Temple Jeremiah


Shabbat Toldot

Dear Friends,

I write to you on the eve of election day. I am filled with angst, fear, and anxiety. Yet, I am also filled with hope. This morning I was asked if I thought/believed that people are basically good. Without hesitation I said, “Yes, I believe that people are good.” Even as we are still reeling from the murder of 11 people, members of the Tree of Life Synagogue, I believe that people are essentially good.

My proof comes through in the hundreds of people who came to Temple Jeremiah for worship this past Friday night. We, along with hundreds of congregations across the country, participated in an effort called #ShowUpForShabbat. We invited friends and neighbors to be with us to remember this horrific act of anti-Semitism and support one another, committed to the idea that love is stronger than hate.

Fred Rogers, of blessed memory, recalls how his mother responded to the tragedies she witnessed in the world. When Fred asked her where God was in those terrible events, she would tell him, “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.” She guided him not to look only at the devastation, but to also look for those responding to the call for help.

The helpers always outnumber those bent on harming others. This remains true today. Look at all the people of all races, religions, and ethnicities who reached out to their Jewish brothers and sisters in the aftermath of this anti-Semitic attack. They number in the millions.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we read about Isaac and Rebecca’s growing family. The beginning is quite rough. Rebecca feels tremendous pain from her pregnancy. She seeks answers from God who tells her that she carries twins representing two nations that will struggle with one another even as they are struggling within her. What is she to do with this information? Why does God tell her this? Is this predetermined leaving Rebecca without any choice?

Rebecca now has knowledge and now has a choice. She can accept things the way they are, or she can work to change the story. God gives her the opportunity to make better choices. Unfortunately, the parents choose sides. It is Isaac and Esau versus Rebecca and Jacob. Consequently, Jacob strives from the very beginning to dominate his older brother by any means necessary, while Esau, often painted as the bad guy, tries to make the best of his relationship with his younger brother.

When Jacob will only give him food in exchange for the birthright, Esau willingly gives it up rather than take the lentil stew by force. When Jacob tricks his father into giving the first-born blessing to him, Esau seeks another blessing, “Father, isn’t there another blessing for me?” Twenty years later Esau will again step forward and strive to make peace with his brother, seeking not revenge but love and relationship.

Esau refuses to give up on his brother and his family. Esau does not feel the story has been written and does what he can to short circuit the prophecy given to his mother before his birth. The goodness of Esau must be lifted up. I will not blindly accept the rabbinic commentary that paints him as the bad guy and Jacob as the good guy. To the contrary, Esau sees the good and responds with action while Jacob struggles to see the good in himself and in his brother. Esau prospers while Jacob battles with himself and later with his own family.

When we see the good in ourselves, we are better able to see the good in others. Battle is not a forgone conclusion. Even in the face of evil there is goodness and this goodness is what we must build upon. Our story is not written. We are writing it. Let us write of goodness, kindness and compassion.

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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