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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.

Real Cardiac Jews

on Wednesday, 24 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Ekev 5776

Have you heard about the new movement in Judaism?  It's not Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, or even Reconstructionist or Renewal.  It's "cardiac Jews."  You know - "I'm Jewish in my heart."  While we usually think of this as a kind of abdication, meaning "I'm Jewish in my heart but I don't do anything about it in my actual life," there is one sense in which being a cardiac Jew can have real meaning.

In the middle of our weekly Torah portion of Ekev a great question is asked: "What does the Lord your God ask of you?  "That you have awe of the Lord your God, and walk in all of God's ways and love God, and serve the Lord your God with

 all your heart and all your soul."   But it then follows this wonderful spiritual and moral instruction with a puzzling passage in which it tells us to do something physically impossible.  We are commanded to "circumcise the foreskin of our hearts."  This is a new kind ofberit milah, and one that smacks of flat-out self-murder.  

Learning to Listen, and So to Love

on Wednesday, 17 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Va’etchanan/Nachamu 5776

This week we read the second portion in the book of Deuteronomy in the Torah, the remarkable sedrah of Va’etchananVa’etchanan includes truly spectacular texts: the Shema, the central statement of God’s oneness in the world, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One, followed immediately by the Ve’ahavta, the commandment to love God with all of our hearts, minds, and strength.  

As if that were not enough honor for one Torah portion, Va’etchanan also includes the recitation of the Ten Commandments, the Aseret Hadibrot, for the second time in the Torah.  If you were to rank Torah portions you could easily put Va’etchanan near the top in quality of content.  It is no accident that this powerfully affirming portion is read the week after Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation, for we take comfort in our knowledge that morality and holiness will ultimately bring justice.

The Olympics, Politics, and Tisha B’Av

on Tuesday, 16 August 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Devarim-Hazon 5776

The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are well under way, and there is much to celebrate, gold medals and world records and new heroes and heroines for the world, as there are at every Olympics.  There are Jewish Olympic stars this year, too, American born and Israeli, both. After an 8 year wait, Israel won its first Olympic medal since 2008 this week when Yarden Gerbi claimed a bronze medal in the women’s judo competition at the Rio games. She became the fourth Israeli judoka to take an Olympic medal, joining Yael Arad, Oren Smadja, and Arik Ze’evi in earlier Olympics. Israel’s four other Olympic medals have come in sailing or canoeing, two courtesy of Gal Fridman, including Israel's only gold medal.  Gerbi also became just the second Israeli woman to win a medal.  And American Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman added to her two Olympic golds and a bronze from 2012 in London with another team gold and an individual silver in the all-around gymnastics category, with some of her events left to go. 

Superstar Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky isn’t Jewish—she is a practicing Catholic—but some of her remarkable motivation comes from her Jewish grandmother, Berta.  When Katie was 10, Berta took her to a Jewish cemetery in Prague and showed her the graves of her family members who died during the Holocaust.  The memory clearly stuck with Katie, and that visit is often on her mind, according to interviews.  

Speech, Listening, and Practice

on Tuesday, 16 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Devarim/Hazon 5776

This week we begin the great final book of the Torah, Devarim or Deuteronomy, which is also known as Mishnah Torah.  The people of Israel have arrived at the very borders of the Promised Land, and our great leader Moses begins a long sermon--three, actually--that will carry us forward through the entire book of Deuteronomy.  If you thought some rabbi's sermons were on the long-winded side, try this: Moses first speech in Deuteronomy starts this Shabbat and doesn't conclude until next week--and that's by far the shortest of his sermons in Devarim.

Nowadays, most rabbis wouldn't dream of delivering a sermon that lasted for several weeks...  Perhaps even rabbis have the capacity to learn from their predecessors!

Chance, Free Will and Choosing Judaism

on Friday, 05 August 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon Sermon Matot 5776

I had a very interesting day yesterday.  While cycling on the Rillito River bike path early in the morning I got a flat tire—not shocking, it happens from time to time.  With the assistance of my friend and a passing stranger we replaced the inner tube, and reinflated the tire, and were back on the road, with no greater calamity than the loss of 30 minutes of riding time.

I went home, showered and put on a suit and headed towards the cemetery to conduct an unveiling ceremony—and noticed that now my car tires were showing as being very low on my dashboard monitor.  So I stopped into the tire place on the way to the cemetery, got some air, and was told that although I had a run-flat tire I should return soon and get the flat fixed. 

