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Yom Sheini, 26 Tishri 5775

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Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה


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Weekly Torah Talk on B'reisheet 5775

on Wednesday, 15 October 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Beginning with a Holy Mistake

Tomorrow night we celebrate Simchat Torah—Thursday night at 6:30 PM—the wonderful festival when we complete the reading of the Torah and start all over again at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

B'reisheet, the very first Torah portion of the year, presents a unique challenge to every commentator. There is so much to say—where to begin?

Which is of course precisely the point, for Genesis is the beginning not only of the Torah, but of Judaism—and all Western religion, including Christianity and Islam. It starts with the great theological creation in B'reisheet, and the immortal, eternal words B'reisheet bara Elohim, "In the Beginning, God created..."

Weekly Torah Talk on Sukkot 5775

on Wednesday, 08 October 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Mystical or Moral? Revelation for Sukkot

This week we are celebrating the wonderful, outdoor festival of Sukkot, in which we give thanks to God for the harvest and enjoy our zman simchateinu, the season of happiness. Interestingly, Sukkot has many mystical connections in our tradition, including a variety of messianic events that supposedly will take place at this season in times to come. Perhaps for that reason, the Torah portion selected for this Shabbat by the rabbis is from the sedrah of Ki Tisa, and it is a strange, beautiful section, one of the most mystical in the entire Torah.

The part of the parshah prior to our reading includes the traumatic events of the Golden Calf narrative. In its aftermath, Moses asks God to give him a sign of reassurance. God answers, but in an odd and oblique way that teaches something uniquely important about the elusive nature of spirituality.

As we commence our reading, Moses asks God to go before the people as they continue their journey towards the Promised Land. God agrees. And then Moses asks Hareini na et-kvodecha, "Please show me Your glory!" In other words, let me see You. Like the errant people who created a calf out of golden earrings and then bowed down to it, I need something more tangible than promises for my own spiritual fulfillment. But I am asking, not pushing...


Weekly Torah Talk on Yom Kippur 5775

on Wednesday, 01 October 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Scapegoats, Responsibility, and Holiness

This Shabbat is more than just the "regular" Sabbath—it is Shabbat Shabbaton, the Great Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur. On this holiest day of the year we Reform Jews have not one but two different Torah readings, Nitzavim, the same portion from Deuteronomy that we read just before Rosh Hashanah, and a selection from the middle of the Torah in Leviticus, Kedoshim.

While, atypically for Judaism, all Jews tend to agree on what portion of the Torah is read for almost every ritual occasion, on Yom Kippur there is a significant difference of opinion as to what Torah section should be read. On the morning of the Day of Atonement, Orthodox and Conservative congregations read a description of the rites of sacrificing animals on the Day of Atonement in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, followed by the obscure and interesting ritual of the scapegoat. Their afternoon reading is a long listing of the kinds of sexual immorality that are forbidden by the Torah.

Weekly Torah Talk on Ki Tavo 5774

on Wednesday, 10 September 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

To Change the World

How do we go about changing our world? And how long should it take?

Our Torah portion this week, Ki Tavo, gives us powerful commandments about how we are to live in society. We are commanded to be moral, to protect the rights of the impoverished, the widow, and the stranger. We are to be honest in business, careful of the needs of the hungry and the homeless. We are to create a society of ethical practice and moral concern. We are to understand that a nation is judged by how it treats its weakest, neediest members. We are told repeatedly that God knows and expects us to live to this covenant, to uphold it, to cherish it, to make it our own. And we are told of the blessings that will be ours if we can do this, and the curses we will bring on ourselves if we cannot.

Weekly Torah Talk on Ki Teitzei 5774

on Wednesday, 03 September 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Truly Caring Community

This Shabbat in Temple we will read the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei from the middle section of Deuteronomy, Devarim. Ki Teitzei contains more laws than any other Torah portion, 74 in all, among them the rules that apply to warfare, laws related to safe and proper building construction, and labor laws more enlightened than those that exist in Arizona today. But there is one area of Jewish law addressed in Ki Teitzei that remains especially relevant now.

Weekly Torah Talk on Shoftim 5774

on Wednesday, 27 August 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

And Justice For All

Our portion this week begins with a passage that is perfect for any election year: Shoftim v'shotrim titen l'cha b'chol sh'arecha, judges and officers you shall select for yourselves in all of our gates. Deuteronomy tells us we are to choose official leaders for our cities, our regions, and, ultimately, our country. But what are the Jewish criteria for an appropriate official?

Shoftim tells us: our leaders must judge the people with righteous judgment. They must not favor the rich over the poor. They must not defer to famous or powerful individuals. They must be incorruptible, taking no bribes or influence payments. They must be scrupulously honest.

