Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה


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Gratitude and Faith

on Thursday, 20 October 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk for Sukkot 5777

This week we read special selections from the Torah in honor of the holiday of Sukkot, which began last Sunday night and lasts for eight days.  This season is an embarrassment of holiday riches for Jews, and the Torah readings reflect this. 

Sukkot marks the great fall thanksgiving festival, the feast of Tabernacles or booths, and we are commanded to remember the transitory nature of our ancestors’ wanderings through the Wilderness of Sinai, as well as the transitory nature of our own lives.  In the season of the fall harvest, when we eat the first and best of the produce of the natural world, we take a week to demonstrate our gratitude for the necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing.  And in this week’s Torah reading we receive the mitzvah of building a Sukkah, a temporary Tabernacle, a booth or hut, outdoors, designed to last just a week—actually, eight days—to eat in and perhaps sleep in.  We decorate it with the symbols of the harvest, fruits and vegetables, and enjoy a fall harvest festival to celebrate the goodness of the world God has given us. 

Expectations & Every Day

on Thursday, 13 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Yom Kippur Yizkor 5777

A guy goes to see his rabbi.  He tells the rabbi’s secretary that he must see the rabbi because he is so depressed.

He starts by reminding the rabbi his father died just three weeks before.  The rabbi says, “I know, I’m so sorry.  Your father was a wonderful man.  Everyone loved and appreciated him.  I did his funeral and was at the shiva.”

“I know, rabbi,” the man says.  “Thank you again.”

“Of course,” says the rabbi.  “You are depressed because you need to talk about the loss of your father.”

“Well, rabbi, not so much,” the man answers, “But I do need to tell you that my dad left me five million dollars.”

“Oh,” says the rabbi, “Well he was a remarkably successful businessman, and I’m sure he wanted you and your family to be well provided for.”

“Yes,” the man continues, “But what you don’t know, rabbi, is that two weeks ago, the week after my dad died, my uncle passed away, too.”

“Oy,” says the rabbi, “And is that why you are depressed, so much loss all at once?”

“No,” says the man, “But you should know that he, too, left me five million dollars.”

“Goodness!” says the rabbi.  “That was very generous.”

“Yes,” says the man, “And then, just last week, my cousin Bernie the orthodontist died also, he had several clinics, and he left me five million dollars, too.”

“All this death must be very devastating and terrible.  You have my deepest condolences,” says the rabbi.  “No wonder you are depressed.”

“No, rabbi,” says the man, “You don’t understand.  I’m depressed because so far this week—NOTHING!”

Giving: the Secret of Survival

on Thursday, 13 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Yom Kippur Kol Nidre 5777

Last week on Rosh HaShanah I spoke about flat tires, and particularly, bicycle flat tires, of which I have had a plethora of late.  Thank you for your kind comments about that sermon, and those who shared their own cycling stories with me, including suggestions on how to avoid flats.  One of you even suggested we start a new program at Temple, in which we bike 25 miles and then stop and have coffee and argue about the Torah portion.  We would call it “The Weekly Torah Cycle”, or maybe, more appropriately, “Ride and Rant”.

In any case, a week ago, on the morning of 2nd Day of Rosh HaShanah, before I helped lead our Northwest 2nd Day Rosh haShanah service with Rabbi Appel, I decided to go out for a quick ride—20 miles on a cool morning, perfect way to start the second day of the new year.  I ended up riding at the same speed as another guy, and we struck up a conversation about biking.  And then—you probably guessed it—I got a flat tire. 

My new friend stopped and helped change the tire, and as we were finishing I said, “I really hate getting flat tires.  But I’m a rabbi, and at least I got a sermon out of it this week.”

