Women's Turf

  • Rav Zvi Shimon

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

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Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, whose yahrzeit is 21 Tamuz.
Y'hi Zikhro Barukh.

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In memory of our beloved father and grandfather,
Fred Stone, Ya'acov Ben Yitzchak,
whose yahrzeit will be Sunday 25 Tammuz, July 15th.
Ellen, Stanley, Jacob Chaya, Zack, Yael, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana, and Gabi Stone.

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PARASHAT PINCHAS

 

Women's Turf

By Rav Zvi Shimon

 

 

I.  Women of Valor

 

            In the section of 'Pinchas' (Numbers 25:10-30:1), the people of Israel begin preparations towards their appropriation of the promised land.  Moses counts the people in order to divide the land amongst the nation: "Among these the land shall be apportioned as shares" (Numbers 26:53).  Our section lists the number of people in each tribe and their different families.  Each family will be apportioned a part of the greater tribal inheritance and divide it amongst the sons of the family.  One family, however, feels this method of division to be lacking:

 

"The daughters of Tzelofchad, the son of Chefer, the son of Gilad, the son of Machir the son of Menasheh, of the families of Menasheh the son of Joseph came forward.  The names of the daughters were Machla, Noa, Chogla, Milka and Tirza.  They stood before Moses, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, 'Our father died in the wilderness.  He was not one of the faction, Korach's faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons.  Why should our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!  Give us a possession among our father's kinsmen!'  Moses brought their case before the Lord" (Numbers 27:1-5).

 

            The daughters of Tzelofchad come before Moses and the leaders of the community with an interesting claim.  Their father, Tzelofchad passed away, leaving behind him five daughters but no sons.  According to the plans for dividing the land, only sons were to inherit the family plots.  Daughters would marry, join the tribe of their husbands and live on their lands.  Thus, for example, if a woman from the tribe of Dan would marry a man from the tribe of Judah, the woman would move from Dan to Judah and live on her husband's plot of land.  The sons, on the other hand, were slated to inherit their fathers' land and continue his name.  Now, with Tzelofchad, there was nobody to continue his name!  He had only daughters.  Who would inherit his lands?  Who would continue his name?  The daughters of Tzelofchad decide to take their problem to the very top, to the leaders of the nation.

            The opening verse of our narrative recounts the lineage of the daughters of Tzelofchad: "The daughters of Tzelofchad, the son of Chefer, the son of Gilad, the son of Machir the son of Menasheh, of the families of Menasheh the son of Joseph came forward."  In addition to being unusually detailed and tracing the ancestry of the daughters of Tzelofchad six generations, the verse is, as Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) notes, unnecessarily repetitive:

 

"'Of the families of Menasheh the son of Joseph' (27:1) - Why is this stated?  Was it not already stated, 'the son of Menasheh?'  It is to inform you that Joseph cherished the land, as it is stated, 'you shall carry up my bones' (Genesis 50:25) and his daughters cherished the land, as it is stated, 'Give us a possession [among our father's kinsmen]'" (Numbers 27:4).

 

            The verse repeats the name Menasheh: "the son of Menasheh of the families of Menasheh son of Joseph."  Rashi, citing our Sages, explains that the Torah wanted to highlight the connection to Joseph and therefore goes out of its way to state that Menasheh was the son of Joseph.  This lineage does not only reveal blood ties; it points to a common ideology. Just as Joseph loved the land of Israel and requested that his remains be brought out from Egypt and buried in Israel, so do the daughters of Tzelofchad relish inheriting a part in the land.  Although not yet in the promised land, their hearts yearn for it just as Joseph did while he was in Egypt.

 

            Rabbi Hirsch emphasizes that the daughter's primary motivation was not the acquisition of land but rather the perpetuation of their father's name:

 

"'Let not our father's name be lost to his clan' (27:4) in the mouth of the daughters has an ethical meaning above the mere material interest in vested property.  Father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all formed separate branches of the family and in the forthcoming distribution of the land according to families, their names would be perpetuated in the name of the property allotted to them.  However, in the case of Tzelofchad the perpetuation of his name would come to an end ... and the extraordinary opportunity for its perpetuation through the distribution of the land in the names of the family would be lost and his name would cease to be remembered."

