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Yom Chamishi, 25 Tishri 5776

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Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה


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Yom Kippur 5776 - From Gehenna to the Gates

on Thursday, 24 September 2015. Posted in Sermons

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. 

Yom Kippur 5776 - Laughing at Death

on Thursday, 24 September 2015. Posted in Sermons

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…”

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

on Thursday, 24 September 2015. Posted in Sermons

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…”

Yom Kippur 5776 - The Superpower in Being Human

on Thursday, 24 September 2015. Posted in Sermons

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. 


Yom Kippur 5776 - Oops, I Just Fell and Destroyed a Masterpiece

on Thursday, 24 September 2015.

Tonight marks the 50th anniversary of Sandy Koufax sitting out the first game of the World Series.  Some of you may remember what that meant to Jews in America, when the best pitcher in the most popular sport, America’s pastime, chose not to play in the most important game of the year.  It was considered a courageous act, and a symbol of American Jewish acceptance and pride in our heritage.

The best part of the story was that the Dodgers’ other ace, Don Drysdale, pitched in Koufax’ place.  Unfortunately, Drysdale was pretty bad that particular day against the Minnesota Twins, giving up 7 runs in less than 3 innings including two homers.  When his manager, Walter Alston came out to pull Drysdale and bring in a relief pitcher, Drysdale said to Alston, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish too, Skip.”

But before I even start I digress…

Perhaps you saw this story, or the Youtube video


Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk for Yom Kippur and Ha’azinu 5776

on Tuesday, 22 September 2015. Posted in Torah Talks

Poetry, Faith, and Justice

This week we read great Torah portions on Yom Kippur, which falls Tuesday night and Wednesday, that explore holiness and commitment to God.  In our Reform tradition in the morning we will read from the portion of Nitzavim in Deuteronomy, which affirms that we have the responsibility in this great season, to choose life and God.  In the afternoon we will chant from Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, which teaches us how to be holy through sacred and ethical lives.

Next Shabbat we chant the one of the final portions of the entire Torah reading cycle, Ha’azinu, penultimate section of the final book of the Torah, Devarim.  Ha’azinu composes Moses’ last poetic words to the people of Israel before his death, and it’s an elaborate instruction, charge, and prediction of the future for the Israelites.  Ha’azinu is both a final look inside the thoughts of the greatest leader our people has ever had, and a fascinating snapshot of what was predicted for the future of the twelve tribes once they arrived in the Land of Israel.

Weekly Torah Talk on Vayelech 5776

on Thursday, 17 September 2015. Posted in Torah Talks

Dedicated to the (Good) End

Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return

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. 

On this first Shabbat of 5776 we will read the Torah portion of Vayelech, which follows that last day, and Moses’ final interactions with God.  It is clear that although he has reached the extremely advanced age of 120, he still has a clear mind and physical strength.  His death is a kind of sacred retirement, rather than the decline and eventual failing that so many of us experience. At the end, he uses his remaining energy, and seeks to ensure the success of his people through dedication and devotion.

This Shabbat is also Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, a time of return to the best that is within us, a time to make peace with those with whom we have conflicts, a time to atone for our errors in the past year.

Vayelech teaches us that it is also a time to renew our commitment to our congregation, to our synagogue community, and to dedicate our resources and our energy to ensure that it continues to thrive in this new year.

On his final day of life, Moses’ demonstrated a sense of devotion to the well-being of the Jewish people, and to the kehillah, the sacred community.  On this Shabbat Shuvah, may we follow his example.

Rosh Hashanah 5776 - The Necessary Chutzpah of Saving Refugees

on Tuesday, 15 September 2015.

An old bubbie limps onto a crowded bus. Standing right in front of a seated young man she clutches her chest and says, "Oy! If you only knew what I had, you'd get up and give me your seat."

The man looks at the old woman, and reluctantly, gives up his seat. The lady sitting beside the bubbie takes out a fan and starts to fan herself. Grasping her chest, the bubbie turns and says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan." So the woman gives her the fan.

Fifteen minutes later the bubbie gets up and says to the bus driver, "Stop, I want to get off here."

The driver says, "Sorry, lady, but the bus stop is at the next corner. I can't stop in the middle of the block." Again, the old woman clutches her chest and says, "If you knew what I have, you would let me out right here." Worried, the bus driver pulls over and lets her out. As she's climbing down the stairs, he finally asks, "Ma'am, what is it, exactly, that you have? "

She smiles sweetly at him, and she says, "Chutzpah." 

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

on Tuesday, 15 September 2015. Posted in Sermons

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!”

Well, in January, February, and March of 2015, for the first time in 9 years, I actually didn’t have to get up and go to temple.  As you may know, this past year I had the great privilege of experiencing a sabbatical.  I am very grateful to our leadership for according me the privilege of experiencing my own Shmittah, my personal sabbatical.  During my three-month journey in early 2015 I literally travelled around the world, visiting 125 of the holiest places on earth—including many other temples, but not ours—spanning five continents.  I began in Western Europe and worked my way east, through the Middle East and then on to the Far East.  By March I’d arrived in the picturesque country of Indonesia.  

Weekly Torah Talk on Nitzavim 5775

on Wednesday, 09 September 2015. Posted in Torah Talks

The Torah is Always Here, and so is God

This week we are celebrating the last 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, 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.



Ki Tavo 5775: Hard Work Serves God?

on Friday, 04 September 2015. Posted in Sermons

Hard Work Serves God? A Jewish Understanding of Labor, and Labor Day

We 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.

Weekly Torah Talk on Ki Tavo 5775

on Wednesday, 02 September 2015. Posted in Torah Talks

The Missing Center

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?

Ki Teitzei 5775: Teshuvah and Change

on Monday, 31 August 2015. Posted in Sermons

Teshuvah and Change

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.

Weekly Torah Talk on Ki Teitzei 5776

on Monday, 31 August 2015. Posted in Torah Talks

When You Must Go To War

Ki Teitzei Lamilchama al Oyvecha, When you go out to war against your enemy…”

Most of us who feel positively about religion believe strongly that nations should live at peace, and 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 Isaiah prophesied (2:4).  And almost every religion has similar injunctions to peace.

Weekly Torah Talk on Re'eh 5775

on Wednesday, 12 August 2015. Posted in Torah Talks

Choosing to Give

It’s one of the great quotations in the entire Torah, and it’s from this week’s reading:  “Look, today I set before a blessing and a curse.  The blessing if you listen to God’s commandments…”

This is a wonderful a statement of ethical choice, and the foundation of the upcoming season of Teshuvah, return and repentance that begins with the month of Elul which starts on Sunday.  But as important a sentence as it is, it doesn’t match the content of the most valuable teaching in this week’s reading.

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