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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.

In most aspects of our lives the things that happen rarely are considered more important: graduations, weddings, milestone birthdays, and vacations, for example.  Paradoxically, in Jewish tradition, those rituals which are observed more frequently are considered superior in holiness to those which occur less frequently.  The more you do something the holier it is.

That is, the meaningful things you do most frequently are considered to be the most important—or should be.  Your actions should reflect your values.  Which means that the process of remembering and celebrating the festivals, particularly the most frequent festival of all, the Sabbath, is especially important. 

It is a habit of holiness, a way to raise the ordinary to the extraordinary. 

And you can do that each week, on Shabbat, every Friday and Saturday, by lighting candles, singing Kiddush, enjoying a Sabbath dinner with your family or friends.  And by attending Sabbath services at Temple. 

This Friday, for example, we have three different services, Shabbat Rocks! at 6:30 PM or our Chapel Service at 7:30 PM at Temple Emanu-El, and Downtown Shabbat at 9:30 PM at the Jewish History Museum on Stone Avenue.   Saturday morning our services are at 10 AM at Temple.

On this week of parshat Emor, may you find a way to create this habit of holiness, the Sabbath, in your own life.

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

on Monday, 09 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 Thursday, 28 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.

Many Names Many Meanings

on Friday, 22 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.

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. 

Slander and You

on Wednesday, 13 April 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week’s Torah portion of Metzora focuses on the question of leprosy, a dreaded disease in the ancient world but mostly an archaic and pretty disgusting section to us today.  It’s true that leprosy was an awful thing, and needed to be eliminated if at all possible, in particular by using the concept of quarantine to isolate it.  But exploring what our ancestors believed to be an infectious disease at great length in a Sabbath service not always spiritually meaningful today.

The rabbis of our tradition recognized this problem long ago, and came up with an ingenious and meaningful reinterpretation: the word Metzora, which means leprosy, was itself an abbreviation for the term in Hebrew Motzi shem ra—which means slander or evil speech.  Our moral goal in life should be to completely eliminate from our lives and habits motzi shem ra, the awful tendency we have to speak ill of others, a kind of interpersonal leprosy. 

Fear, Respect, and Compassion in a Pandemic

on Wednesday, 06 April 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

In the past two years we have seen fears of a global pandemic explode.  Last year—you may have actually forgotten this by now—the world was terrified by the explosive spread of the Ebola virus in Africa, which killed thousands of people and threatened to spread worldwide.  There were cover articles on Ebola in every mainstream magazine, and the internet was filled with horror stories of the imminent danger Ebola posed to all of humanity; air travel to and from Africa was nearly interdicted.  This year we have the less-terrifying but still bizarre and shocking Zika virus, which causes babies to be born with tiny heads, called microcephaly, and threatens all pregnant women.  Seemingly, each year or two another severely dangerous disease appears in the world, and the world reacts with horror and fear.

Can Human Sacrifice Make Us Holy?

on Friday, 01 April 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we read the Torah portion of Shemini, which includes the dramatic incident in which the High Priest Aaron’s two sons, kohanim, priests of God serving in the holy Tabernacle, offer strange fire and are immediately consumed by fire themselves.  Aaron is distraught, and his brother Moses comforts him in God’s words, saying, “bikrovai ekadesh, v’al p’nai chol ha’am ekaveid—by those brought close to me I am sanctified, and before all the people I am honored.”  In other words, those who die before their time, as martyrs, are made holy to God, and their sacrifice brings honor to the Lord and to the people.

This is troubling and confusing.  Judaism, from its beginning, rejected the entire concept of human sacrifice.  In the story of the Akeidat Yitzchak in Genesis, God instructs Abraham to ritually offer up his beloved son Isaac—but then reverses course, and demonstrates to him, and to all of us, that we are never again to sacrifice a human being for religious purposes.

And yet here those who have just been ordained as priests, leaders of the sacred services that bring us all closer to God, are literally turned into korbanot, burnt offerings in the very place where they lead worship.  How do we reconcile this?

Is God Good? Natural Disasters and Ethics

on Thursday, 24 March 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

In doing some spring cleaning in my office, I recently re-found a paper entitled “Acts of God” listing a wide variety of natural disasters—plus some human ones, like fires and trampling incidents—in which many people have died over the last 2000 years or so.

