Mishpatim and Freedom - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Mishpatim 5777

February 24, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

The great 1960’s comedian, Alan Sherman, most famous for his song “Hello Muddah Hello Faddah”, once wrote a book about restrictions on human behavior. In it, he decided to invent a new religion, which would have only one commandment: Thou shalt not stuff 37 tennis balls down the toilet. In great excitement he went to a sign painter to create the tablet of this new covenant, and asked him to make up a huge sign with that commandment on it. But the sign painter refused.

“Friend,” he said, “I’m going to do you a big favor. I’m not going to paint your sign. Because if I paint it, the day after the sign goes up, there will be a run on sporting goods stores. Tennis balls will sell like hotcakes, and plumbers will be working round the clock. The virtuous among us will only stuff 36 tennis balls down their toilets. Normal sinners will stuff 37 tennis balls down their toilets. And the truly wicked will stuff 38 tennis balls down their toilets. Friend, we human beings are many things; but we all of us are perverse.”

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For Argument’s Sake - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayeitzei 5777

December 9, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

The noise we have been hearing in the past few weeks about a rising tide of Anti-Semitism right here in America is disturbing.  The thing about Anti-Semitism is that just when you think it has receded from view and is no longer a serious problem in one sector of society or one nation in the world, it comes back…  and there is now increasing concern that Anti-Semitism is making strong inroads here in the United States.

The new American Jewish concern about heightened degrees of Anti-Semitism comes as a result of some of the very ugly themes of the recent presidential election campaign, particularly the focus it brought to what is called the Alt-Right movement, and the alternative—that is, fake—news that some of its elements have spawned.  There were a number of instances during the presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath of anti-Semitic chants, of reporters blasted with anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi harangues, of commercials that hinted at Nazi-era slurs about Jewish control of world finance or the media, and other disturbing incidents that we haven’t seen in America in many years.

Read more: For Argument’s Sake - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayeitzei 5777

The Good News/Bad News Dichotomy - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayera 5777

November 18, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

Members of the Board of Directors are visiting the rabbi, who is in the hospital.  “I have good news and bad news,” the delegation leader says.

“What’s the good news?” the rabbi asks.

“The board voted to wish you a refuah shleimah, a speedy healing.”

“Thank you!” says the rabbi.  “But what’s the bad news?”

And the delegation leader says, “The vote was 10 to 9.”

Good news/bad news indeed…

Read more: The Good News/Bad News Dichotomy - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayera 5777

The Social Covenant - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Noach 5777

November 4, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

It is so remarkably appropriate that it rained, hard, this week, because of course on this Shabbat we are reading the greatest rain story of all time, the tale of Noah, the truly ancient mariner, when it poured for forty days and forty nights and the world was inundated with water.  Sometimes the Torah syncs up so beautifully with the natural world around us… although in the Sonoran Desert it takes more than a single hard rain to create a flood, or even a steady flow in the Rillito River.  I should note that it also rained quite a bit the night of Simchat Torah ten days ago, just after we had offered the prayer for rain, the t’filat geshem, during Shemini Atzeret services that morning.  Apparently, we are very good at directing divine intervention here at Temple Emanu-El, at least of the meteorological sort. 

I must note that in addition to the coincidence of rain, there is another great confluence in our portion that goes, perhaps, a little deeper into current events and the present climate, although the political rather than the weather-related climate.  After the flood there is a great covenant, a brit, established in our Torah portion.  A covenant—what an elevated word that is!—in more prosaic terms is a contract between God and humanity.  We agree to certain things, and God agrees to certain things.  In this case, after the dove brings back the olive branch and the waters subside from the earth, God agrees to never again wash away humanity and all other terrestrial life through a great deluge.  Noah doesn’t say that we won’t have the capacity to do so, say through creating global warming, but it does definitely testify that God won’t flood us all again.  In exchange, Noah and all his descendants—that is, all of us—agree to abide by certain stipulations. 

The sign of this covenant, of course, is the rainbow in the sky after a storm, favored subject of many songs and myths, from Judy Garland singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the show Finian’s Rainbow to Tony Bennett warbling “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” to the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” to The Muppets, “The Rainbow Connection…”  Heck, Kermit the Frog even started his song in The Muppets Movie by saying, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows…”  But I digress.    

Read more: The Social Covenant - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Noach 5777

Deadlines - Rabbi Batsheva Appel Opening Ne'ilah 5777

October 12, 2016
Rabbi Batsheva Appel
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

You might remember a famous skit from Saturday Night Live that is now almost 30 years old. A man is sitting in an office and receiving a call, realizes that he missed a deadline and things are dire. He immediately finishes the project that is needed and goes to Einstein Express.  Their claim is that “Using a patented superconductor matrix, coupled with Einstein's theory of space-time continuum, we can transport any document or package up to ten pounds into the past.” The package is sent three days back into the past and the man’s job is saved. It ends with the tagline: “Einstein Express. When it absolutely, positively, has to be there the day before yesterday.”

Deadlines. As we begin the Ne’ilah service, we are facing the deadline of the end of Yom Kippur, the end of this 25 hours of repentance and atonement. There is just a little bit of time left to get our final prayers for the day in. As Rabbi Cohon noted last night, we cannot go back in time to redo this year, this month, this 10 days since Rosh Hashanah, or even to last night – the weight limit for Einstein Express is 10 pounds after all. We reach the service of Ne’ilah knowing that we are at the deadline.

Read more: Deadlines - Rabbi Batsheva Appel Opening Ne'ilah 5777