Parashat Pinchas: Ilene Cohen’s 70th Birthday Drash — July 29, 2016


Ten years ago, I celebrated my 60th birthday at BCC with a “coming of wisdom” ceremony. So now the obvious question is, “have I become wiser in the last ten years?” I believe I have and tonight, I hope to share some of that wisdom with you.

My parashah is “Pinchas” from the Book of Numbers. It is here that we meet the five daughters of Zelophehad. We know that these young women are important because the Torah takes the time to tell us their first names: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. The daughters wanted to challenge the laws of inheritance. Since only males can inherit and since the daughters’ father died without leaving any sons, the daughters did not want their father’s name to be lost.

They made a plan and demonstrated enormous courage by approaching Moses, Eleazer the Priest, the Chieftains and the whole assembly at the Tent of Meeting where God’s presence dwelt. The daughters presented their case to Moses with confidence and in an authoritative manner. Moses, moved by their plea, consulted with God and God told Moses that the women’s case was just. Thus, these five daughters were successful in modifying the law.

I see much wisdom in these daughters of Zelophehad. They took a risk and had enough courage to speak up against injustice despite their role as second class citizens in a patriarchal society. Having the courage to be vulnerable is a key element to leading a whole-hearted life. The words whole-hearted come from the Vehavta prayer: You shall love Adonai, your God, with all your heart…” It means speaking out and showing up at difficult times where there are no guarantees. Vulnerability can never be greater than your willingness to stand up against your fears and risk the chance of being brokenhearted. Suffering, an inevitable experience for human beings, teaches us understanding and compassion for others. Imperfections, facing fears, and accepting the uncertainties of life not only support whole-hearted living, but also helps us to connect with others who can relate and identify with us. When we share our stories, we know we are not alone.

Aging wisely means to accept the world exactly the way it is and to accept yourself exactly the way you are: unique, worthy, and strong.

It also means living in the present moment and taking the time to notice a world filled with wonder and amazement. Life is, after all, a
precious gift from God. For myself, I need to be courageous and vulnerable in order to reach out to others and to make real connections. For we are the only ones who can make positive changes in our lives. The Torah teaches us to “choose life”, and turning 70 reminds me to use my time on earth wisely and to do my part, however small, to make a difference in our troubled world.

I would like to close with this poem by Mary Oliver. It is called “The Journey”:

One day you finally knew
What you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
Kept shouting
Their bad advice‚
Though the whole house
Began to tremble
And you felt the old tug
At your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
Each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
Though the wind pried
With its stiff fingers
At the very foundations‚
Though their melancholy
Was terrible.
It was already late
Enough, and a wild night,
And the road full of fallen
Branches and stones.
But little by little,
As you left their voices behind,
The stars began to burn
Through the sheets of clouds,
And there was a new voice,
Which you slowly
Recognized as your own,
That kept you company
As you strode deeper and deeper
Into the world,
Determined to do
The only thing you could do‚
Determined to save
The only life you could save.

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