 

            The daughters of Tzelofchad were concerned lest their father's name be forgotten.  They felt a responsibility to see to the perpetuation of  his name.  They combine both future and past.  They eagerly anticipate the nation's entry to and inheritance of the land of Israel and, simultaneously, wish to insure the commemoration of their father, of the previous generation.  Entry into a new land does not mean a disconnection or negation of the past.  To the contrary, the daughters of Tzelofchad demonstrate how the land of Israel can promote and deepen our link to the past.

 

            Now that we understand their motivation, let us attempt to appreciate the character of these women.  What may we infer from the biblical narrative about their character?  Our Sages recount the praise of these women:

 

"The daughters of Tzelofchad were wise, learned and righteous ..." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra 119b).

 

            These women were smart.  They knew how to present their case in a most convincing manner.  According to our Sages, they could even hold their own in a legal debate with Moses!  However, they were not only clever, they were also learned in Jewish law.  Our Sages state that they were able to infer from Scripture the minutiae of the laws of inheritance.  Finally, they are regarded as righteous women for their commitment to the perpetuation of their father's name.

 

            We might add an additional quality of these ladies which stands out in the biblical narrative.  These women were courageous.  Scripture stresses that "they stood before Moses, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (27:2).  The Torah stresses how they were willing to present their case before the entire leadership of the nation.  One could imagine the pressure they must have felt when standing before the greatest of all prophets and before the entire assembly.  They, nevertheless, did not shy away from their convictions.  They believed they were right and they were willing to take their case to the highest court in the nation.

 

            Interestingly, our Sages note a general spiritual advantage of the women of Israel over the men during the travels in the wilderness:

 

"In that generation the women repaired that which the men blundered.  Thus you find [in the sin of the golden calf] that Aaron told [the Israelites], 'Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives' (Exodus 32:2), but the women refused ... as is proved by the fact that it says, 'And all the people took off the gold rings that were in THEIR ears' (ibid. 3), the women not participating in making the calf.  It was the same in the case of the spies who uttered an evil report: 'And the MEN ... when they returned, they caused the whole community to mutter against him [Moses]' (Numbers 14:36).  The women, however, were not with them in their plot, as may be inferred from the fact that it is written ...'For the Lord had said of them, They shall surely die in the wilderness.  There was not left a man of them save Calev the son of Yefuneh' (Numbers 26:65).  Thus the text speaks of 'a man' but not of 'a woman.'  This was because the men had been unwilling to enter the land.  The women, however, drew near to ask for an inheritance in the land (see Numbers 27:4)" (Bemidbar Rabba 21:10).

 

            According to our Sages, the women did not take part in the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32) and in the sin of the scouts (Numbers 13-14).  The righteousness of the daughters of Tzelofchad is one example of the general piety of the women of Israel.

 

II.  Stumping Moses

 

            The question raised by the daughters of Tzelofchad is a good one.  In fact, it is so good that it even baffles Moses.  He is compelled to refer the question to the final arbiter: "Moses brought their case before the Lord" (27:5).

 

            Moses' unfamiliarity with the laws of female land inheritance is surprising.  It is a fairly basic component of the laws of inheritance.  How could it be that this issue was unknown to Moses?

 

            The question of Moses' unfamiliarity with the law does not only relate to the episode of the daughters of Tzelofchad.  There are three other instances recounted in the Torah in which Moses is faced with a legal question for which he has no answer.  The first two involve the perpetration of a sin for which Moses does not know the consequent punishment.  Torah recounts in relation to the blasphemer that:

 

"The Israelite's woman's son then blasphemed God's name, and he was brought to Moses ... and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them" (Leviticus 24:11,12).

 

            Moses did not know the punishment that was coming to the blasphemer.  Similarly, with regard to the desecrator of the Sabbath:

 

"While the Israelites were in the wilderness, they discovered a man collecting wood on the Sabbath day.  Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses ... He was placed in custody for it had not been specified what should be done to him" (Numbers 15:32-34).

