What kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to live your life?
Before we get to those questions, let me tell you how one man, Pinchas, lived his life. When we meet Pinchas at the end of last week’s Torah portion, he had just saved the Israelites from their own worst enemy – themselves. The Israelites are once again ignoring the lessons of the past and engaging in idol worship and illicit affairs with foreign-born women. God is obviously displeased with this latest example of human transgression, so he sends down a clear and direct message in the form of a plague. Pinchas takes it upon himself to make things right. In one fell swoop, he uses his spear to kill an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were having an illicit relationship. We learn their names in this week’s Torah portion: Zimri and Cozbi. One strike of Pinchas’s spear and they’re both dead. Immediately after Pinchas slays the couple, God lifts the plague.
It would be easy to think of Pinchas as the Torah’s first superhero. The Amazing Pinchas: mild-manner priest acts without divine intervention, comes out of the crowd and slays a lawbreaking couple in a single bound. There would be merit to this analogy. Mythology focuses on the superhuman. Humans and demigods with extraordinary abilities appear in many cultures, ancient or modern. Look at Gilgamesh. Or Spider-Man. These figures have a real purpose, and that’s to show us that if they can do the impossible, so can we. But there’s a deeper layer to the superhero story. What’s the difference between a superhero and the rest of us? What is it that makes us soar above the crowd if we have to? Is it something within us – something in our character that some of us have and others do not? Or do external events inspire us to rise to the challenge?
“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing….What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”
That’s Winston Churchill talking about the point when life hands us our defining moment. We don’t know when it’ll happen, or under what circumstances, but it happens to all of us. The first thing is to recognize it. That doesn’t always happen. The second critical element is to act on it. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, recognizes his defining moment. He sees a crisis, assesses it, and decides in an instant that he’ll do what he can to restore God’s law to the Israelites. He acts at an important time for the Israelites. When Pinchas makes his move, freedom is close at hand for the Israelites. They’re in Canaan, just east of the Jordan River. The Promised Land is within sight. But the Israelites are still ill-equipped to handle the challenge of freedom. They forsake the Torah and worship idols, just as they did in the Golden Calf episode. Pinchas behaves better than his grandfather, Aaron, did. When he’s tapped on the shoulder, he acts.
Elsewhere in the same Torah portion there are other defining moments. The five daughters of Zelophehad – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah (their names always appear together) – they see their defining moment and muster up the courage to act on it. They approach Moses, the chief priest, the leaders and the entire congregation and ask for something unheard of, something unprecedented. They ask for their father’s land inheritance since there are no male heirs. They ask boldly. They don’t beg. “Give us a holding,” they say. Their action initiates a change in Torah law. This is one of just three instances in the Torah where we witness the process by which Torah law is changed. It’s the only one set into motion by women.
Later in the Torah portion God instructs Moses to ascend the heights of Mount Abarim and view the land that he, Moses, will never inhabit. This, I believe, is Moses’ defining moment. Some might say Moses had other defining moments, like the exodus from Egypt, where he had the collective energy and forward momentum of the Israelites right behind him. Or the moment when he received the Ten Commandments, and then smashed them, because he knew the Israelites were not worthy of this gift from the Almighty.
It’s easier to be courageous and act with fortitude when you’re in battle mode, but much harder when the war is almost done, when your strength has worn down. Think of a marathon runner. During those last miles, you find yourself pulling out strength from reserves you never knew you had. Crossing the finish line becomes sheer agony. In this Torah portion, Moses is near the end of his marathon. He knows his days are numbered. He knows that although he fought the war, he’ll never celebrate the victory. Yet he climbs Mt. Abarim and looks at the Promised Land. He appoints Joshua to succeed him. Before the entire community he does what God commanded him to do – he lays his hands upon Joshua and makes possible a future that he will never experience, a new world of freedom that he will never explore. There’s a quiet elegance in Moses’ actions. Old, with the full knowledge that his dream has been dashed because he disobeyed God, he acts selflessly and bravely and fulfills God’s will. That is his defining moment.
The truth is that most of us are not Pinchas. Most of us are like the Israelites, moving imperfectly, and sometimes gracefully, as we make our way through a world of unknowns, a world where turmoil ends up in our laps. We’re not Moses. We’re the huddled masses who entered New York at Ellis Island, people working hard to make our way in a land where those around us don’t understand the language we speak — or don’t bother listening to the words we say. Finding the courage to move forward or stand still, the courage to make a life or let the world control you — these are the types of choices at the heart of the defining moment.
Some of us are middle-aged men and women caring for our aging parents, giving their lives happiness and purpose when we know full well how the story will likely end. That is a defining moment. We cope with sickness – our own or our loved ones’— and with the reality that not all endings are happy endings. That’s a defining moment. We stand behind our friends in their time of need, even when most people walk away – in fact, especially when most people walk away. We pull each other up from despair. Loyalty and compassion inspire many a defining moment.
What kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to live your life? I asked these questions at the beginning of this d’var Torah.
Defining moments have the potential to make super-humans out of all of us. We’re not as impulsive as Pinchas, perhaps, and most of us have no desire to shoulder the kind of burden that Moses did. What we do want to be is the kind of person who moves ahead with courage, honesty and conviction — no matter what. We want to live our lives with decency and kindness, the way God intended us to, and with passion, empathy and intelligence.
In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt delivered his famous “Citizen in a Republic” speech in Paris where he described what success really is:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
It’s often the ordinary, day-to-day struggles, not the extraordinary events and crises, which create our defining moments. Like Pinchas and Moses, let us not shy away from our struggles but embrace them. Let us learn from them. Let us all have the ability to recognize our defining moments for their potential value, which is to make us better people than we ever thought we could be.
Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.