Weekly Torah Talk on Re'eh 5774

on Wednesday, 20 August 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Advance Credits

I know it's unbelievable, but public school started a week ago, Hebrew School began yesterday, Religious School kicks off this coming Sunday, and the High Holidays are coming up in just over a month. We bless the new month of Elul on this Shabbat because Rosh Chodesh Elul is next Wednesday, the beginning of the last month of the Jewish year, which we will celebrate by inaugurating our new Project Elul program of 6 AM daily connection, prayer, and inspiration. 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.

Weekly Torah Talk on Eikev 5774

on Wednesday, 13 August 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Real Cardiac Jews

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 Eikev, 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 will 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 of b'rit milah, and one that smacks of flat-out self-murder.

Weekly Torah Talk on Va'etchanan 5774

on Wednesday, 06 August 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Listening and Love

This week we read the second portion in the book of Devarim, 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. It's followed immediately by the V'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. A portion that includes the essence of Jewish monotheism, the Shemaand the Ten Commandments, centerpiece of all western ethics, is a pretty spectacular weekly parashah by anyone's standards. It is no accident that this powerfully affirming portion is read the week after Tisha B'Av, on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation, for we take comfort in our knowledge that morality and holiness will ultimately bring justice.

From Rabbi Cohon's Desk

on Friday, 01 August 2014. Posted in Temple Times

Published in the August 2014 issue of the Temple Times

Our beautiful Rubin Family Sanctuary at Temple Emanu-El often receives compliments. Many call it "a holy place," which is gratifying to hear. But what is it that makes a place holy? In fact, what is that makes anything holy?

I have wondered about this question for many years, beginning over a quarter of a century ago when I was still a fresh-faced—well, fresh bearded?—young cantor of 25. It started with a ridiculous example I used in a Hebrew school classroom in Santa Barbara, California. I was trying to explain to my rowdy 7th grade students how something became holy.

"What are some things that are sacred?" I asked.

Perfect Parenting?

on Friday, 01 August 2014. Posted in Tiny Temple Times

published in the August 2014 issue of the Tiny Temple Times

When we first become parents, we are faced with a flood of important decisions we are remarkably unqualified to make: natural childbirth or epidural? Which pediatrician? Mom's nursing or formula? Cloth diapers or disposables? Diaper Genie or composting? The "Family Bed" or tough love? Video or audio monitors or none? Dreft or Tide? Johnson's Baby Shampoo or the extremely expensive organic one the "much-better-parents-down-the-block" use?

Every single choice seems epic, and most are stressful at best. We sense that the decisions we make will affect our precious children for the rest of their lives, and we feel overwhelmingly responsible and sometimes overwhelmed. Will the color of baby Jake's room affect whether he gets into Harvard? Will the stroller we choose damage Susie's chance of playing high school soccer?

Prayers for Peace in the Middle East

on Thursday, 31 July 2014. Posted in Community Events


Almighty God, on behalf of the descendants of Noah, to whom a dove brought the branch of an olive, of the children of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, of the adherents of Jesus, of the Bahai'ullah, of those who worship in the Golden Temple, of the descendants of all the great teachers and holy men and women, we ask you to bless our efforts to bring this weary and troubled world towards peace. Out of the diversity of our histories and traditions, out of the unity of our common humanity we have come to seek wholeness and peace.

Prayers for Peace in the Middle East

on Thursday, 31 July 2014. Posted in Community Events

Opening Remarks

Shalom AleicheimSalaam Aleikum, welcome to our service of Prayers for Peace in the Middle East. We are grateful for your presence tonight in our sanctuary, for gathering to affirm peace. I would like to begin by thanking the leadership of Temple Emanu-El, our president Bonnie Golden, and our Board of Directors for encouraging us to partner with the Israel Center and its outstanding director Oshrat Bar-El in this effort, and supporting it fully. Unfortunately peace, that greatest of all blessings, has long eluded the Middle East. In lands sacred to many of our religious traditions, sometimes on the very ground of the holiest sites of spiritual history and pilgrimage, violence has repeatedly bloodied the landscape. In spite of the best efforts of many wise, sincere, and caring women and men, against the most profound teachings of our holy books and learned scholars, hatred and war have flourished most of the time.

Weekly Torah Talk on Masei 5774

on Wednesday, 23 July 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Cities of Justice

This week's portion of 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 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 like the Hatfields and the McCoys: kill and you would be killed, then your family would avenge the killing, and the other family would respond in kind, and on and on it would go.

Matot 5774: Sticks

on Wednesday, 16 July 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

On a visit to Istanbul, Turkey a few years ago I 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 16 years, and they have a new section of the large museum within Topkapi's ancient walls. It is 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 Muhammed'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.

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