The Olympics, Politics, and Tisha B’Av - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Devarim-Hazon 5776

August 12, 2016

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are well under way, and there is much to celebrate, gold medals and world records and new heroes and heroines for the world, as there are at every Olympics.  There are Jewish Olympic stars this year, too, American born and Israeli, both. After an 8 year wait, Israel won its first Olympic medal since 2008 this week when Yarden Gerbi claimed a bronze medal in the women’s judo competition at the Rio games. She became the fourth Israeli judoka to take an Olympic medal, joining Yael Arad, Oren Smadja, and Arik Ze’evi in earlier Olympics. Israel’s four other Olympic medals have come in sailing or canoeing, two courtesy of Gal Fridman, including Israel's only gold medal.  Gerbi also became just the second Israeli woman to win a medal.  And American Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman added to her two Olympic golds and a bronze from 2012 in London with another team gold and an individual silver in the all-around gymnastics category, with some of her events left to go. 

Superstar Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky isn’t Jewish—she is a practicing Catholic—but some of her remarkable motivation comes from her Jewish grandmother, Berta.  When Katie was 10, Berta took her to a Jewish cemetery in Prague and showed her the graves of her family members who died during the Holocaust.  The memory clearly stuck with Katie, and that visit is often on her mind, according to interviews. 

Read more: The Olympics, Politics, and Tisha B’Av - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon Devarim-Hazon 5776

Love Israel, but Love Judaism Here, Too - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon Sermon Masei 5776

August 5, 2016

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

 

I spent two busy days this past week in the Colorado mountains visiting friends and talking about Israel and the American Jewish community’s relationship to it.  I had the chance to listen to and talk with a variety of prominent American Jewish figures about just how we here in the United States now view Israel; among them were Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the extraordinary Orthodox rabbi who more or less invented Jewish pluralism, and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, head of CLAL; and then on the drive down from the mountains to the Denver Airport I participated in a rabbinic conference call with two outstanding Israeli figures, Rabbi Michael Marmur and Gershom Gorenberg, on very much the same subject.

The question that was addressed in public debate and in many private conversations and on the webinar, was just how we Jews here in America perceive Israel right now, and how much of what we actually think about Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians we can say publicly.  As you know, generally speaking, Jews aren’t afraid of saying anything about anything in public, so this is a little bit of a surprising topic.  But in view of the current situation in Israel and the West Bank, and the politics of the American Jewish world, this has become a significant flashpoint. 

Read more: Love Israel, but Love Judaism Here, Too - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon Sermon Masei 5776

Terrorism Always Fails - Rabbi Cohon’s Sermon on Pinchas 5776

July 22, 2016

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

 

This has been a busy three weeks in the news, domestically and abroad, and in the course of it my wife Wendy and I went on vacation to France.  We did this only partly to escape the bombastic noise of the US presidential election.  In any case, we were in Paris for Bastille Day, the French national holiday, and on the morning of July 14th the newspaper headlines highlighted a scandal involving French President Francoise Hollande.  He is accused of employing a hairdresser to cut and style his hair at the cost to the French treasury of over 9,000 euros a month, roughly $10,000, as much as a cabinet minister makes.  Hollande is a Socialist, who became president in part by claiming he would make the job more normal and less imperial.  Apparently his hair was not covered by that campaign promise.  This he has in common with other leading world figures, I believe.

By the end of the night the news cycle had changed dramatically.  We went to see the fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower celebrating Bastille Day, and it was a great show indeed, wonderful pinwheels of fire and color all up and down the famous landmark, carefully coordinated with thematic music.  There were many thousands of thrilled spectators, mostly French, and large numbers of heavily armed French troops and police controlling the area.  But when we returned to our hotel room we learned of the horrific attack on the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, the murder of 84 people, including many children, with over 200 more innocent people wounded.  And shortly after the events, and a bit after midnight in Paris, there was Francoise Holland on the TV news in a suit, speaking movingly about how terrorism would not defeat France, "France is afflicted, but she is strong, and she will always be stronger than the fanatics who want to strike her today," and emphasizing that Bastille Day celebrated France’s dedication to liberty and freedom.

His hair looked perfect…

Read more: Terrorism Always Fails - Rabbi Cohon’s Sermon on Pinchas 5776

Bald Truths: How Rebellion Teaches us About Leadership - Rabbi Cohon's Sermon on Korach 5776

July 1, 2016

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

 

Korach chronicles the greatest rebellion in the entire Torah, the palace revolt of the Levite Korach and his 400 followers against the divinely ordained leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron.  As so often seems to be the case, we Jews are our own worst enemies.  The result of this insurrection is disastrous, at least for the rebels.  The earth opens and Korach and all of his misguided followers are swallowed up, never to be heard from again. 

By tradition, the rebellion of Korach is the absolute worst revolt of its sort in Jewish history.  But this is hardly the first rebellion of the Israelites against Moses’ leadership, and it is certainly also not the last.  In a couple of weeks the Torah portion of Pinchas will conclude yet another episode of an insider revolution, that one solved by the point of a spear.  And the rebellions against Moses and God have been pretty continuous: the criticism on the very shore of the Red Sea, the Golden Calf episode, the intense unhappiness of the Children of Israel throughout their peregrinations in the desert right up to last week’s story of the failed spies in Shlach L’cha.  Our ancestors had a very bad habit of constantly being dissatisfied and continuously trying to overthrow the proper order of things.  Whoever was in charge always got the brunt of the criticism and the lion’s share of the hostility.

Read more: Bald Truths: How Rebellion Teaches us About Leadership - Rabbi Cohon's Sermon on Korach 5776

The Right Kind of Spies - Rabbi Cohon's Sermon on Shlach Lecha 5776

June 24, 2016

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

The Chabad House at Harvard challenges the Harvard University oarsmen to a rowing contest. but soon discovers that the Harvard crew is recording practice times that are twice as fast as their own. So the Chabad captain sends a spy across to Harvard to find out why and how they row so fast. A few hours later the spy returns.

“Nuh,” says the Chabad captain, “tell us!”

“Well,” says the spy, “They do everything the opposite of us.”

“Explain,” says the captain.

“It's simple,” says the spy, “They've got eight men rowing and one man shouting!”

This little joke has relevance for this week’s Torah portion of Shelach Lecha, for two reasons.  For the question of what makes for a good spy, and  just where you find the professional qualities necessary for doing espionage work are central to our parshah, and can teach us some important things.  And the need for more people to row, and fewer to shout, is always important in the Jewish circles…

I’m sure that there are all kinds of tests available today for determining who makes a good subject for intelligence work and who just can’t pull it off.   In spite of the oft-repeated slander that the definition of an oxymoron is military intelligence, no doubt both armed services and civilian agencies have lots of ways of figuring out who is good at this stuff and who isn’t. 

Read more: The Right Kind of Spies - Rabbi Cohon's Sermon on Shlach Lecha 5776