Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה


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Rabbi Cohon at the Tucson Vigil in Response to the Orlando Attack

on Saturday, 25 June 2016. Posted in Community Events

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon speaking at the Tucson Vigil in Response to the Orlando Attack on June 12, 2016


The Right Kind of Spies

on Friday, 24 June 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon on Shlach Lecha 5776

The Chabad House at Harvard challenges the Harvard University oarsmen to a rowing contest. but soon discovers that the Harvard crew is recording practice times that are twice as fast as their own. So the Chabad captain sends a spy across to Harvard to find out why and how they row so fast. A few hours later the spy returns.

“Nuh,” says the Chabad captain, “tell us!”

“Well,” says the spy, “They do everything the opposite of us.”

“Explain,” says the captain.

“It's simple,” says the spy, “They've got eight men rowing and one man shouting!”

This little joke has relevance for this week’s Torah portion of Shelach Lecha, for two reasons.  For the question of what makes for a good spy, and  just where you find the professional qualities necessary for doing espionage work are central to our parshah, and can teach us some important things.  And the need for more people to row, and fewer to shout, is always important in the Jewish circles…

I’m sure that there are all kinds of tests available today for determining who makes a good subject for intelligence work and who just can’t pull it off.   In spite of the oft-repeated slander that the definition of an oxymoron is military intelligence, no doubt both armed services and civilian agencies have lots of ways of figuring out who is good at this stuff and who isn’t.  

Got the Blues? Talisses and Rainbows

on Wednesday, 22 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Shelach Lecha 5776

When we see light it usually appears white.  As you may recall from elementary school science projects, white is a mixture of all the possible colors of light.  If you rapidly spin a wheel with a variety of colors it will appear white.  When you hold a prism up to a white light it separates into the variety of colors.  And when light reflects through water vapor in the air a rainbow appears. 

In this week’s Torah portion of Shelach Lecha we are commanded to place fringes on the corners of our clothing, tzitzit.  The fringes are mostly white, the color that includes all the colors of the rainbow.  However, one fringe is to be dyed techelet, a purplish blue. Today most Jews do not wear the thread of blue, since the precise procedure for making the dye has been lost since the destruction of the Temple, although some think it was made from the shell of a mollusk called Murex that lives off the coast of Lebanon.  Almost all tzizit remain white to this day. 

But once they had this colorful thread.

The Heat is On: A Time to Act A Response to Orlando

on Saturday, 18 June 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Cohon's Sermon Beha’alotecha 5776

Perhaps you have seen the weather predictions for this weekend: according to the soothsayers, fortune-tellers, and diviners who get paid to guess our future atmospheric conditions professionally, the high temperature in Tucson this coming Sunday is projected to be 117 degrees Fahrenheit.  If true, this will tie our all-time record hottest day in Tucson, which happened in June of 1990, 26 years ago.  It will also be so hot that all the jokes about frying eggs on the pavement, and it’s-a-dry-heat-but-so-is-the-inside-of-a-pizza oven will actually come true.  And our common defensive response—“it’s hotter in Phoenix!”—will be only marginally appropriate.  They are expected to hit 118 degrees, a statistically insignificant difference.

Frankly, my friends, the heat is on.  Of course, as has been noted before, that while everyone talks about the weather no one does anything about it.  They simply kvetch.  Like me.

Which, at times, seems to be what we Jews spend much of our time doing, kvetching, complaining.  In fact, you can make a case that the two principle Jewish occupations are kvetching and eating. 

But that’s not actually what our tradition teaches us.  Pirkei Avot, the great ethical chapters of our ancestors in the Mishnah, tells us Lo hamidrash ha’ikar, ellah hama’aseh—the main principle is not study, but practice; or, to put it more succinctly, “it’s not the talking that matters, it’s the doing.”

I thought a lot about this principle this past week, in the wake of the horrifying shooting in Orlando, Florida early Sunday morning.  

Add a Little Light

on Wednesday, 15 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Beha’alotecha 5776

This week we read the Torah portion of Beha’alotecha in the Book of Numbers.  It begins with a description of the menorah, the lamp that burned in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, our people’s central worship places for God.  That golden menorah was a way to keep track of the days of the week—a new light was lit each day from Sunday through Friday until, finally, all seven branches shone on the holiest of days, Shabbat. 

