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Perfecting the World Starts with One's Self

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The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family. Numbers 25:14

The Torah portion for this week is Pinchas, which means "Phinehas," from Numbers 25:10-30:1, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 18:46-19:21.

When the President of Yale University, Peter Salovey, gave his commencement speech, his message was this: ". . . improve the world. In the Jewish tradition this is called Tikkun Olam, literally to 'repair the world.'" We would all like to create the perfect world . . . but how?

This week's reading begins where last week's left off. Last week's portion ended on a low note for the Israelites as the men began to sin with the Midianite women. The worst moment came when an Israelite brought a Midianite woman in front of Moses and sinned with her publically. At that point, Phineas took a spear and killed the couple. This ended the plague God had sent as punishment that had already wiped out 24,000 Israelites.

One interesting observation is that it is only in this week's reading that we learn who the sinner in the incident was Zimri, a prince from the tribe of Simeon. The Jewish sages comment that withholding his identity until now was intentional. Had it been made known as the story was unfolding, Zimri's prestigious reputation could negatively influence the reader, who might conclude that if such an esteemed individual could sin in this way, then it must not be so bad. Only after Zimri is killed, and the full scope of his sin and its tragic effects are revealed, does the Torah let us know who the sinner was. At that point, no one aspires to be like Zimri!

One key lesson of this story is that we influence others the most by how we behave ourselves. This can work in the negative, but also for the good.

There's a story about a famous 18th century rabbi who used to say that in his younger years, he wanted to perfect the world. That didn't work so he figured he would work to perfect his country, Lithuania. When that didn't work either, he decided that he would just perfect his hometown city of Radin. When that failed, the rabbi finally decided that he would just try to perfect himself - and by perfecting himself, he then was able to influence Radin, the whole of Lithuania, and people worldwide, even still today.

The place to start in the mission of perfecting the world is with ourselves.

There are many ways to make the world a better place. In the words of Peter Salovey, "When you start a new business that employs people and contributes something new, you improve the world. When you serve others with great distinction in one of the professions, you improve the world. When you inspire others by creating a beautiful work of art, you improve the world."

To this, I would add when we act righteously, we inspire others to do the same, and then, quite possibly, we can perfect the world!

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