The Daughters of Zelofchad
As the Book of BeMidbar begins to wind down, the preparations for entry into the Land pick up speed. Recall that at the end of last week's parasha, the people of Israel succumbed to the temptations of the daughters of Moav, and joined them in adulating their pagan god Baal Peor. Adopting its licentious rites of worship, Israel strayed from God and faltered, for now falling short of Bilam's glowing endorsements. The debacle was exacerbated when a prince of the tribe of Shimon publicly rejected the Torah's higher moral demands by openly consorting with a Midianite princess. Moshe and the leaders of Israel stood paralyzed to act; it was Pinchas the son of El'azar, Aharon's son, who forcefully brought an end to the matter by summarily dispatching the two.
Pinchas' zealous act earns him Divine approval, and God's 'covenant of peace' with him serves as the opening passage of our Parasha. The narrative goes on to introduce matters germane to the theme of entry into the land, but it is significant that they are presented against the backdrop of Pinchas' fervent deed. Perhaps the linkage is straightforward: entry into Canaan will necessitate conflict and conquest, as its existing societal foundation of a polytheistic worldview will have to be combated. The immoral rites of Baal Peor were in fact part of a much broader cultural climate that characterized the entire region. Invariably, the worship of many gods allowed for the oppression of many men, and the people of Canaan excelled at both. Pinchas' selfless but severe act can thus be seen as a paradigm for what will be required of the people when they cross the River Jordan, for numerous Baal Peors will await them on its western shores. True peace will only be secured for Israel once the idolatry of Canaan and its associated villainy have been expunged.
THE DUAL PURPOSE OF THE CENSUS
After the introductory passage concerning Pinchas, the Parasha goes on to describe the census of the people. Recall that the Book of BeMidbar had also opened with a census of Israel, for at the time hopes had been high that soon they would leave Mount Sinai behind and journey towards the land without delay. Of course, those hopes had been subsequently dashed at the debacle of the Spies, and Israel instead spent the better part of the next four decades engaged in an aimless wilderness sojourn. Now, with a new generation having taken the place of the old, a generation nurtured on the deprivation and the want of which steadfast faith is often spun, Israel is again counted, for this time their march towards Canaan's borders will not be derailed.
This census has two primary purposes. The first, like that one undertaken so many years earlier in the wilderness of Sinai, is to ascertain the number of fighting men, for Israel's entry into the land will not go unopposed. As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) had explained at that time,
the reason for ascertaining their number was similar to the practice of a ruling power that is about to embark on a war, for the people are now poised to enter the Land and to fight the Amorite kings who guarded its entrance from the east, as well all of the other kings on the other side of the Jordan…Moshe and the tribal princes had to know the number of fighting men…for the Torah does not rely on the miracle of one chasing a thousand. Thus, the text states 'all those who go out to war in Israel' because the count is for the sake of preparing the nation for battle…
The Ramban then went on to introduce a second aspect, this one grounded not in military necessity, but rather in good administration:
Also, they must know the number of people so that they can distribute the land that they conquer, for were it not for the incident of the Spies, they would have entered the land immediately (commentary to 1:45).
TRUSTING IN GOD'S ASSISTANCE
Interestingly, it is this second aspect that, in contrast to Parashat BeMidbar, seems to constitute the crux of the matter here, as the succeeding passage to our census highlights:
God spoke to Moshe saying: The land will be divided among these, in accordance with their names and numbers. The numerous shall receive a larger portion and the few a smaller portion, each in accordance with his number shall be given his portion. But the land shall be divided by lot, in accordance with the names of their fathers' tribes shall they receive their portion. In accordance with the lot shall their portion be divided, whether numerous or few (26:52-56).
Presumably, the strategic value of the census – ascertaining the number of battle-fit males – is here downplayed, in order to impress upon the people the certainty of God's intervention. It is as if the Torah is indicating to Israel that the main challenge ahead of them will not be the military conquest of the land, for which God's assistance will never be lacking, but rather the subsequent settlement of those fertile but desolate tracts. And in fact, as the narratives of Sefer Yehoshua make so abundantly clear, that was in fact the case. In relatively short order the confederacies of the Canaanite city-states were overrun by Yehoshua's armies, but the struggle to settle the new land, to set down roots while remaining loyal to God's Torah and immune to the alluring wiles of Canaanite idolatry, proved to be the much more serious and drawn-out trial. If so, the echoes of our introductory passage concerning the zeal of Pinchas and his unwillingness to compromise with syncretism or worse, are heard here loudly as well.