Each day, we added a bit more light.  Each day, our ancestors added to the illumination of God’s holiness.  Each day, they remembered to bring just a bit more brilliance into their lives.  And finally, on the Sabbath, all their light truly shined.

The Three-Fold Blessing of Presence

on Wednesday, 08 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we read the second Torah portion in the book of Numbers, Naso, which includes a variety of instructions ranging from priestly organization to the ordeal of jealousy to the voluntary-but-binding vows of the Nazirite.  It is a kind of catch-all parshah, but it is a portion raised to the status of greatness by one particular passage. 

Just before the princes of the people bring offerings to mark the beginning of formal worship in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim, to bless the people.  He ordains a famous formula for that blessing, which we know as the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing.  This three-part sequence has become the most famous benediction of all:     

“May God bless you and keep you.

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.

May God’s face be lifted up to you and place upon you peace.”

In Naso, God makes it clear that this is quite a blessing indeed, adding that it is through this that the Kohanim will “Place My Name on the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” 

Most of us have heard this triple blessing hundreds, even thousands of times.  It is chanted or invoked at weddings, bar mitzvahs, brisses, and babynamings, even milestone birthdays and anniversaries.  It is included in the traditional Amidah every morning, and receives special musical and ritual treatment on major festivals.  It is considered the most important of all of our ritual blessings.

But what does it really promise?  

Yom Yerushalayim—City of Peace?

on Friday, 03 June 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Cohon's Sermon Bamidbar 5776

This Sunday in Israel they will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim on the Jewish calendar, the holiday that commemorates the reunification of the city of Jerusalem in the miraculous Six Day War of 1967.  It has been 49 years since we Jews were finally able to return to the Kotel, the Western Wall, the holiest place on earth for Jews; 49 years since the commander of the troops who captured the Old City from Jordanian forces, Motta Gur, announced, Har HaBayit B’yadeinu—the Temple Mount is in our hands.

On third of the incredible six days of war, Israeli paratroopers captured the Western Wall and the Temple Mount without using air power or artillery, lest they damage the many sacred sites.  They restored Jewish presence to the Old City of Jerusalem that Arabs had forcibly denied us.  That same day, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan declared, famously, 

Finding Faith in the Wilderness

on Wednesday, 01 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we read the Torah portion of Bamidbar, the first in the book of Numbers, which is given its English name by the census that occupies a good part of the beginning of the Torah portion. The Hebrew name for this portion, and this book, Bamidbar means “in the Wilderness”.  While the name comes from the first words of the book, it has a greater resonance and meaning than simply its lexicographical location.  It also speaks of place in a unique and powerful way. 

Every time we Jews seek inspiration, it seems, we must head out into the desert.  It was true of Abraham and Jacob; it’s certainly true of Moses; and after the Exodus it is true as well for the whole people of Israel, who wander for 40 years in the Wilderness of Sinai, the Midbar Sinai, seeking God and revelation. 

Why must we head out into nothingness to find truth?

Who Goes to Shul Anymore?

on Friday, 20 May 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Cohon's Sermon Behar 5776

A friend of mine asked me recently, “Does anyone go to services Friday night anymore?”  It was an innocent question, reflecting the fact that he doesn’t go to services on Friday night, of course.  But it highlights a cultural change in American Jewry over the last forty years. 

Today there is a sort of consensus opinion in the American Jewish community that Reform and Conservative Jews simply don’t go to synagogue on Shabbat any more.  I am here to tell you that while there is a kernel of truth in that assumption, it is not actually true.  The week my friend asked that question we had three different Friday night services, Shabbat Rocks! in the sanctuary with Avanim, the Chapel service with Adult Choir, and Downtown Shabbat with Armon Bizman at the Jewish History Museum, the Old Stone Avenue Temple, our original home.  There were 140 people at Shabbat Rocks!, 35 in the chapel service, and a full house of 65 downtown.  All three were filled with active, engaged, Jews energetically enjoying Shabbat.  

Taking Sinai With Us

on Wednesday, 18 May 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week’s portion of Behar, the next to last in the Book of Leviticus, begins with the statement that “God spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai saying”, a seemingly unambiguous phrase. These rules of holiness and personal conduct must have been commanded at Mt. Sinai.

Yet earlier in Leviticus it is 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 in the desert, after we have left Mt. Sinai and begun our journey to the Promised Land. As Behar begins the Israelites don’t actually seem to still be at Mt. Sinai at all.

