our society was actually rooted in such a conception how much better it would be for everyone!  

Lashon ha’Ra: Slander Destroys

on Thursday, 27 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Tazria/Metzora 5777

This week we read the double Torah portion of Tazria/Metzora in the book of Leviticus, and a wholly unappetizing set of Torah portions it is indeed.  Metzora, in particular, focuses on the question of leprosy, a dreaded disease of the ancient world.  It’s true that leprosy was an awful thing, and needed to be eliminated if at all possible, in particular by using the concept of quarantines to isolate it.  But exploring what our ancestors believed to be an infectious disease at great length in a Sabbath service could scarcely be called a spiritually meaningful experience.

Yom HaShoah 5777 Invocation

on Sunday, 23 April 2017. Posted in Community Events

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Invocation for Yom HaShoah

Six weeks ago, in the cold heart of a frozen Central European winter, I stood at Thereisenstadt Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic.  Thereisenstadt was famous as the show-camp used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes, demonstrating to the Red Cross and other casual observers of the Shoah how wonderfully the Nazis treated the Jews.  There are parts still in existence of a film called, “The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City!” which is shown daily in the theater there, as a reminder.

Silence & Action

on Friday, 21 April 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Shemini 5777

We Jews are talkers.  We are, in fact, among the most famous talkers in all of history. We are a people renowned for our words, and our leaders are legendary for their verbosity.  Even Moses, a man with a speech impediment who protests that he is a man of few words, manages to orate the entire Book of Deuteronomy, supposedly in one long sermon.

There is a reason we are lawyers, comedians, entertainers, and public speakers of all kinds.  We truly have a tremendous oral tradition.

Rabbis, of course, are no exception.  There is a classic Jewish joke.  One friend says to another, “My rabbi is so brilliant he can talk for an hour on any subject.”

And his friend answers, “My rabbi is so brilliant that he can speak for two hours on no subject.”

But sometimes speech is actually an impediment.

Silent Comfort: On Profound Loss

on Thursday, 20 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Shemini 5777

This week’s Torah portion is the third in the Book of Leviticus, Shemini, and it includes a very dramatic, and traumatic event.  The Tabernacle in the Wilderness has just been consecrated, and the priests, Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons, are entering into their office.  God’s presence fills the Tabernacle, and all is right with the people. 

And then, suddenly, disaster strikes.  Aaron’s eldest sons, newly ordained priests named Nadav and Avihu, offer what is called eish zarah, strange fire to the Lord.  They are immediately struck down and devoured by divine fire, dying before the Lord. 

In the aftermath of this tragic shock, Moses consoles Aaron with strange words: “God says, ‘By those brought near to Me I am consecrated, and honored before the people.’”

There is no word on whether Aaron accepted this as a just ending for his sons.  The text merely says “Vayidom Aharon”, Aaron was silent.

Invocation for Pima County Board of Supervisors

on Tuesday, 18 April 2017. Posted in Community Events

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Invocation for Pima County Board of Supervisors April 18, 2017

We have just completed the holiday of Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom that has become the model for liberation struggles everywhere in the world.  While Passover commemorates freeing the Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage well over three thousand years ago, we are constantly reminded throughout the week of Pesach to view the world as though we, personally, had come out of slavery.  The Hebrew phrase that typifies our holiday: B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatzah miMitzrayim, in each generation everyone is obligated to see oneself as though he or she came out of Egypt.

It is this personal relationship to liberation from bondage that has made the story so powerful: Benjamin Franklin thought the symbol of America should be the Israelite slaves exodus from slavery; African-Americans sang “Go Down Moses” as an anthem about their own servitude and quest for freedom; in our time, Nelson Mandela used the Exodus as a model for his own people’s fight against apartheid.

We can all relate to the essential human need for freedom from servitude.

But there is another central aspect to the Passover story, and it begins once the Israelites, the ancient Jews, escape violence and tyranny.  It is the tale of the refugees themselves, who flee brutal oppression and seek a new life.  

Freedom for All

on Wednesday, 12 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Shabbat Pesach 5777

The Torah readings on Passover are some of the most dramatic and interesting of the entire year.  We remember the Exodus from Egypt in a variety of ways: in prose, in poetry, by recalling the sacrifices of our ancestors, and by delineating rituals that we still observe. 

We use Torah during Passover in the same way that we use the Haggadah at the Seder: to teach, remind, and refresh our understanding of the great blessing and value of freedom in every possible permutation.  Freedom is too easy to take for granted.  We must always remind ourselves of its blessings.

We do so on Pesach by celebrating freedom in word and song, by observing dietary restrictions that remind us of the servitude of our ancestors.  Even the food teaches us to value the hard-won freedom of the Exodus story.

May we always enjoy the liberty to do so in this society, and in every society in which we find ourselves. 

And may the many people of every faith who are not yet free become free soon.

Please join us for our Wandering Jews’ hike in the Wilderness at 5:30 PM this Friday night, our Shabbat Passover morning services at 9:30 this Saturday, including the chanting of the Song of Songs, and our 7th Day Passover morning services Monday including Yizkor memorial prayers at 9:30 AM.  And have a zissen Pesach, a joyous and healthy Passover! 

Offering Thanks in a Season of Freedom

on Wednesday, 05 April 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Tzav/HaGadol 5777

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.

Arguing for God and Unity

on Friday, 31 March 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon on Vayikra 5777

One of the most distinctive qualities of Jews everywhere in the world has always been our ability to disagree and remain in dialogue.  That is, we argue but stick together.  Jewish families are typically loud, contentious, and verbally energetic.  Jewish organizations are active, engaged, and often contentious.  But we have an ability, after thousands of years of overcoming adversity, to pull together in spite of our many, many differences.  Most of the time.

Getting Up Close and Personal With God

on Thursday, 30 March 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Vayikra 5777

This week we begin reading the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra or Leviticus.  Vayikra presents an entirely new challenge to the student of Torah: how do we find relevance in a portion that reflects religious practices that have been obsolete for nearly 2000 years?

You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: But What Part of Me is Me?

on Monday, 27 March 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

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.

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