Silence & Action - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Shemini 5777

April 21, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

We Jews are talkers.  We are, in fact, among the most famous talkers in all of history. We are a people renowned for our words, and our leaders are legendary for their verbosity.  Even Moses, a man with a speech impediment who protests that he is a man of few words, manages to orate the entire Book of Deuteronomy, supposedly in one long sermon.

There is a reason we are lawyers, comedians, entertainers, and public speakers of all kinds.  We truly have a tremendous oral tradition.

Rabbis, of course, are no exception.  There is a classic Jewish joke.  One friend says to another, “My rabbi is so brilliant he can talk for an hour on any subject.”

And his friend answers, “My rabbi is so brilliant that he can speak for two hours on no subject.”

But sometimes speech is actually an impediment.

Read more: Silence & Action - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Shemini 5777

Arguing for God and Unity - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayikra 5777

March 31, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

One of the most distinctive qualities of Jews everywhere in the world has always been our ability to disagree and remain in dialogue.  That is, we argue but stick together.  Jewish families are typically loud, contentious, and verbally energetic.  Jewish organizations are active, engaged, and often contentious.  But we have an ability, after thousands of years of overcoming adversity, to pull together in spite of our many, many differences.  Most of the time.

I was reflecting on this fact of Jewish life the last few days.  In truth, both in our homes and in our organizational life, we often sound like we are engaged in something closer to courtroom combat than the loving and harmonious lives that we aspire to living.  This friction is something typical of every Jewish group I have ever had the privilege of being a part of, and to someone not initiated into the verbal thrust-and-parry natural to Jews it can seem that there is real animosity when the situation is quite different than that at heart.  It’s just that in Jewish life everyone considers himself or herself to be an expert on, well, everything, and when you get more than one maven in a room at the same time he or she is each certain to be certain that they are right about everything, or at least whatever it is you are talking about at the moment.

Read more: Arguing for God and Unity - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayikra 5777

You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: But What Part of Me is Me? - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon Vayakhel/Pekude/Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

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

Two years ago on my sabbatical trip around the world, I visited with a high-ranking member of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey.  A significant prelate and an important assistant to the Patriarch, he grew up in suburban Chicago and spoke English fluently, of course, and we had a wonderful conversation about theology and ritual.  As I endeavored to understand the intricacies of the Greek Church, he explained carefully to me how central the concept of the rewards of eternal life are for Orthodox Christians.  The goal for every believing person, in his faith, was to achieve eternal reward in a much better world than this one.  And then he said, “I don’t understand how you can get people to be good if they aren’t trying to get to heaven, and afraid of going to hell.” 

I did my best to explain that in Judaism we seek to inspire people to live ethical lives through observing mitzvot, fulfilling commandments designed to make life moral and holy.  And I told him what I always say, respectfully: we Jews are much more interested in the quality of life before death than in theoretical rewards or punishments after death. 

But that’s not really the whole story.

Read more: You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: But What Part of Me is Me? - Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon...

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.”

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

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