He looked at me strangely, and said, “Did you just say you are a rabbi?  Then I have something to tell you.  You now have a story about a rabbi and a priest.  Because my name is Jim, and I am a Jesuit priest…”


on Thursday, 13 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Opening Yom Kippur, Kol Nidrei 5777

There is something surprising about a Jewish year that begins in October.  Mostly, it’s that we expect Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to fall in September.  Last year, for example, the beginning of the 5776 year, Rosh HaShanah was in the expected range, September 15th; Yom Kippur was September 23rd.  By this time, October 11th, we were nearly done with Sukkot.  Three years ago, in 2013, Rosh HaShanah actually began September 4th, and Yom Kippur was September 13th.  So of course this year everyone is saying that the High Holy Days are so late…  especially Yom Kippur.  October 11th and 12th!  That’s much too late, rabbi.

Actually, I kind of agree with writer Mitch Albom, of Tuesdays with Morrie fame: he says, “It’s never too late or too soon.  It’s when it’s supposed to be.” 

That is, Rosh HaShanah always begins on the 1st of Tishrei, and Yom Kippur comes on the 10th of Tishrei, according to a Jewish calendar established more than 1500 years ago.  Rabbi Hillel haNasi, the president of the Sanhedrin, balanced the astronomical cycles of the moon, sun, and earth and created most of the remarkable Hebrew Calendar we still use today.  It has been adjusted several times, most recently in the Middle Ages, but it has served our people all around the world through the better part of two millennia. I think we can safely assume that this is the correct date for Yom Kippur 5777.  It’s when it’s supposed to be.

And yet it seems late…

Dedicated to the Good End

on Wednesday, 05 October 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Vayelech 5777

If you knew that you were living your final day on earth, how would you spend your last hours?

According to the traditional commentaries, on Moses’120th birthday he spent his last day dedicated to addressing the needs of his community.  He visited each of the tribes and offered words of encouragement.  Even on his very last day of life, Moses dedicated himself to the Israelites, devoting himself to his congregation.  

The Chai Year: The Best You Can Be

on Monday, 03 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777

“Hi, there everybody, and a very pleasant good afternoon to you wherever you may be.”  So began the final broadcast of the marvelous Los Angeles Dodgers’ announcer Vin Scully yesterday, as he completed an unbelievable 67-year career as the best sports broadcaster who has ever lived.  67 years, three score and seven in Biblical terms… The last day of our Jewish year 5776 was also the last day Vin Scully announced a Dodgers’ game.  For some perspective, his first game as an announcer was in the Jewish year 5710; Harry Truman was president of the United States.  Scully started as the 21-year old voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, palling around with Jackie Robinson, and he retired nearly seven decades later with accolades from Sandy Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, and movie star Kevin Costner.  Vin Scully was not only an incredibly talented and enjoyable broadcaster, he remains a thoughtful, humble, and generous gentleman.  And he was something more.  He was an inspiration.

Flat Tires

on Sunday, 02 October 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Opening Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

There was a woman’s post on Facebook that struck home recently.  It read, “I saw my ex broken down with two flat tires this morning which made me late for work.   Nine times I drove past before he noticed me laughing at him.”

Well, this past year I have taken up cycling in earnest.   I’m not sure this is something that should interest anyone besides me, but after struggling for a couple of years to come up with an exercise regimen to replace running, it turns out that road biking works.  I ran for 35 years or so, and then I needed a new hip, and now after a couple of other tries it turns out pedaling a road bike for a couple of hours very early in the morning is just the ticket. 

There are fabulous bike paths that run next to our dry Tucson riverbeds.  Unlike our potholed streets, these bike paths are also very well maintained.  You can ride as far as you like—my longest rides are 50 or 60 miles—without competing with cars or trucks.  You get to enjoy our magnificent Southern Arizona scenery early in the day before it gets too hot, there are lots of interesting and dangerous forms of wildlife you zip past in safety—oh, look that was a rattlesnake!  and five or six hungry coyotes—and in my experience bicycle people are incredibly helpful and polite when something goes wrong.

Like a flat tire.

Being There

on Friday, 30 September 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Nitzavim 5776

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.