 

            The third case relates to the Israelites who, due to their being ritually impure, could not partake of the Passover sacrifice:

 

"There were, however, some men who had come in contact with the dead, and were therefore ritually unclean, so that they could not prepare the Passover offering on that day.  During the course of that day, they approached Moses and Aaron.  'We are ritually unclean as a result of contact with the dead,' the men said to [Moses].  'Why should we lose out and not be able to present God's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?'  Moses said to them, 'Stand by, and let me here what instructions the Lord gives regarding your case'" (Numbers 9:6-8).

 

            How could it be that Moses was unfamiliar with such basic laws?  One approach advanced by our Sages is to limit the extent of Moses' unacquaintedness with the law:

 

"Rabbi Shimon of Shikmona says: 'Moses our master knew that the daughters of Tzelofchad were to be heiresses, but he did not know whether or not they were to take the portion of the firstborn ... Moses, furthermore, knew that the man who gathered sticks [on the Sabbath] was to be put to death ... but he did not know by which [kind of] death he was to die" (Bava Batra 119a).

 

            Moses knew that the daughters of Tzelofchad deserved to inherit their father's land; he simply didn't know how much of it they should inherit.  He was unsure whether, according to law, they should inherit also their father's additional rights as the firstborn.  Similarly, with regard to the desecrator of the Sabbath.  Moses knew that the desecrator's punishment would be death.  He did not know which form of death would be administered.  Thus, our Sages limit the extent of Moses' doubts, thereby, mitigating our bewilderment at his unacquaintedness with the law.

 

            However, this approach is not unanimous amongst our Sages:

 

"'He was placed in custody for it had not been specified what should be done to him' (Numbers 15:34) - This teaches us that Moses knew that he [the Sabbath desecrator] would receive the death penalty, but did not know which death penalty he would receive.  Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Shimon says, 'Moses knew neither whether the desecrator deserved the death penalty nor how [if he did deserve the death penalty] he should be killed.'" (Sifrei Zuta, Numbers 15:34)

 

            We see that Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Shimon rejects the attempt to limit Moses' doubt to a mere detail.  Moses did not even know if the desecrator deserved the death penalty.  However, even if we accept the former view, that Moses' doubts related to the details of the punishment, we still find ourselves in a quandary.  Limiting Moses' doubts may diminish the problem, but it does not resolve it completely.

 

            According to our Sages, as cited in the Sifra (Legal exegesis of the Sages to the book of Leviticus) all the commandments with their minute details were given at Mount Sinai:

 

"'The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai ...' (Leviticus 25:1) - Why does Scripture relate regarding 'shemitta' (the seventh year of the agricultural cycle during which it is forbidden to work the land) [that it was commanded] at Mount Sinai?  Were not all the commandments given at Mount Sinai?  [The Torah states this to teach us that] just as the general principles and the fine details of 'shemitta' were conveyed at Mount Sinai, so were the general principles and the fine details of all the commandments conveyed at Mount Sinai" (Sifra, Leviticus 25:1)

 

            Why does the Torah open the section dealing with the laws of 'shemitta' by informing us that they were given at Mount Sinai?  Our Sages reply that the Torah uses the commandment of 'shemitta' to teach us that not only the underlying principles of the commandments, but also their details were transmitted at Sinai.

 

            If this is the case, if God revealed to Moses the commandments with all their details, then how are we to understand Moses' unacquaintedness with the law?  If we assume that Moses heard all the minute details of each commandment then limiting the extent of Moses' doubts does not help us.  He should have been familiar with the details as well!

 

            The Maharal, in his commentary to the section of the blasphemer, asks this very question:

 

"If, according to tradition the whole Torah, its general principles, specific details and minutiae were given at Mount Sinai, then how is it that Moses did not know the law [of the blasphemer]?  It would therefore seem that when we state that the whole Torah, its general principles, specific details and minutiae were given at Mount Sinai, the intent is that Moses was given the exegetic tools to infer the law by comparing, generalizing or interpreting the text, and any instance in which he was incapable of understanding, then God would have to explicitly reveal to him the law" (Gur Arieh, Leviticus 24:13).

 

            The Maharal reinterprets the tradition that Moses received the whole Torah to its finest details at Mount Sinai to refer to the capacity to infer the law from Scripture.  According to this approach, every instance in which Moses did not know the law is not due to his forgetting the law, but rather, to his incapacity to infer it from the Scripture.  Once again, this approach may alleviate the problem, but it does not resolve it completely.  We must still understand why Moses was occasionally incapable of inferring the law from the Torah?