I have rarely failed to rise to appropriately flavored ideological bait, and this was certainly a tasty morsel of theological challenge.  The implication in the article I received—which documented most major natural tragedies in human history, and seemed to credit them all to “acts of God”—was that if God is powerful, and God is good, what kind of God causes these horrific natural disasters that kill so many people, including the elderly and small children?  As this article put it, “Here are some of the more spectacular acts of God since recorded time, and their toll in human lives…” and it then went through a list of earthquakes, epidemics, floods, hurricanes, volcanoes, and fires with a tabulation of their victims. 

Cheerful stuff.  Obviously, in that view, either God is all-powerful but none-too merciful, or God isn’t very powerful and God’s mercy is therefore pretty irrelevant.

Letting God In

on Friday, 18 March 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we begin the middle book of the Torah, Leviticus.  The Hebrew name for this book comes from its first word, Vayikra, God called.  It is a book filled with ritual observances and rites that are designed to create and nurture sanctity.  But it begins in an interesting and instructive way, with a famous oddity in that very first word.

Vayikra, as it’s written in the Torah, has a very small final letter, a reduced-size Aleph, written much smaller than the other three letters.  Aleph, the Midrash tells us, is the first letter of the word ani, I; therefore, if we wish God to call us directly we must similarly diminish our focus on “I”, and seek to limit our ego.  If we can do that, then we, like Moses, will be able to clearly hear God’s call, to respond, and find the holiness that makes up the central subject of the Book of Leviticus.  Less of the “I”, and so, more of God.

Rebellion, The Jewish Act

on Monday, 29 February 2016. Posted in Sermons

Sermon Shabbat Ki Tisa 5776

Last night my daughter Cipora and I went to see the latest Coen brothers’ movie, called “Hail, Cesar!”  A farcical tribute to the old studio-controlled movie business of the early 1950’s, with broad parodies of Cold-War themes, it centers around the making of a kind  of Quo-Vadis/Ben Hur Hollywood epic with Christian religious themes.  At one point the studio fixer, Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, calls in four clergymen to inoculate the studio against charges of impiety and being sacrilegious.  It is a very, very funny scene, mostly because the other clergy—the bishop, the Greek Orthodox patriarch, the Protestant minister—are mostly agreeable, while the rabbi pretty much disagrees with everything.  No great surprise…  Of course he does.   

Looking for God in all the Wrong Places

on Thursday, 25 February 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Torah Talk on Ki Tissa 5776

This week we read the portion of Ki Tissa, the story of the Golden Calf.  While Moses is up on Mt. Sinai watching God carve the 10 commandments in stone, the Israelites start to worry that he’s not coming back.  They persuade his older brother Aaron to make them an idol of gold, a calf, that they can call their new god.  Pleased with the result, they worship it, and then they throw a big party, a bacchanal, a carnival, perhaps a Rodeo—Mardi Gras in the Sinai.

Keep the Fire Bright

on Tuesday, 23 February 2016. Posted in Torah Talks

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

This week we read the Torah portion of Tetzaveh in the Book of Exodus, a ritually oriented parshah which gives the commandment to create a Ner Tamid, an eternal light, for the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.  The Tabernacle was the first sanctuary of the people of Israel.  Although technically speaking the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, was a very elaborate, portable tent, it was the also the place where God’s Presence, in the form of the Shechinah, resided.  In a sense, that’s where God lived, or more accurately—since God is everywhere—it was where God was most available to us.

Last week in Terumah our ancestors were asked to create this sacred space through the voluntary gifts of their hearts.  This week we are told that there should be a continual fire, a ner tamid, a constant light shining on the altar, sign of God’s faithful and permanent presence in our midst.  Revealingly, that light is to be created and kindled by us, not God.  We must build the altar, and the fire, and continue to feed and nurture it to keep it alive.  And if you have ever kept a fire burning around the clock—say, at a campout or bonfire, or for heat on a cold winter’s night in some frigid clime—you know just how much fuel you need to do it.  You are always either stoking it or bringing in more wood for it to burn. If neglected for any length of time it burns out.

The Most Unlikely Leader

on Tuesday, 23 February 2016. Posted in Sermons

Sermon Shabbat Shemot 5776

There is a story.

In an effort to improve their challenging personal relationship, President Barack Obama is talking on the phone to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, leader to leader, and they are comparing notes.  President Obama is explaining patiently that he has the more difficult job, since not only is he the leader of the most important country in the entire world, but the scale of things is completely different: while Israel is a small nation, he, President Obama, is the president of 330 million people.  But Prime Minister Netanyahu replies that actually he has the more difficult job: “You are the president of 330 million citizens; but I am the president of 7 million presidents!”

I believe that joke was first told about Harry Truman and David Ben Gurion…  But though old, it establishes an important aspect of Jewish leadership, and one that has great relevance this week.

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