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The Teshuvah of Creating a Just Society

on Thursday, 07 September 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Ki Tavo 5777

Our portion this week, Ki Tavo, gives us powerful commandments about how to live in society.  We are commanded to protect the rights of the impoverished, the widow, the immigrant, and the stranger among us.  We are to be honest in business, careful of the needs of the hungry and the homeless.  We are to create a society of ethical practice and moral concern.  We are to understand that a nation is judged by how it treats its weakest members.  We are told repeatedly that God knows and expects us to live to this covenant, uphold it, cherish it, make it our own.  And we are told of the blessings that will be ours if we can do this, and the curses we will bring on ourselves if we cannot.

For the Birds: Loss and Letting Go

on Friday, 01 September 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Ki Teitzei 5777

September 1, 2017

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon,

Temple Emanu-El

Tucson, Arizona

Although I spend a good deal of time in the great outdoors, my knowledge of zoology is, at best, minimal. My daughter, Cipora, is currently taking a high school field science class in she learns to identify many species of birds by sight and sound.  She ran her electronic flashcards by me one night—and, out of 25 birds, I believe I correctly identified two.  Apparently I am not much of a birder.

Tucson is, I am told, one of the top birding destinations in the country--in fact, in the world.  There are canyons here that people travel from around the world to visit so that they can add to their “collection” of birds.  Although you know now how pathetic my efforts are in this area, even in our own backyard and at our fountain we see hummingbirds, finches, hawks, cardinals, and many more unidentified species.  Coincidentally, I can tell you that this particular Torah portion we read Labor Day weekend this year is, literally, for the birds.  I will explain what I mean in a moment.

The Value of Labor

on Thursday, 31 August 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Ki Teitzei 5777

A question: what are the most important laws?

Our weekly portion of Ki Teitzei in Deuteronomy obligates us to ask this question, for it is filled with an array of laws and ordinances affecting every aspect of life, 72 in all.  They range from rules limiting unorthodox ritual practice to rules limiting conduct in wartime, from personal morality to behavior in society.  Family laws are established concerning marriage, inheritance, and divorce.  Tort laws on damages are instituted, providing moral and financial responsibility for property owners.  Laws of kindness decree human decency in every area of life.

Lots and lots of laws, laws, laws, some obscure, some famous.  In short, Ki Teitzei is a bit dry.  There is a reason lawbooks never make the New York Times bestseller list…  And much of the legislation is outdated, while other sections are completely irrelevant. 

Houston Hurricane Harvey Relief Funds

on Monday, 28 August 2017. Posted in Community Events

Dear Friends,

The news of catastrophic damage and ongoing flooding through the Houston area is stunning and painful.  I know that many of you wish to help, and at our president, Mona Gibson’s suggestion, we will look at ways to partner with a local Reform synagogue as soon as the immediate crisis passes and allows us to see specifically what needs to be done.

For the present, the Union for Reform Judaism, our parent organization, has set up emergency housing at Greene Family Camp, and funds are needed urgently.  You can donate directly through the urj.org website which has a button for Hurricane Harvey relief: https://urj.org/hurricane-harvey.

If you wish to do so, you can send a donation to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund of Temple Emanu-El, noted for Hurricane Harvey (or Houston) relief and we will direct it where it can do the most good when that becomes clearer.

May this great storm abate, and may God bring comfort to those afflicted by it, with our help.

L’Shalom v’Rei’ut, in peace and friendship,

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

One City One County Program, August 24, 2017, City Hall, Tucson, Arizona

on Friday, 25 August 2017. Posted in Community Events

A Prayer delivered by Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Yesterday we began the Jewish month of Elul on the lunar calendar, the final month of the year.  Traditionally we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn each day of that month, to awaken our souls to repentance and return to God and the best we can be.  We had a lot of focus on the sun, this week; the Jewish calendar is based instead on the cycles of the moon, which is still mostly new, and so we begin our month based on that heavenly body, and at the beginning of the month the blast told everyone the date and time of beginning.

Please rise for the blowing of the shofar.  [Shofar is blown]

Justice Behind It All

on Thursday, 24 August 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Shoftim 5777

This week’s portion, from Deuteronomy, is called Shoftim, judges.  It establishes a process for the administration of justice, and includes one of the most powerful statements in all religious, philosophical, or ethical tradition: tzedek, tzedek, tirdof, Justice, justice you shall pursue.

In the Torah, which has no kefel lashon, no extra words, a repetition of a word means that it has additional importance and power.  Here, the word for justice, tzedek is repeated, emphasizing that justice is extraordinarily significant.  We must be not only fair in life but truly just.

Economic Justice for All

on Thursday, 17 August 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Re’eh 5777

It’s one of the great quotations in the entire Torah, and it’s from this week’s reading:  “Look, today I set before a blessing and a curse.  The blessing if you listen to God’s commandments…”

This is a wonderful a statement of ethical choice, and the foundation of the upcoming season of Teshuvah, return and repentance that begins with the month of Elul which starts in a week.  But as important a sentence as it is, it doesn’t match the content of the most valuable teaching in this week’s reading.

