July 7, 2023
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
Cantorial Intern Beth Reinstein
“Well I’ve been afraid of changing / ’Cause I’ve built my life around you / Time makes you bolder / Even children get older / And I’m getting older too.”
I think that we can all relate to the Torah of Stevie Nicks today in 2023. Change is scary, change is difficult, and change is happening all the time. The world we live in is in a constant state of change, and it can feel like the ground has been pulled out from underneath us. Some of the changes we’re witnessing in our world today are beautiful, like the ability to connect and communicate across vast distances in an instant, the de-stigmatization of mental health care and the increased mobilization of our youth toward making a better future. Other changes that are happening in our world are frightening and can make us feel like the world is crumbling around us. We may feel like we are the only generation to experience such vast and expansive change, but when we look at this week’s parashah, Pinchas, we can see that it is in our tradition to challenge the unjust changes happening around us.
In Pinchas, Moses and Eleazar the priest conduct a census of the men in order to portion out of the land of Israel between the different clans. As the parasha continues we are introduced to Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza, the daughters of Zelophehad. Their father has died, and since these women have no brothers, according to the law they are not to inherit their father’s portion of land. Instead of accepting the unfairness of the system they are living in, the daughters of Zelophehad challenge it and ask Moses, Eleazar, the chieftains, and the entire assembly at the mishkan to grant them their father’s land inheritance. When Moses brings their case before God, God responds with:
כן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלׇפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃(Numbers 27:7)
The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just, “You should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.
God further decrees that if a household dies without a son to inherit it, if there are surviving daughters, the daughters should inherit their father’s land. According to Rashi, one of our great Torah commentators, the daughters of Zelophehad eyes saw what Moses’ eye did not see. These women saw that the system they were living in was unjust and pled their case to make a change. The ripple effect of their courage to speak out not only benefitted them, but benefitted all of the women of Israel. When we look to our Torah, we can see that questioning and challenging unjust laws is a part of who we are. We can see that we each have a choice in our role in all of this. We can remain exactly as we are and let these changes overwhelm us, or we can look to the changes in our world as a driving force to make something new, to become a part of the positive changes, or a means of redirecting what we might recognize as troubling change. But how do we find the strength and motivation to do that when it feels like there is just too much?
When I ask myself that very question, I turn to a teaching of Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement. As a young man, Rabbi Israel Salanter wanted to change the entire world. Unfortunately, that didn’t work, so he scaled back and tried to change his country. When that didn’t work, he tried to change his town. And when that wasn’t working, he tried to change his family. As he got older, he realized that the only thing he could change was himself. The changes he made to himself, would impact his family, which would impact his town, which would impact his country, which would impact the world.
We start by looking at the changes we want to make in our own lives. Whether it be getting involved with a cause we care about or trying to live life a little greener, the changes we make within ourselves have a ripple effect on the world around us. Zelophehad’s daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza, found their inner resilience, and through the courage they found within themselves, were able to not only make a change for their circumstances, but make a change for all of the women of Israel. We too have that same inner strength and resilience within us to look at the world around us and make a change for ourselves that could change the lives of others.
We might be afraid of changing because we’ve built our lives around the way things have always been, but time makes us bolder. We all have the ability to change at any moment in our lives. After we’ve climbed the mountain of change, we might just turn around to see that our reflection in the snow covered hills may well have inspired or made positive changes for others as well. [RE1] Shabbat Shalom.