Sermons and Drashot
Kos Simcha—A Cup of Joy
For Congregation Beit Simcha
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
There is a beautiful passage in the Talmud in the Tractate on Blessings, Masechet Brachot 51a, that explains the practice and meaning for offering a blessing and drinking an additional cup of wine during Birkat HaMazon, the Grace After Meals at the end of a feast. This particular practice is considered to be highly laudatory, beautifying and beneficial, an outstanding example of hiddur mitzvah, a way to fulfill a basic commandment so that it literally raises it up with a special kind of joy.
This being the Talmud, they must ask, “What is the proper way to prepare and offer this cup of wine?” After some discussion, the rabbis conclude that the cup of wine must meet four criteria: you have to use a cup that is rinsed, washed, undiluted and full. That means the cup must be thoroughly cleaned both inside and outside, the wine must be of the best quality and the cup must be completely full to overflowing. The reasoning is that this must be a healthy, sanitary practice, have the highest ritual quality and integrity, and the gratitude expressed must be complete and full.
The four first Hebrew letters of the words that signify the rules—hadacha, shtifah, chai, malei—form a simple acronym, Hey Shin Chet Mem. By a simple rearrangement of these letters they spell out the real purpose of this special celebratory kos, this cup of blessing. Slightly reordered we find that they are Sin, Mem, Chet, Hey—the wonderful Hebrew word Simchah, which means joy and celebration. This makes the kos Kiddush, the cup of sanctification, a true simcha shel mitzvah, the very real joy that comes from fulfilling a commandment.
I think of this beautiful drashah, this lovely interpretation, as symbolic of our new congregation. Judaism is a religion of purpose, meaning, holiness, history and moral calling. But it is certainly also a religion of joy, and our synagogue’s name, Beit Simcha, is more than simply a Jewish phrase. It is emblematic of the way we are able to experience and share the joy of Judaism, the wonderful celebration of life that our magnificent tradition embodies.
We are taught in the Pslams, “Ivdu et Adonai b’Simcha, serve God with joy!” May we always bring simcha with us into every aspect of our temple’s worship, learning, social action and service. And may our congregational experiences similarly bring the joy of Judaism into our lives daily.
Sermon Shabbat Vayera 5779 — October 26, 2018
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Congregation Beit Simcha
“I have good news and bad news,” the old joke has the doctor begin. “Which do you want first?”
The patient answers, “The bad news.”
The doctor says, “Your operation will cost much more than predicted, and it’s not covered by insurance.”
“Oy vey!” the patient moans. “So what’s the good news?”
And the doctor answers, “I can buy a new Mercedes.”
Exactly two years ago, on this same Shabbat Vayera on a different pulpit, I gave a sermon about good news and bad news. There is a lot of both in this sedrah, just as there can be a lot of both in our own lives.
In our Torah portion, as Charlotte has eloquently highlighted, angels play an important role, but angels in the Book of Genesis are principally messengers, and each has the responsibility of being a single-use conveyor of information from God, either good news or bad news. It is very well established: one angel, one message, one angel for good news, one for bad. If you have three angels, as Abraham does at the start of Vayera, there must be three distinct messages. One might be a good message of true blessing—like the angel who tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son, Isaac—while another angel might bring a bad message, informing that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed.
One angel for good news, another for bad news.
In the Torah, at least in Genesis, it seems pretty simple. Life, however, is not like that. Sometimes good news turns out not to be so great in the long run; and sometimes really bad news ultimately turns out to be for the best. In spite of our intelligence, education and sophistication, we aren’t given the ability to see the future clearly enough to know how things will turn out in the end. Good can bring bad; bad can even sometimes bring good.
For example, there was a huge lottery jackpot last week, well over one and a half billion dollars, won by one person in Simpsonville, South Carolina. I hope the recipient enjoys his or her winnings, and lives a long and valuable life. I also hope she or he is interested in supporting a new synagogue in northwest Tucson, Arizona… although I suspect we wouldn’t be the only ones to ask for some of those winnings. But winning the lottery often doesn’t work out very well for the winners. You may not know this, but a large percentage of lottery winners end up broke within a few years, and many winners have said later that winning the lottery ended up being the worst thing that ever happened to them. Most of us would take that chance, but still, it’s surprising.