What gives? Why say these laws were given at Mt. Sinai when they clearly weren’t?

The answer lies in the use of metaphor. For in the rabbinic understanding, Mt. Sinai is not just a geographical location, not a simple matter of a specific place at all. Wherever we learn and do mitzvot, whenever we complete ethical acts, do tzedakah, observe rituals with sanctity, study Torah, or work to perfect the world, wherever and whenever we strive to make this a holier, more Jewish place, we are standing at Mt. Sinai.

As committed Jews we take Mt. Sinai with us, and bring God’s very presence into the world. It’s a powerful message indeed. We can make our own lives as holy as the revelation at Mt. Sinai simply by living Torah each and every day, through our own actions.

A Habit of Holiness: Shabbat

on Tuesday, 17 May 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we read the Torah portion of Emor, which includes passages that celebrate the festivals of the Jewish year.  Last week’s portion of Kedoshim focused on the holiness of truly ethical conduct, while in Emor we move to the ways that rituals create holiness in our lives by setting aside times and seasons for sacredness and dedicating these to God.

In a Conservative or Orthodox congregation Emor is one of the most frequently read Torah portions, chanted both when it falls in the normal reading cycle and again on each of the festivals in turn.  That is, we read Emor this week, but also on each of the holy days it describes, from Sukkot in the fall to Passover in the spring to Shavuot in early summer.  In Reform tradition, we read it this Shabbat, but traditionally it is re-read regularly.


Not Coercion, But Concern; Not Compulsion, But Care: Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

on Wednesday, 04 May 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This Shabbat we read the great Torah portion of Kedoshim, which includes the Holiness Code, the ethical injunctions that lie at the heart of Jewish practice.  Kedoshim includes mitzvot that require us to assist the poor, treat strangers, widows, and orphans with generosity and kindness, obligates sensitivity to those with physical and other impairments, and insists on fair business practices.  It directs us to live moral lives, tells us how to do so, and builds thematically to its most powerful message.

That message is ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha, love your neighbor as you love yourself.  It is one of the most powerful of all moral instructions, and it lies at the heart of the religious spirit in life.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

Holiness and Scapegoats

on Wednesday, 27 April 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Acharei Mot 5776

This week, in the aftermath of Passover, we read the Torah portion of Acharei Mot, located near the mid-point of the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra.  Leviticus is centered on the question of how we are to create holiness in our lives, and Acharei Mot addresses the issue in a variety of ways.  The most intriguing is one involving a goat…

A central aspect of our portion explains rituals related to the great and powerful Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, holiest day of the entire year for our ancestors, as it remains for us.  We are commanded to afflict our souls on that day, ta’anu et nafshoteichem.  The rites described in Acharei Mot are quite detailed, and formed the basis for the ways our ancestors observed the Day of Atonement throughout the period when the Temple stood in Jerusalem.  The High Priest purified himself completely, then offered sacrifices of atonement for himself, his family, and his people.  He would then purify the holiest parts of the shrine of the Temple, and finally bring forward a goat as an atonement offering.

Thou Shalt Not Be a Bystander: Never Again Within Me

on Friday, 22 April 2016. Posted in Community Events

Presentation at the Performance of "In the Shadows of the Dreamers" Program

The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (and the Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Monowitz camps) was held on a cold, snowy, windy Tuesday in January of last year in Poland.  The slush around the huge camp was frozen into icy slurry in the early morning, slippery and rough to walk over.  It was on that day 71 years ago that Red Army troops ended the torture and murder of the Jews at Auschwitz, and it is that day that Europeans, and most people around the world, commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The cold, miserable weather suited the place. 

Many Names Many Meanings

on Wednesday, 20 April 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Cohon’s Torah Talk Passover 5776

This Friday we begin the great festival of freedom, Passover, probably the most observed Jewish holiday today.  The Torah readings for Passover, as you might expect, reflect the events of the Exodus in prose, poetry, and ritual.

As a festival, Pesach is special in some unique ways.  Even the name of the holiday has special importance. 

Pesach actually has no fewer than four official names in Jewish tradition: Pesach or Passover, of course, for the paschal offering, the lamb that was sacrificed and roasted in the days of the Bible and the Temple; Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of matzah, the unleavened bread we eat for the week of Passover; Chag HaAviv, the springtime festival, probably the oldest of the names of Passover; and most thematically, zman cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom.  Each of these names has something important to teach us, and each is interesting in and of itself.

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