 

            In light of these irresolvable difficulties, our Sages advanced an alternative approach to Moses' unacquaintedness with the law.

 

 

"Some hold that the law was hidden from Moses. There are cases where righteous men have boasted of some matter connected with a precept and the Holy One, blessed be He, weakened their power...Moses had said, "The case that is too difficult for you, bring to me"(Deuteronomy 1:17). When the daughters of Zelophhad, however, came He concealed the law from him. "Moses brought their case before the Lord. The plea of Zelophhad's daughter is just" (Numbers 27:5)...The holy one, blessed be He, said to him, "Did you not say, 'The case that is too difficult for you, bring to me'. The law with which you are acquainted is decided by the women!" (Numbers Rabba 21:12)

 

            Moses' unfamiliarity with the law is a punishment!  God purposefully concealed the law from Moses to teach him his limitations and to remind him of the source of all his wisdom.  Moses sinned when stating, after selecting the judges of Israel, "The case that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will hear it" (Deuteronomy 1:17).  Moses evinces a certain haughtiness in addressing the judges.  He highlights his superiority and gives the impression that he is the 'seat of wisdom,' when, in fact, God is.  Moses should have said "The case that is too difficult for you bring to GOD."  The punishment for intellectual haughtiness is ignorance.  God conceals the law from Moses in order to humble him; the daughters of Tzelofchad know that which you don't!

 

            The approach which views Moses' unacquaintedness with the law as a punishment for haughtiness is disputed by the Sages:

 

"Rabbi Nachman son of Rabbi Yitzchak objected: 'Is it written 'And I will cause you to hear it?'  It is written 'And I will hear it'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 8a).

 

            Rabbi Nachman son of Rabbi Isaac the Sage points out that Moses states "The case that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will HEAR it."  Implicit in Moses' words is the acknowledgment that he must hear the answer from God.  It is therefore incorrect to ascribe to Moses any conceit.  The Talmud then advances a totally different approach:

 

"In truth, the passage of the laws of inheritance should have been written through Moses our teacher, but since the daughters of Tzelofchad were meritorious, it was written through them.  [Similarly the passage] of the gatherer of wood [who desecrated the Sabbath] should have been written through Moses our teacher but since the wood gatherer was guilty, it was written through him, to teach you that harm is imparted through one who is guilty and benefit through one who is meritorious" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 8a).

 

            Moses' unacquaintedness with the law is not a punishment.  In fact, it has nothing to do with Moses.  Originally, Moses was supposed to teach all the commandments.  However, circumstances led to the teaching of certain commandments in response to events which occurred in the Israelite camp.  These circumstances were of a dual and opposing nature.  Occasionally, sins were perpetrated which called for immediate retribution.  On other occasions, positive and commendable initiatives led to the revelation of commandments.  God could have revealed all the commandments directly to Moses; however, He preferred withholding some commandments and revealing them in response to historical events.  This principle is formulated in the Talmud as: "Harm is imparted through one who is guilty and benefit through one who is meritorious."  Certain sinners brought about the revelation of the punishments for their sins.  God revealed the punishment for the desecration of the Sabbath (Numbers 15:35), and, we may add, for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:15ff), in response to the perpetration of these sins.  Similarly, God revealed the laws of female inheritance (Numbers 27:8) and  the laws of the 'second Passover' (Numbers 9:9) in response to claims raised by the Israelites.

 

            This principle "Harm is imparted through one who is guilty and benefit through one who is meritorious" may be understood in several ways.  One possible understanding is that God preferred to reveal commandments in response to actual events due to pedagogical considerations.  The Torah is not simply a law book listing edicts.  It includes large narrative portions.  The Torah attaches great value to 'the story.'  In fact, the appreciation of the value of stories is a fairly universal phenomenon.  The power of the story is in its capacity to rouse the listener and to leave a lasting impression on him.  From an educational perspective, it is preferable to teach commandments through a narrative.  While this was not always possible, when such an opportunity arose, the Torah preferred to convey commandments in conjunction with the relevant narratives.  We are far more likely to remember the severity of the sin of blasphemy after reading about the punishment of one who is guilty of such a sin than by just reading a theoretical formulation of the punishment.