You see, sometimes good news can actually be bad news—and, similarly, sometimes bad news can be turned into good.
Perhaps that has been the enduring experience of this complex, challenging, weird, and sometimes fulfilling year or so for me. Maybe it has been all about finding the good news in the bad news, bringing forth light out of what seemed very dark at times.
My friends, I promised last week that I would share some of the lessons of this past year with you on this Shabbat. It may be that what I have to share tonight is simply experiences, rather than lessons, but they have been valuable and, I hope, meaningful. It has been a complicated time, one of both substantial personal loss and of growth and opportunity.
The word that has the most resonance for me, and has consistently had the most resonance over the past year, is resiliency, the ability to overcome adversity, to remain buoyant when things have gone very wrong, to swim instead of drowning when the floodwaters inevitably come. Resiliency is what allowed a 99-year old man named Abraham to rise from the pain of self-circumcision to greet his guests and provide rich hospitality in spite of personal pain. It is what has allowed every persecuted generation of our people to respond to loss and suffering by renewing the commitment to Judaism, to God and to hope. Hatikvah is the national anthem of Israel, but its title, and its lyrics of hope, reflect nearly two thousand years of insisting on belief in the face of failure. Judaism’s survival and the restoration of our national homeland is perhaps the truest example of resiliency in all of human history. We Jews bounce back, no matter what has happened.
The first observation is that I have been blessed with some extraordinary friends, some of them quite unexpectedly so, and their support through this year has been amazing. I am deeply grateful for the unflagging and inspired loyalty, warmth and love that I have been the recipient of since last September. I am sure that I would not be standing here without my friends’ energy and generosity, the time, dedication and care they have lavished on me. It has been an extraordinary affirmation of human decency and goodness at a time when these qualities have seemed scarce. I am incredibly thankful that God has blessed me with such friends.
So, to recap a little, very unexpectedly, and some would say unfairly, 13 months ago I found myself with far more time on my hands than I have ever had in my life. In addition to dealing with a variety of complicated situations that arose, I spent much of that time with my children, visiting both my sons at their respective colleges and spending what used to be called quality time with each of them as well as with my daughter. Being a Jewish parent, quite naturally I think that my own kids are extraordinary. There’s an old joke: What’s the definition of a genius? An average child with a Jewish parent. I discovered not that they are geniuses—smart, of course!—but that they have grown into really terrific young adults, and I had the opportunity to share some of that growth with them. It’s easy to let these changes pass without seeing them, and too often that has been the case in my own life while I worked so many hours in my previous position, sometimes so many that I wasn’t always able to share enough in their triumphs and challenges.
I also had more time to spend with my parents, who are, thank God, both still alive and active. They are not getting any younger or healthier, however. About eleven months ago, just after Thanksgiving 2017, my dad and I had a minor communication problem. He had forgotten to inform me of a commitment for our family’s foundation that was scheduled just a few days after I had returned from Los Angeles for Thanksgiving. Reluctantly, I booked a flight back and flew to LA for a single day for the event. It was the kind of last-minute trip I would not have been able to make when I had my typical commitments in my previous congregation.
Because of that, unexpectedly, I was there I was with my father, Rabbi Baruch Cohon, when he had a stroke and suddenly lost the ability to communicate. Although my last scientific training was in a high school biology class, I have had a great deal of experience visiting people in hospitals and care facilities, recognized the symptoms and insisted on rushing my dad to the emergency room. According to the doctors, if we had waited even an hour longer it would have been too late, and the effects of the stroke would have been permanent. Thanks to outstanding medical care and miracle drugs, he recovered fully, and could speak again by the next morning. Perhaps it was beshert that I was there and could return on several other occasions for extended periods. Seeing him recover fully, and being able to study Talmud with him a number of times over the past year, has been a great gift. Sometimes bad news can lead to good.
Over a few months last winter both my mother and father were hospitalized multiple times, and fairly often ended up in the ER. Most of you who have had aging parents—OK, old parents—know this experience well. Because of the flexibility of my situation I was able to travel there to help, which would never had been possible otherwise. And my experience with hospitals and medicine, however untrained, proved useful a number of times in interacting with medical professionals. I thank God I was able to be there for my parents.
