Temple Jeremiah


Shabbat Behar

Dear Friends,

On Monday, I read a story in the Chicago Tribune that was both horrifying and heartbreaking. 60 years ago, two sisters moved to a new town. They were 12 and 10 years old. As the “new kids” they found themselves completely isolated. They were bullied by the entire student population throughout their years of junior high and high school. No one would speak to them. Children would avoid all contact. They could not join clubs or participate in sports. They were never invited to parties. These sisters suffered terribly and carried this hurt for 60 years.

The news story also shared the saga of one of their tormenters. It seems that for almost as long, he carried guilt with him for the role he played as one of the bullies who terrorized these girls. At the urging of his wife, he found the two sisters, arranged a meeting and sought forgiveness through sincere apology. Redemption came through hearts open enough to allow for the words of apology to take hold and the generosity of spirit that remained ever present even in the midst of great pain.

I, like so many, was deeply moved by their story and it caused me to reflect on this week’s Torah portion, Behar, and the way that we create a just society. Behar begins with laws concerning the Sabbatical year and builds to the laws of the Jubilee year. The Jubilee is proclaimed every 50 years.

At the conclusion of 7 Sabbatical years, the 50th year is a Jubilee year at which time all land reverts to original owners and all slaves are freed. The Jubilee year was a societal reset button. This year was supposed to bring balance back to the community and allow for people to have a fresh start.

Though it took an extra 10 years, I would like to think of this story of the Rhys sisters as an example of the redemption possible when the community functions as a just community. Indeed the 50-year Jubilee was a fail-safe mechanism to ensure that if other measures of justice, ethics and morality ceased to protect the vulnerable, the Jubilee would set things right.

When William Penn created Pennsylvania’s government in 1682, he allowed citizens to take part in making laws and gave them the right to choose the religion they wanted. The colonists were proud of the freedom Penn gave them. In 1751, the speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered a new bell for the State House. He asked that a Bible verse be placed on the bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This verse is from our Torah portion, Leviticus 25:10. Liberty is the way Yovel, Jubilee, is translated. The bell rang many times, (not every 50 years), for public announcements. Most famously, it rang on July 8, 1776 to announce the public reading of the
Declaration of Independence.

The Liberty Bell is a powerful symbol of the ideal. Liberty must be proclaimed throughout the land in each and every moment. We can ring that bell each time we stand up against injustice, each time we take a step in creating a just community, each time we care for the most vulnerable.

May this Shabbat find us all ringing the bell of freedom throughout this land.


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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