Temple Jeremiah


Shabbat Balak

Dear Friends,

The Torah portion of this week is called Balak. The name is that of the Moabite king who wished to destroy the Israelites. In order to make this easier, Balak hired the pagan prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites in order to weaken them. In Pirkei Avot 5:19 we read that whoever possesses an ayin tovah, a good eye, is of the disciples of Abraham. Whereas one who possesses an ayin ra’ah, an evil eye, is of the disciples of Balaam.

Abraham looked at the good in every situation. Perhaps this is best seen in the defense of Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham searched for the good that would save these towns from destruction. Balaam did not bother. He was willing to help Balak destroy the Israelites. He, unlike Abraham, saw the world within an ayin ra’ah, an evil eye. It is ironic that Abraham could not save the two cities while Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites and not cursing them, thus foiling Balak’s plan to destroy them.

How do you see the world? Do you possess an ayin tovah, a good eye that allows you to see the good despite the darkness? Or do you see the world through the lens of an ayin ra’ah, an evil eye that blocks out the good allowing the darkness to prevail. Today I fear that too many succumb to the perspective of Balaam, only seeing the negative, allowing the evil to dominate the vista.

Many today look at the crisis in our southern border and only see what fear allows them to see. They see criminal invaders who are looking to harm us, our families, and our nation. Reacting out of this fear, seeing only with an ayin ra’ah, an evil eye, does not allow for one to see the goodness of humanity; to see fellow human beings, seeking safety, refuge, and opportunity. These human beings, forced from their home country by violence and poverty, are looking for refuge and a place where they can rebuild their lives and raise their families. Just as my family did and many of yours, as well. How easy it is to react from a place of fear created by the view of the evil eye. How important it is to reframe our response through the lens of the good eye. The good eye, as it did in Abraham, sees injustice and speaks out against it. The good eye, moves us to act in accordance with the command to “care for the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

To be a disciple of Abraham we must be committed to see the good. This is increasingly hard as our society become more and more polarized. The dominant idea is that if you do not believe what I do you are my enemy. Our tradition calls on us to reject this attitude, to see the good even coming from people who hold ideas different from our own, to possess an eye that sees good when it is most difficult to do so.

As a congregation we strive to look with a good eye, to be able to see the good and focus our attention on how we can build on that foundation. The prophet Jeremiah calls upon us to seek the Shalom of the people among whom we live, for by their Shalom, will we have Shalom. How true this is of us, the members of this vibrant congregation. When we seek the Shalom, the well-being, the wholeness of one another we, too, enjoy that same gift. We are not a congregation of Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. We are a congregation of human beings striving to lead lives of blessing in accordance with Jewish values. Let us be as the disciples of Abraham who possess a good eye that opens us to this reality. Let us make room for ideas and views that are different from our own in social justice responses and in Israel advocacy as well as worship and study. Perhaps this is why our founders allied themselves with the prophet Jeremiah. Though he was not an easy person in any way, shape, or form, he was a disciple of Abraham who possessed a good eye, an ayin tovah. May this Shabbat find each of us seeing the world this way seeking the well-being of the people living where we live even when we disagree for “with their well-being shall we enjoy the same.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.

Rabbi Paul Cohen

About Rabbi Paul Cohen

Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D. is originally from Chicago. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from Grinnell College where he studied biology and comparative religion. Upon graduation, he moved to Minneapolis where he worked for two years in a short-term residential treatment program for delinquent adolescents. Rabbi Cohen received his Masters of Arts and rabbinic ordination and the honorary degree, Doctor of Divinity, celebrating 25 years in the rabbinate in March 2015, from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. While there, he served as the student rabbi for the United Hebrew Congregation in Ft. Smith, Arkansas and the auxiliary chaplain at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Rabbi Cohen's rabbinical thesis was titled "Modes of Divine Communication: Some Aspects of the Rabbinic Views" which focused on some of the less conventional ways rabbis expect to send and receive communication vis a vis heaven. Rabbi Cohen was awarded a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Bangor Theological Seminary in May 2001. His dissertation is entitled "Digging Our Parent's Wells" and deals with congregational renewal. While in Cincinnati, Rabbi Cohen met his wife, Cathy, and together they moved to Norfolk, Virginia where he served as the assistant and then associate rabbi of Ohef Sholom Temple. Active on many community boards of directors, Rabbi Cohen was the founding president of the South Hampton Roads Campaign for the Homeless. Immediately prior to serving Temple Jeremiah, Rabbi Paul Cohen was the spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Ha'am in South Portland, Maine and served on the boards of the Jewish Federation, Cedars Nursing Home, the Equity Institute and the Cancer Community Center. He was the president of the Greater Portland Interfaith Council, a founding member of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination and the Maine Interfaith Coalition for Reproductive Choices and sat on its executive board. Politically and communally active, Rabbi Cohen has been asked on several occasions to offer testimony before state legislative committees. Rabbi Cohen served as chair of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee of Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute, he is President of the Chicago Association of Reform Rabbis and is a past board member of the Interfaith Housing Center of the North Shore (now called Open Communities), was a founding board member of Family Promise of Chicago North Shore, served as President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and is a member of the Winnetka Interfaith Council, served on the Ethics Committee of the North Shore Senior Center. He is a graduate of the Kellogg Management Education for Jewish Leaders program, sits on the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation Board of Directors and the Jewish Center for Addiction Advisory Board and serves on the Clergy Advisory Board for the Public Defender of Cook County. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
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