And in another area, and an unexpected one, the Jewish experiences I have had over the past year have been extraordinary: blowing shofar Rosh HaShanah morning in Bear Canyon, the echoes resounding and startling the nearby wildlife; spending Yom Kippur at an Orthodox shul, an intense and deep if, well, exhausting experience indeed. Having wonderful Seders on Passover in my own home. Cycling the 55-mile Ride for the Living with my son Boaz, riding with two Holocaust survivors in Poland, biking from Auschwitz-Birkenau to the Krakow JCC with two men who walked out of the concentration camp at the ages of 16 and 10, respectively, and had returned, one of them with a son and grandchildren, to affirm their own Jewish resilience 73 years later, all while experiencing vital young Jewish life in today’s Eastern Europe. Helping lead Shabbat services in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland for energetic progressive congregations. Leading High Holy Day services and celebrating Shabbat and Sukkot with a fascinating community Kehilat Shanghai in China, seeing how an active congregation can flourish without a building solely because its members care deeply about living their own Judaism in a profoundly non-Jewish environment. And just two weeks ago, the incredible experience of flying to London with my son to bring back the new Torah for our congregation from the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, connecting with a sacred responsibility to preserve our sacred heritage in an amazing way.
But perhaps the greatest experience of resiliency has been the development of this fledgling Congregation Beit Simcha, an effort of love and energy and faith. For out of this year of transition, of loss and waiting and growth and resilience, has come the opportunity to create something truly new, fresh and vital. The excitement of being able to share with you a new synagogue, to build a congregation, a true kehilah kedoshah, a holy community, is affirming in ways nothing else truly can be. It is a special trust, a sacred gift.
When we sing of angels at the end of our service tonight in Shalom Aleichem we are looking for the good news angels, the ones that bring in Shabbat and accompany us with an extra soul on this sacred day according to tradition. But sometimes even the bad news angels ultimately bring in goodness.
So may it be for us, not only on this Shabbat individually, but also as a new community of holiness.
This is an exciting, extraordinary Sabbath, the very first service of our new Congregation Beit Simcha. On this Shabbat of Lech Lecha, when God first called to Abram and Judaism truly began, we are starting on our own path at Beit Simcha as a new community of prayer, study, righteous action and caring. It is a great gift and a privilege to be able to do so, to start fresh with a group of dedicated and devoted friends to build a special community.
I am personally honored and profoundly grateful for this opportunity, and I cannot adequately thank those who have supported me through a challenging and complex period, and who believe that the time is now ripe for this great effort. It is truly wonderful to be able to join with you all tonight, and to know that it is truly just the beginning.
In our Torah portion of Lech Lecha from Genesis our great ancestor Abram and his wife Sarai went to a new place to create the future home for all of their descendants. In the Torah Abraham and Sarah went west; now we are going northwest; perhaps the difference is not so great.
My close friend, Rabbi Richard Agler, shared this fact: the only American President not to blame his problems on the previous Administration was… George Washington, the very first president of the United States. He, like I, and our excellent congregational president Craig Sumberg, had no predecessor. I have to say that there is a certain responsibility knowing that we cannot blame anyone but ourselves for anything that goes wrong. But there is a refreshing freedom in that. We will make our own congregation, and build our own community. We may make mistakes—we are human, we will make some mistakes—but we will also work always to improve and to build, to do so creatively and innovatively. It is an incredibly powerful, exciting prospect.
It has been about thirteen months since I have had the privilege of leading Shabbat services here in Tucson. That hiatus was an imposed one, but it has provided the opportunity to decide just what I personally believe a synagogue should be, and what kind of relationship a rabbi and congregation should have. More importantly, it has led to some deep reflection on what a congregation, and Jewish community, can be.
My friends, the beginning of something brand-new is an occasion for celebration. In Judaism we have many rituals that rejoice in the new: brisses, baby namings, consecrations, weddings, conversion ceremonies, the beginning of each of our many festivals. I wonder which of these might be the most appropriate analogy for tonight. Although every one of these celebrations is covenantal, based in a shared responsibility to create goodness and holiness, they differ in quality and experience. Which ritual is appropriate for us to mirror tonight in our experience of beginning? Is it a baby naming, a consecration, a wedding, a conversion, a new festival?
