Parshat Pinchas at CBI

Rabbi Philip Weintraub 
Congregation B’nai Israel
July 7, 2018
First Shabbat in St. Pete--Parshat Pinchas
Good morning. It is a pleasure to stand here, on this beautiful bimah, in this magnificent sanctuary, in sunny, beautiful St. Petersburg. I have been anticipating this moment for months. After I spent Shabbat with all of you on my interview, I could not imagine being anywhere else. For the last few months, I have had half my neshama, a piece of my soul and my heart in St Pete, just waiting until I would be here, side by side at CBI.  (Speaking of waiting, the rest of my family is eagerly awaiting joining me!)
I shared last night about my daf yomi journey, about the importance of learning how to fail, to pick oneself up and keep going. I spoke about Jeremiah hearing the voice of the Holy One, telling him that he was chosen to serve God and follow his mission. While that voice may be harder for us to hear today, we are blessed with our sacred traditions, with our history, with our texts with the Jewish people, with Israel, with one another. Together those voices share the words of the Holy One, they teach us our roles, our missions, and help us on our sacred journeys. I am blessed to have spent so much time studying our traditions, and am even more blessed to have been given the gift of sharing with you--learning and teaching, celebrating and mourning, being with you, walking with you and helping us all discover the Holy one together.

This week’s parsha offers us three different and important paths towards peace and towards God. We see the path of Pinchas, the path of Zelophehad's daughters and the path of the daily, weekly, and Festival sacrifices.

First in our parsha, we hear of Pinchas’s Brit Shalom, his covenant of peace and friendship. There is certainly irony in a man who engages in vigilante justice being rewarded with a covenant of peace and the division of the parsha recognizes that. The story that makes Pinchas famous was actually in last week’s parsha. He took the law into his own hands and the rabbis were VERY unhappy with that. They strongly believe in justice, the court system, and the right to a fair trial. Their entire system of capital punishment was designed in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to execute someone. Yet, that is exactly what Pinchas did and he seems to be rewarded for it. He is able to calm down God from enacting vengeance against the entire community for the truly heinous actions of two individuals. The rabbis see the Torah itself as a witness against Pinchas. In his Brit Shalom, the Vav of Shalom is broken. It is an eternal reminder that peace that comes through violence--even necessary violence--is not the same as peace that comes through diplomacy and cooperation.

As we begin our journey together, I would like to create a covenant of peace without a broken Vav. I would like us to build a community based around shared values, open and honest communication, and a shared desire to do the best we can. Knowing that the other, that our fellow community members, that our board members, that our executive team, our staff, myself are ALL looking and working for the best, we should treat each other with great respect. Knowing we are all trying together, means that we can judge each other in the most positive light. Speaking to our fellow community members we should not imagine insults, but desire for clarification. We can recognize that sometimes we misunderstand or mishear, but that we are all working together for the greater good. We have a little while until Rosh Hashanah, but if I do something “wrong”; if I sing the “wrong” melody, or do things a little bit differently, I ask you forgiveness in advance. More importantly, I ask that you talk to me about it. Don’t just tell Dean or the board, come to me first! Then we can talk with love and figure things out together.

My central principle is to try to remember that we are all created in the image of Gd, that we all have within us the Divine spirit and as such, to always treat others with respect and love. I have found that generally speaking, this attitude is reciprocated, that I am matched with love and respect. I know that will continue here--but I hope that it continues outside the office--outside this sanctuary and into the most holy of spaces--the parking lot!

Next I want to spend a moment on the journey of the daughters of Zelophehad. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah saw injustice. Their father had no sons and therefore he had no inheritor, no one to cultivate the land that would have been his in Israel. His daughters went to Moshe and demanded to be heard. They asked for their rightful claim to be adjudicated. Moshe heard their voices, spoke to the Holy One and received an answer that they were correct. The law was changed and they were allowed to inherit.

As a rabbi, my job is to support you in your path towards holiness. I want to help you have a meaningful and productive life. I want to stand with you and be present in your moments of joy and celebration, and be by your side in moments of loss and sadness. Thinking back a few months ago, I was so moved by how CBI embraced one another and supported one another in the tragic loss of the Weiss family. The way you came together and remembered them was one of the factors in helping me realize that this was truly our home. This week, I am proud to visit with a USY on Wheels bus that will be stopping in our community, doing a service project in honor of Hannah. I am also proud that my nephew will be on that bus and get to hear about her and her incredible legacy in such a short time.

Like Hannah, I want to be an advocate for all in our community and for our environment. Another day we can discuss electric cars and solar panels, but today, I want to be like Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, to ensure that all have a place a CBI. I am proud to include the imahot, the matriarchs in my prayers. (I’ll tell you more about that story for me another day.) I am glad that our community embraces interfaith families. Non-Jewish parents that raise Jewish children need to be thanked for the incredible gift they are sharing with the Jewish world. We have to see the circles of Jewish living and help people move one step closer to their Jewish souls. They should be proud to be Jewish!  Speaking of Pride...
Pride Shabbat is another reason that I came to CBI. We have to know our community and welcome them in. St. Petersburg has incredible resources and the pride parade is definitely a way that we can be visible in our community.
I am excited to spend a lot of time in this beautiful building, but I also look forward to being visible in our broader community. By leaving these walls, I can meet you for lunch, see our incredible city and help to build it for the next generation, to advocate for Israel, for green technology and power, responsible development, ensuring that our school board understands the Jewish holidays and demonstrating how we live our Jewish values. I look forward to working side by side with you to fight for what is right at CBI and beyond.
The third piece of the Torah that I even more briefly want to touch on is the regularity of the sacrifices. Selections from this week’s parsha are read throughout the year. Every Shabbat in our Musaf Amidah, we reference this parsha. Every Festival, we open our Torah to this parsha. We come back to it again and again. We remind ourselves of the details of the offerings that we have not given in so many years. Why? We might say tradition, but the Talmudic rabbis give us another answer. Reading the words is AS IF we are offering the sacrifices. It connects us to them spiritually. But what if we think it’s gross? What if we just cannot find the holiness in the blood and the barbeque?
Well, our prayer book, our Siddur, offers alternatives. For all of us, it helps us remember the sacred in a different way--through prayer. We offer the sacrifice of our time and our money--the very same resources our ancestors offered when they gave physical sacrifices. Our regular, daily, weekly, monthly liturgy gives us the opportunity to connect to God, Torah and Israel constantly. One more thing that has inspired me about CBI is our Daily Minyan. Having twice a day, the opportunity to come together is incredible. While we might not all have the resources to make it to every single one, together we can ensure that those saying Kaddish have a place to go, we fulfill our mission as a Bet Tefillah.
As a cautionary or comforting note, I do not intend to speak this long weekly. Today I wanted to share a little of my vision, and Parshat Pinchas’ threefold message gave me that space. As we work together, as we pray together, as we learn together, as we grow together, let us do it side by side. Let us lift each other up, treat one another with great respect, stand up for what is right, demand our rights, and see the holy in the ordinary. The more time we share, the more we will grow and love the extraordinary community that is CBI.