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Leadership, Justice, Peace and a Kiss

written by Rabbi Kerry Chaplin

This week, I was honored to watch a piece of our democratic processes unfold at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The experience was energizing and I’m encouraged to bring that energy to my first official events with Lab/Shul, to getting to know many of you, and to our old and holy books, especially the following bit of Torah about leadership, justice, peace – and kissing.

There’s a profoundly human vision for a redeemed world in Psalm 85. The psalmist describes a redeemed world as one in which justice and peace kiss – a world in which justice and peace are so deeply in relationship with one another than only physical intimacy can serve as metaphor.

We saw the work of justice made manifest this week when the first woman was nominated by a major political party for President of the United States of America.

That once future dream is now a present reality. And in this hard fought reality, daughters and granddaughters and all children and grandchildren are now growing up in a United States in which, duh, a woman can be president. And to our mothers and grandmothers: thank you, thank you. You’ve seen a world in which the vision of women went from feeble-minded to powerful leaders and you’ve fought hard for that vision. Whatever your political orientation, that’s justice.

There’s a group of women in this week’s parsha, parashat pinhas, who fought for justice. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – together known as the daughters of Zelophehad – saw an unjust inheritance law, and they brought their grievance to Moses, who in consultation with God, changed the law so that these women would in fact inherit their father’s property. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are described in the talmud (bava batra 119b) as wise, as Torah interpreters, as pious. They are identified by modern commentators as advocates and models of justice. But they are rarely called leaders. Even in a parsha so focused on the theme of leadership, as Moses passes the mantle of leadership to Joshua, even as the leadership of Joshua is compared with the zealotous leadership of Pinhas, these change-making women are not considered leaders. Even our modern commentators rarely name these courageous, wise, “grit and grace” women as leaders. Why? Why when these three examples of leadership are so plainly laid before us, are we so blind to the actions of the daughters of Zelophehad as leadership?

Because we, you and I, still have work to do. We still have justice to pursue – to deprogram ourselves of the diminishment of women. And if we celebrate this watershed moment of a woman’s nomination for president, and we don’t work on our own blindness and biases, we perpetuate that diminishment. We have work to do for the sake of justice, and for its partner peace. Not the peace between nations, but the peace ben adam l’havero, between one person and another, and the peace among all the different pieces of ourselves.

Because it’s by doing that intimate, internal work for justice that peace becomes possible. When we work to free our minds and hearts from the weight of internalized biases, we grow into peace with others and with the parts of ourselves we might once have diminished. Our very sight changes and when we learn in Torah about the daughters of Zelophehad, we see Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah as leaders.

We joyfully celebrate this historical moment for women and for people who care about them. And we also know that we still have work to do to bring this world closer to redemption for those children and grandchildren who will come after us.

I look forward to meeting many Lab/Shul friends this coming Shabbat and in the many weeks and months ahead – together working towards moral leadership and a world in which justice and peace are making out.