To find the answer, I turned again to our Torah portion of Lecha Lecha. There, at the conclusion of the sedrah, Abraham was instructed to circumcise himself, the very first bris, brit milah. By his own hand, with a flint knife. While brit milah is certainly a powerful and important mitzvah, a central aspect of Jewish identity, I must admit to some resistance to seeing this as the correct ritual with which to begin a new congregation. It cuts just a little too close to home—sorry—and as many of us know from personal experience, synagogue politics can, at times, truly cut like a knife.
No, I hope that we are closer to a different ideal for our congregational beginning: the joy and celebration, the Simcha, of a wedding. There are several reasons this seems like the appropriate ceremony to reflect in our service tonight. Weddings are about hope and promise, the possibility to create a family based on love and mutual caring. A wedding is a brit, a clearly covenantal relationship, the support, respect, honesty and trust that must be shared by both members of a marriage to enable it to flourish. Weddings are also the most complete Simcha we have, a time to truly celebrate life and the commitment people are making to one another. Weddings are a way to reflect love, in their best way, selfless love. And wedding ceremonies are filled with blessings.
It is that concept of community, of commitment, and always of celebration, that Congregation Beit Simcha will embrace. Tonight we begin with great hope and promise, and we seek always to see the world not through the dark lens of our fears but through the bright vision of our hopes, to see the good that can be and that we can bring. In our congregation we will be part of a brit a mutual covenant to assist each other, to demonstrate trust and honesty as we build our synagogue. We will strive to be, constantly, a Jewish community that reflects the best of ourselves in our interactions, our prayer, our study and our dedication to improving our world. And we will seek to do so, as our name testifies, in great joy and with selfless love. We hope to fill our lives with blessings.
In Lech Lecha, several times God makes a promise to Abraham: although there are only two of you now, God says, just you and Sarah and you have no children, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, see if you are able to count them” and then God promises “So shall your seed be.”
At Beit Simcha we cannot yet make that same promise for our congregational membership, but I can promise that we will grow. And we will do so because our congregation will constantly offer the finest example of Judaism that we can. And there is nothing more life-affirming, and more inspiring, than the best of our own great tradition, its treasure house of knowledge, wisdom, inspiration, creativity and purpose.
That promise, to make us like the stars of heavens, is the second such pledge God has made to Abraham; earlier in Lech Lecha, God told him he would have descendants as extensive as the dust of the earth, too numerous to enumerate. These are great promises of growth and flourishing and the ultimate success of this little experiment in belief and devotion, this Jewish people project.
But these two promises raise a little conundrum: So which one is it, exactly, that we will become, dirt or celestial orb, in Hebrew afar or cochav? Are we, Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, to be like dust or stars? Are we the lowest particles blown by the wind or are we brilliant, shining lights in the heavens?
Physicists tell us that, in practical terms, we are actually both. For when the universe began everything was made up of energy and particles, photons and electrons and clouds of gas uniting to form stars. And then those stars condensed and collided and sometimes exploded. The matter released, the dust of those tremendous collisions and explosions, provided the building material for absolutely everything in the universe—including, eventually, human beings. As my friend Danny Matt says in God and the Big Bang, “We, along with everything else, are literally made of stardust.” Who knew that when Joni Mitchell sang that phrase long ago she was actually, practically correct: we truly are stardust.
That is true of us individually, physically, but it is also true of us in a more complex, more human sense. We, each of us, have the capacity to act with great and sacred selfless devotion, to be stars, and we, each of us, have the ability to be low and mean, to wallow in the mud. We, each of us, all of us have the potential to be both “evil in thought and action” in the words of the Confucian scholar Xunzi (“Sun-zhee”) or, in the words of Shakespeare and Psalm 8, “express and admirable,” “crowned in glory and honor.” We can be dust or star; we have both within us.
