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

Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Metzora 5776


 Slander and You

 Posted on April 13, 2016

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.

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

Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Tazria 5776


Fear, Respect, and Compassion in a Pandemic

Posted on April 6, 2016

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.

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

Rabbi Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Shemini 5776


Can Human Sacrifice Make Us Holy?

Posted on April 1, 2016

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?

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