I did the unveiling, rearranged my schedule, and went back to the tire place.  Another friend, Richard, picked me up there so we could have a previously scheduled temple meeting on our Adult Education Academy, and he said, “You know, bad things come in threes!”  And I said, “Shut up!”

And when I got home from work in the evening I went to hang up my suit, and discovered that my entire closet had suddenly collapsed. Which meant that I spent the next three hours fixing that, too.

Weird, unpredictable, unusual occurrences.  Two flat tires on two different modes of transportation followed by a collapsed closet?  No great tragedies or traumas, nothing overwhelming or horrible, all fixable.  But a great reminder that we really can’t predict what’s going to happen to us at any time.  In sports, injured players are often described as being “day-to-day”; as in, “Paul Goldschmidt has a bruised knee and he is listed as day-to-day.”  And as the great broadcaster Vin Scully added, “But then, aren’t we all?”

Yes, Vin, we are all day-to-day…

The Ultimate Punishment

on Wednesday, 03 August 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week’s portion Masei includes the final chapters of the book of Numbers.  In this concluding section of Bamidbar an important and unusual institution is created: the city of refuge. 

In the days before police forces and criminal courts were common, justice in cases of manslaughter or murder was typically accomplished by the family of the victim.  What we would probably consider vigilante action was the normal means of addressing the moral and social disruption created by a killing.  If you killed someone, intentionally or accidentally, or even if the family of a person who was killed thought you had done the killing, you would likely be killed by their kinsmen.  It was the Hatfields and McCoys: kill and you would be killed, and then your family would avenge the killing, and the other family would respond in kind, and on and on it would go. 

Love Israel, but Love Judaism Here, Too

on Friday, 29 July 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon Sermon Parshat Masei 5776

I spent two busy days this past week in the Colorado mountains visiting friends and talking about Israel and the American Jewish community’s relationship to it.  I had the chance to listen to and talk with a variety of prominent American Jewish figures about just how we here in the United States now view Israel; among them were Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the extraordinary Orthodox rabbi who more or less invented Jewish pluralism, and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, head of CLAL; and then on the drive down from the mountains to the Denver Airport I participated in a rabbinic conference call with two outstanding Israeli figures, Rabbi Michael Marmur and Gershom Gorenberg, on very much the same subject.

The question that was addressed in public debate and in many private conversations and on the webinar, was just how we Jews here in America perceive Israel right now, and how much of what we actually think about Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians we can say publicly.  As you know, generally speaking, Jews aren’t afraid of saying anything about anything in public, so this is a little bit of a surprising topic.  But in view of the current situation in Israel and the West Bank, and the politics of the American Jewish world, this has become a significant flashpoint.  

Magical Sticks and God’s Will

on Wednesday, 27 July 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

Turkey has been all over the news the last two weeks with its abortive coup, and President Erdogan retaining power.  It reminded me of an unusual experience I had a few years back in Turkey.

On a visit to Istanbul, we visited Topkapi Palace, the center of power for the mighty Ottoman Empire from 1450 to the 1800’s, 400 years in which they dominated a huge portion of the globe.  I had not been in Istanbul in many years, and they had built a new section of the large museum within Topkapi’s ancient walls called The Chamber of Sacred Relics.

While Topkapi Palace is literally filled with rooms and objects of great historical and religious importance, carefully curated with dates and sources, this particular area is actually put together by a Muslim religious agency and it includes what can only be called a collection of pious forgeries and frauds.  As tourists shuffle past the elegantly lit displays arrayed behind thick bulletproof glass, they learn that they are viewing the cooking pot of Abraham, the turban of Joseph, Aaron the High Priest’s breastplate, King David’s armor, and Mohammed’s sword and tooth, plus a hair from his beard.  I think they might also have had a footprint of Noah’s in preserved rock.  In imitation of the medieval Christian veneration of fake religious objects in ornate reliquaries, each of these pseudo-relics is reverently presented with an appropriate Biblical verse from the Tanakh or New Testament or Koran, and each is treated as though it were the Hope Diamond or a Sultan’s bejeweled coronation robe.  