That is just as true of groups of us, and of congregations. We can do wonderful things together—and I promise, we will. But more importantly it is our promise at Beit Simcha that we will seek to be the best version of ourselves, to reach for the stars rather than to wallow in the dust. We know that we are each special, unique, sacred and that Judaism has the capacity to give our lives beauty, meaning, depth, purpose and holiness. We also know that as a dedicated congregation we can do even more, so much more, and together can give our lives more blessings and joy, more simcha, and work together to improve our community and our world.
I know that some of you may want to know what I have been doing over the past 13 months. I will share more next week, in this same improvised sanctuary at this same time, about some of the things that I have learned over this year and change, and over this year of change, of challenge and resiliency. It will be a privilege to share with you experiences that took place here in Tucson and in places distant and strange and wonderful, from North Carolina to Poland to Prague to China to England. But tonight we begin fresh, right here, right now, with joy.
Lech Lecha meiartzecha umimoladetecha umibeit avicha, Abram was commanded by God, go to the place that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation and you will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Our ancestor was given a great and compelling mission, a powerful charge to forge a new path. May God give us the ability to work together on our own new path, and continue the sacred steps we have begun tonight in our journey at Congregation Beit Simcha. And may it all be blessed with the simcha shel mitzvah, the joy of commandment. Please join me, again, in the words of the prayer for all good and new things: Shehecheyanu.
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Sermon, Shabbat Vayeitzei 5779 Congregation Beit Simcha, November 16, 2018
I have always argued that Thanksgiving is a Jewish holiday. What else can you call a day when you are obligated to invite over all you relatives, including the ones you don’t get along with, and overeat?
Yes, Thanksgiving is definitely a Jewish holiday.
In fact, Thanksgiving is a Jewishly-tinged holiday for historical reasons as well. The great mythos of the holiday is that it was begun by the Massachusetts Pilgrims, whose very name was an evocation of the Jewish pilgrimage festivals of the Torah. These pious English Puritans had sojourned in the tolerant land of Holland before embarking for the New World, and in Leiden in the Netherlands their leaders studied Hebrew with a Sephardic rabbi so that they could read the Old Testament in its original language. When they had their first decent harvest, they chose to create a thanksgiving festival based on the ancient Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, our own gratitude celebration in the Bible. And following the tradition of Sukkot, they naturally observed it outdoors, al fresco, under the divinely created sky so that their prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving could ascend directly to their Creator. And following the tradition of Sukkos, they invited guests—in their cases, the Native Americans who had helped them survive. Food, outdoor eating, guests, thanksgiving prayers: pretty much Sukkot in November, no?
Actually, if you have ever visited Plimouth Plantation or any of the reconstructions of early colonial settlements back east you soon realize they didn’t have any buildings large enough to hold an indoor feast anyway, and they had no choice but to celebrate outdoors, with or without a sukkah over them. Still, the connection between Thanksgiving and Sukkot is evident.
Another festival in this season, which begins just two weeks from Sunday night, is also modeled on Sukkot: the holiday of Chanukah, a gratitude festival that is the same length as Sukkot and is also focused on thanksgiving to God. It’s Sukkot in December. You can easily make the case that the entire late fall and early winter calendar is based on offering gratitude to God and modeled on Sukkot, three months of Tabernacles, or at least of thanksgiving.
Which seems a bit odd, really, in view of how we typically look at the world. The vast majority of the time it seems to me that we complain a great deal more than we give thanks. Kvetching is far more common in this world than kvelling, to put it in Yiddish terms, and many of us aren’t really happy unless we are complaining about someone or something. I don’t just mean we Jews; we have good historical reasons for believing that people are out to get us and the world is going bad all around us, and the events in Pittsburgh three weeks ago testify to the fact that Anti-Semitic violence can occur at any moment anywhere in the world. There are significant reasons for us to feel persecuted, and the recent increase in openly anti-Jewish actions and rhetoric are certainly of great concern.
But in spite of this, we still live in a place and time that is nearly unique in human history for Jews: in general, we are accepted, successful, prominent and respected. I don’t mean to diminish the challenges we sometimes face, but frankly things really are not as bad as we like to think.
