Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Behar 5776



Taking Sinai With Us

Posted on May 18, 2016

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.

Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Emor 5776



A Habit of Holiness: Shabbat

 Posted on May 17, 2016

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.

Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Kedoshim 5776



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

 Posted on May 9, 2016

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.

This remarkable section comes in the precise center of the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus.  Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, is in the middle of the middle of the Torah.  It forms the heart of the heart of our most sacred text.  And at the heart of the heart of the heart, if you will, is the ethical injunction to love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

This concept is an amazing, utopian ideal—love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. 

But what does that truly mean?  How do you show another person that you love her or him as much as you love yourself?  Is it even possible?

Read more: Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Kedoshim 5776

Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Acharei Mot 5776



Holiness and Scapegoats

 Posted on April 28, 2016

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.

Read more: Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Acharei Mot 5776

Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Passover 5776



Many Names Many Meanings

 Posted on April 22, 2016

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.

Read more: Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Passover 5776