Temple Jeremiah


Shabbat Sh’lach

I, like many of you, have been captivated by drawings that have at least two different images imbedded within them. What do you see first? What does your answer reveal about your outlook? I have been meditating on these questions in light of the Roseanne tweet storm and the Samantha Bee outburst aimed at Ivanka Trump.

It seems that immediately lines were drawn in our country along two sides of each disturbing incident. People and companies rushed to respond based on what they saw and consequently what they thought they understood. Condemnation and defense, polar opposite reactions that said much about the people themselves. Each side sought to confirm their world view through Bee and Barr. Too often, people only see what they expect or even want to see.

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach-Lecha, from the Book of Numbers, we experience the exact same dilemma. Moses sends out 12 spies to do reconnaissance of the Land of Israel. God commands Moses to choose the head of each tribe for this mission. It does not turn out well for our ancestors. The spies enter the land and only see giants. They are rightfully scared. The land seems completely inhospitable. Ten of the spies come back to the camp completely dismayed. Their worst fears are confirmed. They tell their fellow Israelites what they saw and how they felt. “We cannot possibly enter this horrible place,” they complain. “It is filled with giants. It is a place where the land devours its people.”

The people are whipped up into such a panic by this report that they naturally ignore the other two spies, Caleb and Joshua, who enter the camp carrying an enormous bunch of grapes. The cluster is so large that it requires the two of them to deliver them to the people. But, the Israelites are so upset, angry, and scared that they cannot even see the goodness that these grapes represent, nor can they hear the words shared by Caleb and Joshua that paint a completely opposite picture of their plight.

They do not dispute what the others saw, only the conclusion, the judgement they reached. Yes, the people are fierce and the land challenging, but God is with us and we will be successful. Just look at the goodness of these enormous grapes, they say.

Tragically, the people only saw what they were predisposed to see. They could not fathom the message of Caleb and Joshua. It ran so contrary to their primary response.

Our society, if it is to heal, grow and thrive, must break out of this pattern. We must be able to truly open our eyes to all possibilities, not just the one we expect. Social media makes it so difficult to even take a breath. Algorithms only fortify our point of view, making it even harder to see beyond what we are wired to see.

The children of Israel were banished from entering the Promised Land. That generation, so ossified in their perspective, had to die off so that a new generation could move ahead with a more open outlook. It took forty years. We do not have to wander quite so long. Take a breath, consider other possibilities before concluding, read perspectives that challenge you.

Shabbat Shalom

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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