Terrorism Always Fails

on Friday, 22 July 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Cohon's Sermon Pinchas 5776

This has been a busy three weeks in the news, domestically and abroad, and in the course of it my wife Wendy and I went on vacation to France.  We did this only partly to escape the bombastic noise of the US presidential election.  In any case, we were in Paris for Bastille Day, the French national holiday, and on the morning of July 14th the newspaper headlines highlighted a scandal involving French President Francoise Hollande.  He is accused of employing a hairdresser to cut and style his hair at the cost to the French treasury of over 9,000 euros a month, roughly $10,000, as much as a cabinet minister makes.  Hollande is a Socialist, who became president in part by claiming he would make the job more normal and less imperial.  Apparently his hair was not covered by that campaign promise.  This he has in common with other leading world figures, I believe.

By the end of the night the news cycle had changed dramatically.  We went to see the fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower celebrating Bastille Day, and it was a great show indeed, wonderful pinwheels of fire and color all up and down the famous landmark, carefully coordinated with thematic music.  There were many thousands of thrilled spectators, mostly French, and large numbers of heavily armed French troops and police controlling the area.  But when we returned to our hotel room we learned of the horrific attack on the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, the murder of 84 people, including many children, with over 200 more innocent people wounded.  And shortly after the events, and a bit after midnight in Paris, there was Francoise Holland on the TV news in a suit, speaking movingly about how terrorism would not defeat France, "France is afflicted, but she is strong, and she will always be stronger than the fanatics who want to strike her today," and emphasizing that Bastille Day celebrated France’s dedication to liberty and freedom.

His hair looked perfect…

Bald Truths: How Rebellion Teaches us About Leadership

on Friday, 01 July 2016. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon on Korach 5776

Korach chronicles the greatest rebellion in the entire Torah, the palace revolt of the Levite Korach and his 400 followers against the divinely ordained leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron.  As so often seems to be the case, we Jews are our own worst enemies.  The result of this insurrection is disastrous, at least for the rebels.  The earth opens and Korach and all of his misguided followers are swallowed up, never to be heard from again. 

By tradition, the rebellion of Korach is the absolute worst revolt of its sort in Jewish history.  But this is hardly the first rebellion of the Israelites against Moses’ leadership, and it is certainly also not the last.  In a couple of weeks the Torah portion of Pinchas will conclude yet another episode of an insider revolution, that one solved by the point of a spear.  And the rebellions against Moses and God have been pretty continuous: the criticism on the very shore of the Red Sea, the Golden Calf episode, the intense unhappiness of the Children of Israel throughout their peregrinations in the desert right up to last week’s story of the failed spies in Shlach L’cha.  Our ancestors had a very bad habit of constantly being dissatisfied and continuously trying to overthrow the proper order of things.  Whoever was in charge always got the brunt of the criticism and the lion’s share of the hostility.

Korach chronicles the greatest rebellion in the entire Torah, the palace revolt of the Levite Korach and his 400 followers against the divinely ordained leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron.  As so often seems to be the case, we Jews are our own worst enemies.  The result of this insurrection is disastrous, at least for the rebels.  The earth opens and Korach and all of his misguided followers are swallowed up, never to be heard from again. 

By tradition, the rebellion of Korach is the absolute worst revolt of its sort in Jewish history.  But this is hardly the first rebellion of the Israelites against Moses’ leadership, and it is certainly also not the last.  In a couple of weeks the Torah portion of Pinchas will conclude yet another episode of an insider revolution, that one solved by the point of a spear.  And the rebellions against Moses and God have been pretty continuous: the criticism on the very shore of the Red Sea, the Golden Calf episode, the intense unhappiness of the Children of Israel throughout their peregrinations in the desert right up to last week’s story of the failed spies in Shlach L’cha.  Our ancestors had a very bad habit of constantly being dissatisfied and continuously trying to overthrow the proper order of things.  Whoever was in charge always got the brunt of the criticism and the lion’s share of the hostility.

On Arrogance and Reverence

on Wednesday, 29 June 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week our portion features drama and tragedy, rebellion and punishment.  To recap last week’s events, the people of Israel have come to the borders of the Promised Land just two years after leaving Egyptian slavery. But a team of spies comes back with a poor report: we aren’t strong enough to conquer the land.  Shocked, the Israelites rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.  The rebellion fails, and a verdict is proclaimed: a lack of faith in God lies at the heart of the problem, and God decides this generation can never come into the Holy Land, and will have to live in the Sinai for 38 more years, until they are all gone.  Only then can a new generation, fresh with the optimism of youth and untainted by slavery and its mentality, come forward into the Promised Land.

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.

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