Temple Jeremiah


Shabbat Ki Tisa

Dear Friends,

Cathy and I finally had a chance to watch the Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. I was surprised by how dark and sad the movie gets in the middle as Freddie Mercury, the lead singer, sinks into the depths of substance abuse under the spell of a personal manager who does not have Freddie’s interests at heart. In the midst of this moment in his life he meets someone whom he will eventually be in a healthy relationship until his passing at age 45. During his first encounter with Jim, Freddie says, “I like you very much.” Jim’s response is, “Come and find me when you like yourself.” After all, how can you hope to be in a healthy relationship when you do not like yourself?

This may be the fundamental problem of our day. I am finding it more and more difficult to listen to the news, read the newspaper, and open up email from various other news sources. The level of personal attack is unprecedented. I find that people no longer care to focus on the positive or even on the critical issues of the day. Personal attacks, the demonization of the other, continues to dominate the public square.

The Torah portion for this week, Ki Tisa, from the Book of Exodus, continues the instructions for building the Tabernacle and how to use it effectively. The opening words called out to me with new urgency. Ki Tisa, when you lift up, when you take note of the people, see them as unique individuals each one of whom is vital to the strength of the community. Moses is told to treat all of them equally. Each person is to donate a ½ shekel to the functioning of the Tabernacle.

Moses is told to lift each person up perhaps to emphasize to each the value inherent within. It is no accident that this same portion contains the great sin of the Golden Calf. Even in acknowledging the value of each person there is the reminder that they are human and prone to great error.

Even so, there is forgiveness and there is instruction. Moses reminds God that these are not irredeemably evil people. Their actions, though evil, are not beyond redemption. The people are not denigrated. Even Aaron, who mistakenly guides them down this path, is not demonized. Aaron actually becomes the model for peace makers.

The Mussar masters see in this text a model for how we should act in this world. Moses, in the midst of this crisis, looks to God for better understanding of what God desires of us and what we should desire for ourselves. Moses asks to see God’s face. What Moses receives is a glimpse of the middot, the attributes, the character traits of God that we are to emulate and bring into better balance.

Moses “hears” or experiences these attributes as a vocal list. God is merciful and gracious. God is slow to anger and filled with great compassion, extending forgiveness endlessly offering up a clean slate. These middot, though they are easy to list, are quite difficult to practice. But, this is a time that calls for us to redouble our efforts. We must strive to lift people up and assume the best about them. Mercy and compassion should be at the forefront of how we treat those around us. How important it is to be slow to anger and quick to forgive. Yes, people do err and hurt us, sometimes quite deeply. But perhaps what makes us angry in these moments is fueled by the recognition of these same faults in ourselves.

Ki Tisa, when we lift ourselves up and see the value inherent in being created in the image of God, we can see this in others as well. Ki Tisa, let us reenergize ourselves to be more God-like, exhibiting the attributes of the Holy One in our lives: gracious, kind and merciful, slow to anger, and quick to forgive.

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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