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Yom Chamishi, 6 Heshvan 5775

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Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה


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Noach 5775: Disaster! and Life After...

on Friday, 24 October 2014. Posted in Sermons

There's an ancient joke about the end of the world.

An astronomer is giving a talk to a community group and he says that in 5 billion years the sun will expand and engulf the earth, ending life as we know it. At this a woman in the back leaps for her chair shouting "Oh my God! Oh my God!", and then faints.

They revive her and the astronomer says, "Well, gee, I know that I said the world will end, but it's a long way off. Don't worry."

And the woman says, "Well, what did you say?"

And the astronomer says, "I said the world will end in 5 billion years."

And the woman says, "Oh! Thank God! I thought you said 5 million years."

People have been predicting the end of the world for a long time, and we still find it believable. Just a few years ago everyone was exercised about the end of the Mayan calendar, which would spell finish to our planet; before that there was the Y2K debacle, in which our technology would finish us off in a massive computer meltdown that never occurred. And so on. Regularly people predict the end of the world as we know it, and we go on feeling fine.

Weekly Torah Talk on Noach 5775

on Thursday, 23 October 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Washing it All Away to Save the Species?

The famous story of Noah in this week's Torah portion has been explained in many ways. It has been interpreted as a moral lesson on the consequences of evil conduct, as a way to establish the concept of covenant between God and humanity, as the first great sea story, even as an environmental fable of the earliest example of global warming.

However you read Noah, who went to sea not for a three-hour tour but for months after forty days and nights of rain, it is a dramatic and rather strange text. God determines that humanity, the crown of creation of which the Holy One initially said, "it is very good," is now failing, destroying the peace of the world through hatred, anger, and murder. The free beings created in the very image of God have made their choices, and they are universally wrong, embracing evil. It is time to start over, to begin afresh.

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..."

Sermon for Pride Service 5775

on Tuesday, 14 October 2014. Posted in Sermons

We meet tonight on the festival of Sukkot, the thanksgiving holiday that is the source of all of our fall and winter celebrations of gratitude in the Western Hemisphere, Jewish, Christian, and turkey-based, too. It all comes from Sukkot, the Feast of booths in the Torah, and that's rather special for us. In truth, we have much to be grateful for on this particular Sukkot, this thanksgiving feast of Tabernacles.

First, the Supreme Court, in its elliptical and legalistic way, appears to be on the cusp of making marriage a truly equal experience in all of America, and that is something to give thanks for indeed. Second, tonight we are joined together in prayer and song and thought across all boundary lines of race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, and political and religious belief, which is always a reason to give thanks. And finally, we are able to be here on the bimah of Temple Emanu-El together openly and proudly celebrating a service of great diversity and beauty like this—and it is not a surprise, nor is it a dramatic act.

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.

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