On the Outrage in Charlottesville, Virginia Over the Weekend

on Monday, 14 August 2017. Posted in Community Events

A Note from Rabbi Cohon to Temple Emanu-El

Dear Friends,

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend were horrifying and tragic.  The acts of violence and rioting, perpetrated by un-American thugs, should remind every Jew—and every responsible adult—of the long and brutal history of death and destruction caused here and around the world by Nazis and neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, and other racists.  It is no surprise that these cowards marched under the banners of the Nazis, who were the greatest enemies of the United States of America, and of the Klan, who hid under bedsheets to murder fellow American citizens.  It is also no surprise they shouted anti-Jewish slogans, for we Jews have always represented the values that make America truly great.

Morality and the Dalai Lama

on Friday, 11 August 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon on Ekev 5777

This week we read the great Torah portion of Ekev, which tells us how to be morally good.  It is a simple but high standard that is commanded here: listen and observe God’s rules in order to live life as we should. 

But even beyond our own standards of conduct, there are a few individuals in the world who transcend ordinary measures of human quality, and cross all boundary lines of national, religious, and ideological approval.  These are the exceedingly rare people who teach us profound things about our essential nature, and who, in their own lives, demonstrate true moral greatness.  The list is short, and some of the most prominent members have died fairly recently: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Elie Wiesel, for example.  You may have your own candidates.

How Should We Live?

on Thursday, 10 August 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Ekev 5777

As a people, we Jews are good at many things: at kvetching, of course; at lashon hara, gossip, telling people things we shouldn’t; at eating.  Perhaps most importantly, we Jews are good at asking questions.

In fact, the greatest of all Jewish questions was asked in this week’s Torah portion of Ekev, the third sedrah in the Book of Deuteronomy.  It reads:

V’atah, Yisrael, mah Adonai sho’eil mei’imach?, “And now, Israel, what does God ask of you?”

The passage in Ekev then answers this great question, “That you have awe of the Lord your God, and walk in all of God’s ways and love God, and serve the Lord your God will all your heart and all your soul.”

This big question—what does God ask of you?—and Ekev’s answer begin a series of statements in Jewish tradition, attempts to distill from our large moral storehouse just what the essence, the ikar of Jewish ethics really is.  What is it that God wants?  What is the true standard we need to uphold to be considered morally good?

On, and Off, the Temple Mount

on Friday, 04 August 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Shabbat Va'etchanan-Nachamu 5777

SecurityI know that some of you may be here to find out what it was like to meet the Dalai Lama, and hear him teach, as I did while I was in northern India in July.  I can tell you tonight that it was inspirational and amazing, that he is an extraordinary human being, and that I will speak more about it next Shabbat.  That is, this is a teaser, and you have to tune in next week for the story of that experience, the rabbinical version of “what I did on my summer vacation.”

What I do want to talk about tonight is Israel, from which I returned early this past week.

Listen = Love

on Thursday, 03 August 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Va’etchanan/Shabbat Nachamu 5777

You are all familiar with the most important text in this week’s Torah portion of Va’etchanan.  It might be the very first Hebrew words you ever learned: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.  Most commentary on the Shema focuses on the word Echad, One, the core idea of our belief in one God, monotheism itself.  But for me the most interesting word in the Shema is not the word Echad, “one”; no, the most interesting word in that seminal sentence is the very first word, Shema.

What does Shema mean?  Essentially, it means “listen” – or, since it is in the Tzivui, the command form of Hebrew, it means “Listen up!  Pay attention!  Hear what is about to be said.”   So why was it necessary to order the Israelite people to listen? 

Well, of course, if everyone was always listening we would never have to command that.  No one insists that people pay attention when they already are doing so. 

This is a verbal effort to grab the wandering focus of the Israelites and get them to hear what is about to be said.  Listen!  Pay attention!  This is important!  And with the Jewish people that is never an unnecessary summons.

Blessings from Curses

on Thursday, 06 July 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Balak 5777

This week we read the Torah portion of Balak in the Book of Numbers, which includes some of the best words an outsider ever delivered about our people.   In the portion, one of just two in the entire Torah named after a non-Jew, 40 years of wandering have passed and the Israelites have finally arrived on the borders of the land of Canaan.  They are about to move in and they seem unstoppable to their opponents.  Balak, King of Moab, comes up with a novel plan: he will hire Balaam, a pagan sorcerer, to curse the Israelites, which will destroy their chances of defeating his own army and entering his land.

The Price of Holiness, and Healing

on Thursday, 29 June 2017. Posted in Torah Talks

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk On Chukat 5777

This week in the book of Numbers we read the odd, ritualistic Torah portion of Chukat, the rites of the red heifer.  In order to achieve true ritual purity ancient Jews were required to find a completely unblemished young red female cow, slaughter it, burn it to ashes, and mix the ashes with water to create a liquid of purification in which to wash away ritual impurity. 

Hot Enough for You?

on Monday, 26 June 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Sermon on Korach 5777

You know, it was a little bit hot this past week—like 116 degrees hot, like hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk hot, like the devil left here and went to hell for a break from the heat hot, like "It's so hot today I saw two trees fighting over a dog" hot. As the saying goes, “it’s a dry heat,” but so is the inside of a blast furnace and that doesn’t make it a great place to live and work.

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