Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Pinchas

The last few months bore witness to dramatic changes in the way in which Americans relate to each other. I am not sure how many hearts have changed, but the ways in which we express our hearts certainly has. Whether we are talking about the flag, marriage, health care, Iran, Israel/Palestine, racism or sexism, the rhetoric has reached new levels of polarization. I do not believe that this is because people feel differently. Rather, the changes in law and circumstance brought the debate out into the public, and we know that changing the law does nothing to change the heart of those enforcing it or living under it.

I remember the day that my parents first told me that an African American 5th-grade friend would not be coming back to my house. I have ever since wondered why it matters that people look and believe differently from one another. I left synagogue after my Bar Mitzvah because the Rabbi spoke only of a God who favored some but not all. Growing up in Las Vegas, we experienced greater social latitude than many did in other communities. We still endured our annual week long race riot that brought people to blows who were otherwise “friends” the other 358 days a year. I did not understand the “picking of sides” between people just because of skin color. I went to college in New Orleans at Tulane University. To my delight, this fun and amazingly gifted African-American classmate asked me to escort her to her Sorority formal. The people attending ostracized us that night. And I heard about that night over the course of four years of college. Going to law school in Little Rock, Arkansas, I shared classroom space with active KKK members who did not appreciate my being Jewish … and less appreciated my tenure with an otherwise all minority law firm as clerk/paralegal and then attorney (involved in all of the firm’s civil rights litigation).

Perhaps these experiences helped propel me into a new career. I had a successful law practice but did not feel I was accomplishing a whole lot. Upon ordination, I accepted the pulpit offered to me in Florence, SC. My mentors (and most dear friends) were Fred Reese (District United Methodist Minister), Burt Wilson (retired Baptist Minister), and Leo Woodberry (back then A.M.E. Pastor). These three gentlemen taught me more about serving a community than any other influence in my life. My first “clergy friend” was Timothea Lewis (Lutheran Pastor), and I was shocked to realize how much flak she experienced as a woman in the pulpit. I co-edited an Israeli/Palestinian cookbook with Gabe Batarsi to the chagrin of even many amongst my own congregation. Religious labels mattered not between us, and religious dogma allowed each of us our personal expression of our respective relationships with divinity. Each of us was devoutly faithful, and each of us respected that each other was, as well. Race did not matter between us. The rest of the community was not so sure about any of us.

Our work to bring down the “flag,” bring together disparate races and religions, and normalize the community conversation about diverse cultures caused a stir. Fast forward a couple of decades. After over a decade of similarly dedicated diversity and relationship building justice work in Lexington, KY, I now serve in a congregation led by Sally Priesand (the first woman to be ordained Rabbi in American history).

With all this and more, I experienced shock when I first sat down to seriously study this week’s Torah portion 25 years ago. I was naïve (even as a lawyer with civil rights experience). I was naïve entering rabbinical school. I read of Tzelophechad’s daughters and really thought it odd that woman did not have the same rights as did men. In class, it became evident that some of our professors experienced less joy in having women in seminary than did others. As I read this text, I thought to myself, “Wait, it’s here in Torah! Men and Women have equal rights … in the realm of greatest importance … inheritance.”

Over the course of now 25 years, I have learned that people pick and choose what they want from the Bible. Especially for those who believe that God wrote the Bible, I am dumbstruck how God can speak of equality in the Bible, and yet people who hold the Bible up as the absolute word of God refuse to honor it. Women and men are not afforded equal status in almost any part of the world. By extension, the Biblical command to be kind to the widows, orphans, and strangers gets ignored any time we turn our backs on the needy amongst us. By further extension, we seem to ignore the places in the text that command us to treat the stranger amongst us as an equal member of our family.

Where in any of this is there room for sexism, racism, religious discrimination … or the vociferously espoused “right” to ignore the law to which I have sworn an oath to uphold, because I don’t like it? Even while we venerate the daughter’s of Tzelophechad for pushing and gaining their rights to inherit from their father’s estate, we have to ask, “Why, in the thousands of years since, are we still demeaning each other over the very gender, color, or DNA with which God created us … each of us?” Shabbat Shalom.