November 22, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Pinchas

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them.-Numbers 27:7

Rabbi Pinchas Winston

The commentator Rashi identifies the characteristic of the daughters of Zelophehad that gave them the merit to teach this law about inheritance, to be supported by God, and to be mentioned in His book, the Torah. They loved the Land of Israel. 

This was something they learned from their father, and this is interesting because the Talmud says that it was their father, Zelophehad, who was executed for breaking Shabbat back in Parashat Shlach, when the nation rejected the Land of Israel! Is there a connection? 

After the decree against entering the Land was pronounced, the nation thought that the entire “mission” had been scrubbed. As the verse said, God took the Jewish people out of Egypt to bring them to Canaan to be their God. If they were no longer going to Canaan/Israel, perhaps they never would, and the nation was completely rejected by God, left to die out in the desert. Zelophehad, a lover of the Land, refused to accept this, and wanted to prove otherwise. But how? It occurred to him that if he could show the ongoing relevance of Torah mitzvot, that they were still applicable, it would be proof that the nation was still destined to conquer the land and make it their home. Therefore, he deliberately made himself guilty of the death penalty by violating Shabbat, sacrificing himself for the future of the nation. It was what the Talmud calls an “altruistic sin,” and according to at least one commentator, he was rewarded for this in a future incarnation.

Miriam Kreisman
Chassidic wife and mother, graduate of NYU School of Law

The issue of inheriting different parts of the Land of Israel came up only in the year before entering the Holy Land. At that point, the Jewish nation was poised to physically enter and conquer the Land with God’s help. Zelophehad had been dead for decades. But when his daughters learned they would not inherit their father’s portion of the land, they stepped forward and established for all eternity how we inherit the Land: not with physical force but with pure motives, determination and superior knowledge of the Torah. 

It wasn’t easy for these women to approach the rabbinical court of men and passionately argue their case. They had to invest great effort and probably go against their own nature. But they did it because of their great love for the Land, which they had never set foot upon yet loved with all their heart because they understood deeply that this is what God wants for the Jewish people. 

Chassidus teaches us that each journey the Jews took in the desert (42 in all) has its own spiritual lesson. It is therefore fitting that the last journey should teach us how the arrival of Mashiach will come, when all the Jews will be gathered to Eretz Yisrael. It will come about with patience, due process and with the women leading, because it is the feminine energy that will bring about the perfection of the world. If I could sit at a Table for Five, I would love for it to be with Zelophehad’s daughters. 

Rabbi Scott N. Bolton
Congregation Or Zarua, New York

Blessed inspiration from the daughters of Israel! It was through their merit, the midrash explains, that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. The Torah and Talmud remind us: Listen to the sisters’ voices. They experienced the miracle of the redemption. And they are the ones demanding their rightful portion in the land God promised. So should you! 

From narrative rises responsibility; we must all claim our rightful portions in the Promised Land. Today, the daughters are teaching us: The Jewish heart and willingness to make the legal case must be the work of every man and woman among the Jewish people. We should all be as bold, assertive, proud and steadfast in our love of the Land. 

The modern State of Israel needs us to raise our voices and sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, from Diaspora lands! Let me suggest, though, that we include more than the first stanza of Naftali Herz Imber’s poem “Tikvateinu” in a Diaspora version of the anthem. Imagine an anthem for Israel for noncitizens of Medinat Yisrael that not only mentions how our souls long for the Land in the East but that invokes the eighth stanza as well: “As long as the feeling of love of the Nation of Israel throbs in the heart of every Jew …” 

We so need the passion of the daughters of Zelophehad to light our way. Love of the Land and a deep love for mishpachah, the Jewish family, were both aflame in their hearts.

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
Academy for Jewish Religion California, professor of Hebrew 

This verse serves as an affirmation that the complaint of the daughters of Zelophehad was a just one. After Rashi acknowledges that in this context the first word of the verse, “ken,” properly means “justly,” he then echoes a midrashic tradition that interprets the word “ken” allegorically as “thus.” In this manner, the verse can be read as: “Thus, exactly as the daughters of Zelophehad say, is the intended law of God as written on high.” The notion that these five women articulated God’s intentions with regard to the division of the Land of Israel, while Moses himself was unclear about it, is a powerful one. 

A clue to understanding how the daughters of Zelophehad merited to give voice to God’s true intentions can perhaps be found in Targum Yonatan in the first verse of the chapter. Targum Yonatan adds that the daughters of Zelophehad asked their question to Moses “trusting in the compassion of God.” Unlike Korach, their inquiry was not a challenge to the law itself or to Moses’ authority. They trusted in the goodness of God and asked a sincere question: “How could it be that we are deprived of land solely because we are not male?” 

They clarified the law, not by rejecting its accepted interpretation, but by fearlessly questioning it and trusting that God’s compassion and justice underlie the law. This can serve as a reminder to us to always seek God’s compassion in the Torah we study and to trust that it is there. 

Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins
N’vay Shalom,

As a woman, I am grateful for the chutzpah of these daughters who spoke out for perpetuating their family’s name and made history, since the custom was that only males should inherit. Why does God respond positively to their request and who is Zelophehad? 

The Torah says he is from the tribe of Manasseh, the lineage of Joseph. The Zohar teaches he was the “unnamed man” who violated Shabbat by m’kasheysh eytzim, gathering wood, but translates the Hebrew as “comparing trees.” Which trees? The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, thus potentially inviting evil into Shabbat peace. For this he was stoned to death. 

The daughters argue that their father was not part of any rebel uprising but committed his sin “alone,” and paid dearly with his life. B’chol Shor agrees, Zelophehad’s death was punishment enough and the daughters’ claim should be granted. Midrash Rabbah concurs for different reasons. First, they were wise and righteous in choosing just the right moment to speak, when Moses was dividing the land. Like their relative Joseph, who spoke at the right moment to Pharaoh, their timing was perfect. Second, they are rewarded along with the whole generation of women who refused to contribute jewelry for the golden calf or side with the cowardly spies who refused to enter the Land. Third, their motivation was purely altruistic, to perpetuate their father’s name and property. 

Despite their father’s sin, God saw that they brought wisdom and blessing to his memory and their reward is a gift to us as well.