Look, it is easy to see what is going wrong in our world and in our country today: crazy wildfires in California, mass shootings on a weekly basis, political hyper-partisanship that has turned public debate into a blood sport, our inability to count electoral returns in any kind of efficient way, wild and crazy claims of conspiracies and fraud alleged every few minutes. Turn on the radio or TV or look at your Twitter or Facebook feed and you are treated to a level of kvetching and outright hostility that make it seem as though the world is going terribly wrong in new and creative ways.
And yet, here we are in the midst of an autumn season when we are directed to give thanks publicly and regularly. And the truth is that is a very good thing to do indeed, to reflect not on what we don’t like about our world but about what we actually are grateful for and should like.
We do have many blessings in our lives. We live in a country whose Constitution and its Amendments guarantee freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, and freedom of non-violent speech. No individual or group, no matter how powerful, can destroy those protections in the long run. Our economic health is sometimes challenged, and our lack of economic equity should be challenged, but the American economy is as robust and resilient as any in human history. In spite of some our most misguided efforts to damage the incredible natural beauty of this continent, America remains a magnificent showplace of God’s handiwork, big and varied and truly beautiful. We remain a place of remarkable innovation in the sciences and technology, a magnet for the best and brightest in the world, creator of new and dynamic ways of doing things and turning those processes into wildly successful industries. We are, as a nation, incredibly creative in the arts, especially the publicly popular ones. We are uniquely good at manufacturing entertainment the world consumes in bulk; some of it is brilliant and deep, some of it shallow and showy, and some of it a little tawdry—yet the technical skill employed, and the continual flow is astounding. We continue to attract the most ambitious people in the world, who aspire to lives of freedom and hard work and who bring entrepreneurial energy and commitment to our nation. We are a complex national melting pot made up of the children and grandchildren and descendants of immigrants, and that has made our national culture diverse and rich. We truly live in a land of plenty, a fertile place that has long cultivated new ideas, new beginnings, new industries, new realities. We have always, as a country, figured out how to do things, how to fix problems, how to make the future brighter.
I’m not exactly sure where the current national taste for anger and resentment originated, and the present acceptance of character assassination began. But I am quite sure that there is a much better way to act, and a much healthier, more productive and more meaningful way to go forward.
There is a great teaching in the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 27:12) about gratitude. The rabbis thought so highly of thanksgiving to God that they are quoted saying that “when the Messiah comes all sacrifices will have completed their mission, and all will be discontinued, with one exception: the thanksgiving offering.” That sacrifice will last forever, even after the Messiah! Why? Because even in a perfect world we must remember to give thanks, to be grateful for what we have. And we must find our own ways to make that acknowledgment today, since sacrifices are just an ancestral memory. We must find ways to speak our thanksgiving, to say what we are grateful for instead of what we are unhappy about.
In this week of Thanksgiving, we can find inspiration from our Torah portion and our ancestor Jacob in just how to accomplish this.
At the beginning of our great Sedrah of Vayeitzei this Shabbat Jacob has an extraordinary dream. He is fleeing his angry brother Esau who has threatened to kill him, and he has fled from home without possessions or security. He has a lot of reasons to be troubled, fearful, negative, critical. Things look bleak, bad and dangerous. Now he lies on the ground, with nothing better to sleep on than a rock, and sees a ladder going to the sky, the proverbial stairway to heaven, and he sees angels ascending and descending. Atop that he visualizes God, and God makes Jacob a promise: God will make him the ancestor of a great nation, and the very land he is lying upon will become his national homeland. Don’t worry, Jacob, don’t fear, God says: it will all come out well for you.
Jacob awakens, and becomes aware at that moment of something we all wish we could remember. He says something truly wonderful: “God was in this place, and I, I did not know it!” He concludes that that place is holy. And he offers a prayer of gratitude at a time when he has, almost literally, nothing.
How much more should we, children of a land that has so much plenty, offer thanksgiving and gratitude, and words of praise? This week—and we won’t meet for Shabbat for two weeks now, so you actually have a fortnight to do this—seek to offer words of gratitude in place of kvetches. This week, thank those people in your life for whom you are grateful. This week, when you hear or see or read harsh or defamatory words, find a way to replace them with words of goodness and thanksgiving.
And then we may all begin to restore this incredible world we have been given to wholeness and good.