Teshuvah: God is Here, Now

on Wednesday, 28 September 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Nitzavim 5776

This week we celebrate the final Shabbat of the year, which means that our Torah portion is one of the great sections of the entire year, Nitzavim: you stand here today, all of you, from the oldest to the youngest, from the wealthiest to the poorest, the most famous to the most humble, the leaders of your community and the strangers visiting with you.  You are all part of the covenant with the Lord your God.  You, and every other generation to come who will be descended from you.  You are all engaged in this great berit, the covenant that affirms you will be God's people, and God will be your Lord.

What's Missing?

on Wednesday, 21 September 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Ki Tavo 5776

Whenever we carry the Torah around the sanctuary during a hakafah we sing Al Shloshah Devarim, the passage from Pirkei Avot in the Mishnah: on three things the world stands.  On Torah, on work, and on acts of kindness.  Torah is listed first, making it the most important part of our tradition. 

And you may be familiar with the great Labor Zionist Achad Ha’Am’s related concept that Judaism is made up of three great elements: God, Torah, and Israel.  Torah, here, is at the very center of it all.

So what are we to make of a central Jewish text that completely omits Torah?

This week we read the portion of Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy, which begins with an unusual declaration: when we come into the land that the Lord our God will give us as an inheritance we are to take the first fruits of our produce, and bring them to the priest, and say this formula: “Arami oveid avi, my father was a wandering Aramean, and he came to Egypt few in number, and became a great nation there; the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and enslaved us; but God brought us out with a great hand and an oustretched arm… and brought us to this place, flowing with milk and honey.”  In addition to its central role in an important Biblical ritual, this passage was quoted often in rabbinic literature, most famously in the Pesach Haggadah.

War and Peace

on Sunday, 11 September 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Ki Teitzei 5776

Last Sunday was the 15th anniversary of 9/11, so it is appropriate that this week we read a Torah portion that deals very directly with war, Ki Teitzei. 

Most of us who feel positively about religion believe strongly that nations should live at peace, that war will someday become an ancient, bad memory.  “They shall beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall men learn war anymore” our prophet Isaiah predicted.  And almost every religion has similar injunctions about peace.

But Isaiah predicted this great time of peace 2700 years ago, and it still seems as far away as ever.  The historical truth of human civilization is that a war is always going on somewhere, and sometimes everywhere, in the world, and that the number of years in which this planet has been free of war is very few.  One calculation says that of the 3400 years of recorded human history only 250 years have been free of a documented war—that is, once every 15 years or so we have had a year without war.  To be honest, that seems wildly optimistic.  In my lifetime I cannot recall a single year in which warfare has not been waged somewhere on the globe.

Applied Justice

on Friday, 09 September 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Shoftim 5776

All Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or something else, come originally from a religious culture shaped by its process of applying divine law to a very human, fallible, earthbound population. Our heritage is based on the kind of thinking that takes great, idealistic proclamations designed to further morality and applies them to mundane daily life with sometimes fascinating results.

A core ideal of Judaism is to work to create a society based on justice, which will lead, ultimately, to peace and goodness.  But it is justice that is always the focus, which is embodied in a Torah portion we’ll read Saturday called Shoftim, “Judges”, that is filled with the concept of justice.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, we are commanded here: pursue true justice!  It is a powerful and remarkable ideal.  Our societies must strive for absolute fairness, must be just in every way.  But justice is more than high ideals.  It is applying sacred principles to the mundane reality of daily life, including rules of ritual observance.  Judaism makes not distinction between ethical and ritual laws.  All are part of creating a society based on justice.

Opening the Door

on Friday, 02 September 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Re’ei 5776

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?

Benefit of the Doubt

on Wednesday, 31 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Re’ei 5776

We celebrate the new month of Elul on this Shabbat with Rosh Chodesh Saturday and Sunday, the beginning of the last month of the Jewish year.  It's the time of year for us 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.

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

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'haklallah 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.”

On the surface, this seems like a simple restatement of the central message repeated all through Devarim: if you do good, you will be blessed; if you do evil, you will be cursed.  This Deuteronomic covenant lies at the heart of the Torah’s understanding of ethics.

The Lessons of the Heart

on Friday, 26 August 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Ekev 5776

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.

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