THE DAUGHTERS OF ZELOFCHAD
The hopeful themes of these first sections of the Parasha concerning the census and the preparations for settlement are continued in the remarkable passage that follows:
The daughters of Zelofchad (son of Chefer, son of Gil'ad, son of Menashe, from the tribe of Menashe son of Yosef) whose names were Machla, No'a, Chogla, Milka and Tirza, stood before Moshe and El'azar the Priest and before the tribal leaders and the entire congregation at the portal of the Tent of Meeting, and they said: "Our father perished in the wilderness. He was not part of the group that had gathered against God with Korach's followers, for he died by his own sin and he had no sons. But why shall our father's name be expunged from the midst of his family only because he had no son? Give us then a portion in the midst of our father's brothers!" Moshe brought their claim before God.
God spoke to Moshe saying. The daughters of Zelofchad speak correctly. You shall surely assign them a portion of land among their father's brothers, and you shall transfer their father's portion to them. To the people of Israel you shall say: if a man dies and he has no sons, then his portion shall be transeferred to his daughters. And if he has no daughter, then you shall transfer his portion to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall transfer his portion to his uncles. And if there are no brothers on his father's side, then you shall give his portion to his next of kin from his family to inherit it. This shall be a statutory law for the people of Israel, as God commanded Moshe (27:1-8).
BRAVERY AND DETERMINATION
We can almost imagine the drama of the scene. Moshe had just told the people, who were all neatly assembled at the Mishkan (27:2), that they must soon prepare to divide up the land by lot. The elderly lawgiver was flanked by sturdy El'azar the son of Aharon and by the new tribal leaders, and the people of Israel listened attentively while affording them a respectful space at the front of the assembly. No doubt there was great anticipation in the air, as Israel realized for the first time in so many long years that Canaan was really just over the horizon, like a vivid dream only a heartbeat away from fulfillment. Was the still and arid air of the Plains of Moav punctuated perhaps by sighs of relief or even whoops of unrestrained joy?
Suddenly, as the festive assembly was about to conclude, five young female figures solemnly made their way to the front of the throng. Moshe and the elders saw them approach, immediately recognizing the group as belonging to the tribe of Menashe, but unsure of their intent. Bravely standing between the elders and the people while facing them both, the daughters of Zelofchad presented their case: "Give us then a portion in the midst of our father's brothers!" they cry out, the justice of their eloquent words reverberating among the hills.
THE WOMEN OF ISRAEL AND A MESSAGE FOR THE FUTURE
It does not come as a surprise that in Rabbinic literature, the daughters of Zelofchad are unanimously perceived in a positive light. "They were wise and just women", exclaims the Midrash BeMidbar Rabbah (21:11). "In that generation, the women would repair what the men had breached…for the men had not wanted to enter the land, but the women drew close in order to request a portion in that land. Therefore, this section was related on the heels of the death of the generation of the wilderness, for there the men had breached and the women had repaired…" (Midrash BeMidbar Rabbah 21:10).
For the Rabbis of the Midrash, the audacity and determination of Zelofchad's daughters was not only a statement about their great personal desire to be actively involved in the task of settlement about to unfold, but, more importantly, indicative of the spirit of all of the women of Israel. While the men of Israel fretted and feared the report of the Spies and brought ruin upon themselves by rejecting the gift of the land, the women had remained steadfast, for they knew that God's word would be fulfilled. Other Midrashim, such as the Midrash Tanchuma paraphrased by Rashi (11th century, France), state the matter more forcefully:
The decree pronounced upon the people in the aftermath of the Spies did not apply to the women, because they loved the land. While the men were saying "let us appoint a leader to return to Egypt!" (BeMidbar 14:4), the women exclaimed "give us a portion in the land!" (BeMidbar 27:4), and that is why the incident is related here (commentary to 26:64).
For forty years, the women of Israel had patiently waited for the expiration of the decree pronounced in the aftermath of the sin of the Spies. While not directly subject to its lethal impact, they had nevertheless suffered its harsh side-effects, confined to the oblivion of the wilderness while all around them the men-folk perished. But during that time, they had never ceased to hope for better days. The men, in the meanwhile, could only bemoan their bitter fate, waiting for the dry, desert dust to swallow them up without a trace. Finally, that generation drew to a close and the people found themselves camped on the outskirts of Canaan. With the land about to be divided up among the male offspring of those ungrateful fathers (!), the daughters of Zelofchad stepped forward, speaking not for themselves but for all of the women of Israel. "What about us?", they exclaimed. "what about our faithfulness and trust? What about our love of the land? Shall our mothers' forty years of patience go unrewarded?"
God, of course, responded in perfect concord with His justice and love: "The daughters of Zelofchad speak correctly! You shall surely assign them a portion of land among their father's brothers, and you shall transfer their father's portion to them…." The palpable pride contained in His words, addressed to five courageous young women but intended for all of Israel to hear, may yet inspire us today. While all around us there is despair and foreboding, weariness of the struggle but uncertainty about how to proceed, the daughters of Zelofchad provide us with hope: God's promise, though it may be delayed, and we may yet suffer setbacks for fearing to trust in Him, will not go unfulfilled. One day, the land will be apportioned among the people and Israel shall settle it.