Temple Jeremiah


Shabbat V’etchanan

Dear Friends,

I, like many of you, was amazed once again by the American gymnast, Simone Biles. Biles made history this past week with a dismount from the balance beam that no one had ever done before. Even in slow motion I could not believe what this amazing athlete was able to do with her body, sending it spinning and flipping in the air as she gracefully and effortlessly stuck her landing. Even prior to her dismount, the balance beam routine was breathtaking (click here to view it).

I could not help but reflect upon this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan, from the book of Deuteronomy, through the lens of Simone Biles’ grace and balance. Moses recounts his interaction with God when he learns that he will not enter the Promised Land. Moses pleads with God. The usual translation of the verb that is also the name of this portion is “I [Moses] prayed.” But the Hebrew root is actually the same as the word we translate as “Grace.”

In Jewish theology the word Grace can mean the divine influence which operates in humans to regenerate and sanctify, to inspire virtuous impulses, and to impart strength, to endure trial and resist temptation; and as an individual virtue or excellence of divine origin. To say that Simone Biles is graceful can then mean that she not only moves with physical grace but also possesses the strength to endure the incredible amount of training and practice that she is able to resist the temptation to cut corners or try for shortcuts.

So perhaps Moses was also seeking grace and not just pleading with or praying to God. Moses, recognizing that change is possible, sought the divine inner strength to effect such change and to avoid the temptation to simply let things stand without complaint. Moses sought to find balance in his responsibility to the community and the responsibility to care for himself, too. Moses sought to “regenerate and sanctify,” himself and his people. Recognizing his mistake, Moses seeks repentance, he turns to God and publicly confesses his sin providing a living lesson of the middot, virtues/traits, of leadership and humility.

Change is possible. We are approaching the moment in the Jewish calendar when this message is especially relevant, the High Holy Days. This year our theme comes from a verse in Pirke Avot, The Ethics of our Ancestors: “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds than all the life in the World to Come.” Inner change is possible. We can become better as we aspire to be our highest self. Repentance is the key. We do Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of our soul, as we examine who we are and what we can be. We strive to turn from mistakes, learn, and grow. Change is possible in our world too. Good deeds, Tikkun Olam, brings about real change in our world for the good.

Balance is what we strive to achieve in the middot, the character traits we are born with, each of us. Balance is what we strive to achieve in the inner work we do and the work we do in the world. May we all find the Grace with which to succeed in this most important endeavor, seeking Teshuvah, repentance, and doing Ma’asim Tovim, good deeds.

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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