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Parashat Pincus: Do You Want to Be Brave?

Do you want to play it safe, or do you want to be brave?

I heard this question posed at the Williamstown Theater Festival a few weeks ago when my husband, Neil, and I attended a new play, The Closet, starring Matthew Broderick. It was a funny, Broadway quality show - just one more way in which you can find anything and everything excellent in the Berkshires.

That night was the opening reception for the season. Mingling on the lawn before the opening curtain, we heard a few words from Mandy Greenfield, the artistic director. Honoring the time and dedication of their outgoing board chair, she recalled one of their first conversations when she took the position, prior to developing her first summer season. 

“So,” he asked her. “Do you want to play it safe, or do you want to be brave?”

In theater, in synagogues, in life - whenever we start something new, we can ask ourselves this question. Knowing that I was about to begin my time here with you, I began to ask myself the same thing -

Do you want to play it safe, or do you want to be brave?

To answer this question, for me, for our community, we need to understand the meaning of brave.

Fortunately, this week’s Torah portion holds not one - not two - but three excellent examples of the kind of bravery I think we can aspire for together. These brave individuals - each brave in their own way - can serve as models for us.

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, begins in the middle of this title character’s story. Pinchas is rewarded by God for killing an Israelite and a Midianite woman who curse God’s name. This is a tough story for us, light years away from our modern sensibilities. At first glance, I do not find Pinchas to be brave for his actions and their outcome. Let’s look back at last week’s Torah portion, Balak, where Pinchas’s story begins. 

We read: 

Vayakom mitoch ha’aidah

And Pinchas rose up from the midst of the congregation — aidah

Our rabbis teach that not even Moses could bring himself to take action. Pinchas was one person among the Israelite people. He was in community. In relationship. When he saw something that he knew was not right, and he took the initiative to act. To act or speak in a way that helps your community, even if it’s not the popular thing to do or opinion to express - that is brave.  

Our next brave individuals are five of my favorite biblical characters - Malhah, Noa, Hoglah, Milchah, and Tirtzah - five sisters, and the daughter of a man named Zelophehad. Those who come to Torah Plus tomorrow morning will learn more about these incredible women. When their father dies and leaves no sons, these sisters come before Moses, Eleazar the high priest, and the entire community - aidah - of Israel - to ask that women be permitted to inherit property from their father. They question a divine decree, and Moses, unsure how to answer, brings their query to God. And God says that the request of the daughters of Zelophehad is just and correct! These five women are brave when they ask the right question at the right time, prompting the community to address a new situation, to make the world more just, more whole. 

As the Talmud teaches, “The daughters of Zelophehad are wise, they are interpreters of verses, and they are righteous…That they are wise can be seen from the fact that they spoke in accordance with the moment…they presented their case at an auspicious time.” Good questions move us forward, allowing us to check assumptions and imagine the world as it could it be, rather than accepting the world as it is.

Our final brave leaders in this week’s Torah portion are Moses and Joshua. We’ve already begun to prepare for this leadership transition, from Moses’ generation of Egypt and the desert to Joshua’s generation that will enter the Promised Land. Here God details the way in which Moses will transfer his power to the next generation. Moses is brave by knowing when and how to step aside. And Joshua is brave by stepping up, before the community - aidah - as the new leader. 

We’re having our own Joshua transition as we say goodbye to Rabbi Josh and hello to Josh Cutler, our new president. As I begin to serve as your rabbi, I am thrilled and honored to partner with Josh Cutler. Earlier this week, I asked Josh what it meant to him to begin as Temple president. “This is the first building I ever came to outside of my house, for my bris, when I was 8 days old,” he shared with me, with a tear in his eye. “This place is my home.” On this bima, our Temple president became a member of the Jewish people and this Temple family. And he continues to put our community at the center of his life, and to lead us into the future. Josh has chosen to be brave.

It is brave to be a leader in a time of transition. It is brave, like the daughters of Zelophehad, to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and use this time of transition to move us forward into the future. And it is brave to know when to speak up as an individual, like Pinchas, and how to do that in relationship, in partnership, and for the sake of the community.

On Wednesday, July 4th, my family and I attended the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence at Shakespeare and Company. Like our Torah, I’m always struck by how a text written years ago can still resonate for our lives today. Looking through the lens of this week’s Torah portion, our nation’s founders have never seemed braver to me. And those who carry on their legacy, seeking equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people, are the bravest among us. 

So now I put the question to you. 

Do you want to play it safe, or do you want to be brave?

This year, we can choose to be brave. Like our biblical ancestors, we can elevate our community. We can strengthen the bonds of our Temple family. We can ask powerful questions that move our community and our world. We can take on new leadership roles to sustain and enrich our community together.

Let’s be brave together.

Fri, December 13 2019 15 Kislev 5780