Temple Jeremiah


Shabbat Devarim

Dear Friends,

Last week I had the opportunity to go on a Mindfulness Meditation Retreat as part of an ongoing clergy leadership program sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. I am part of the third cohort of rabbis and cantors from across the country and across denominational lines to participate in this program. Meditation is new for me and I am very excited to cultivate this practice. Mindfulness is a different story as I have been engaged in studying, teaching, and practicing Mussar for the past decade. In anticipation of the retreat I felt myself tensing up with judgment. Was this going to be a crunchy granola experience completely outside of my comfort zone? Was I really going to be able to practice meditation? Is this really a good time to leave my family and my congregation? What were these people going to be like? I did not know anyone. With each of these questions and more I became increasingly worried and my negative judgement of this whole endeavor exploded. I even thought about canceling at the last minute.

Fortunately, I was able to identify and focus on this Middah (character trait or value), the Middah of Judgement, and talk myself off the proverbial ledge. The experience opened me up in ways that I previously could not imagine. In short, it was amazing and the people in my cohort are outstanding.

In this week’s portion, Devarim, the first portion in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Children of Israel about how as a community they should embody the Middah of Judgement: You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low (katan) and high (gadol) alike. Fear no person, for judgment is God’s. (Deut. 1:17) The way we administer justice as a community is a direct reflection of how we embody this Middah within our souls. This affects how we act, how we form relationships and how we build community.

I want to share with you this beautiful poem/story written by Valerie Cox called, “The Cookie Thief.” In a simple and elegant way it addresses the core of the challenge judgement presents in our lives.

A woman was waiting
at the airport one night,
With several long hours
before her flight.
She hunted for a book
in the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies
and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book,
but happened to see,
That the man beside her,
as bold as could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two
from the bag between,
Which she tried to ignore
to avoid a scene.

She read, munched cookies,
and watched the clock,
As the gutsy “cookie thief”
diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated
as the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice,
I’d blacken his eye!”
With each cookie she took,
he took one too.

When only one was left,
she wondered what he’d do.
With a smile on his face
and a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie
and broke it in half.
He offered her half,
and he ate the other.

She snatched it from him
and thought, “Oh brother,
This guy has some nerve,
and he’s also so rude,
Why, he didn’t even show
any gratitude!”
She had never known
when she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief
when her flight was called.

She gathered her belongings
and headed for the gate,
Refusing to look at
the “thieving ingrate”.
She boarded the plane
and sank in her seat,
Then sought her book,
which was almost complete.

As she reached in her baggage,
she gasped with surprise.
There was her bag of cookies
in front of her eyes!
“If mine are here,”
she moaned with despair.
“Then the others were his
and he tried to share!”
Too late to apologize,
she realized with grief,
That she was the rude one,
the ingrate, the thief!!!

So here are five memorable lessons from the poem that can help us bring our own Middah of Judgement into better balance:

  1. Question your assumptions.
  2. Give others the benefit of the doubt.
  3. Things are not always as they appear.
  4. Stressful situations reveal what’s truly inside each of us.
  5. We all get to choose our response.

Mother Teresa taught, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

May this Shabbat find us judging less and loving more.

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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