 

            A second, and perhaps simpler understanding of the principle "Harm is imparted through one who is guilty and benefit through one who is meritorious," is that God wished to further punish the sinners and praise the righteous.  Thus, God revealed the punishments for the sins of blasphemy and the desecration of the Sabbath conjointly with the perpetration of these sins thereby further denigrating the sinners.  Similarly, with regard to the righteous daughters of Tzelofchad and the Israelites who were concerned about missing the Passover sacrifice; God wished to reward them for their righteousness and therefore revealed commandments conjointly with their commendable behavior eternally binding them to their respective commandments.

 

            The two cases of the sinners, the blasphemer and the desecrator of the Sabbath, are similar; both instances involve a rebellion against God, placement of the sinner in custody until his punishment is clarified, and subsequent dispensing of justice.

 

            What about the other two cases, the daughters of Tzelofchad and the second Passover (Numbers 9:6-8)?  Are there any similarities between these two episodes?  Do they have a common denominator which may help explain why, in these two instances, laws were not revealed directly through Moses but rather as a consequence of questions raised by Israelites?  Let us compare the claim of the daughters of Tzelofchad to that advanced by the Israelites who were ritually unclean and could not take part in the Passover offering.

 

The daughters of Tzelofchad ask: "Why should our father's name be LOST to his clan" (27:4).

The ritually unclean Israelites ask: ""Why should we LOSE out and not be able to present God's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" ((Numbers 9:7)

 

            Both claims contain the Hebrew root "garra," translated "lost."  Although the claims belong to totally different domains, land inheritance as opposed to sacrificial worship, both share a common attitude towards commandments and towards the worship of God.  In both instances, the parties involved do not want to lose out on an opportunity.  The daughters of Tzelofchad do not want their father's name to be forgotten and therefore request to receive an inheritance which would preserve their father's name.  Similarly, the ritually impure Israelites did not want to forego the Passover sacrifice.  Both parties faced a predicament in which, according to the existing known laws, involved a loss of an opportunity.  In both instances, the parties did not resign themselves to their unfortunate fate, but decided to raise their plight with Moses.  The daughters of Tzelofchad longed for the land of Israel and desired to preserve their father's name amongst the rest of the Israelite families.  The ritually impure Israelites longed to perform the Passover sacrifice and worship God with the rest of Israel.  Passion and commitment are the common denominator of the two cases and the reason for the unique status attributed to each of the parties.

 

            So far, we have seen three approaches to grappling with Moses' unacquaintedness with the law.  The first limited the extent of Moses' unacquaintedness with the law, the second viewed it as a punishment for intellectual arrogance, and the third explained Moses' unfamiliarity with the law on the bases of the principle, "Harm is imparted through one who is guilty and benefit through one who is meritorious."  We will conclude with the explanation our Sages in the Midrash Hagadol (14th century Yemenite collection of homiletical interpretations of our sages compiled by Rabbi David Haedni):

 

"'Moses brought their case before the Lord' (Numbers 27:5) - Moses said, 'All future generations will learn from my seeking advice from a superior.'  If Moses, about whom God testified  'he is the trusted one in all my house' (Numbers 12:7), did not judge the case of the daughters of Tzelofchad without seeking advice from God, all the more so should no man speak [i.e., pass judgment] before one who is wiser than he ... but should seek the opinion of those who are greater."

 

            In direct opposition to the opinion which viewed Moses' unfamiliarity with the law as a punishment for arrogance, the Midrash Hagadol views it as a paradigm of humility.  Moses knew the law in the case of the daughters of Tzelofchad.  He nevertheless opted to seek advice from God before passing judgment, thereby teaching the generations humility in passing judgment.

 

            What prompts Moses to give us a lesson in humility specifically in relation to the claim of the daughters of Tzelofchad?  I would like to propose that the answer to this question lies in the section immediately following the episode of the daughters of Tzelofchad.  After God reveals the laws of inheritance, He informs Moses of his impending death: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Ascend the heights of Avarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people.  When you have seen it, you, too, shall be gathered to your kin'" (Numbers 27:12,13).  Moses is approaching the end of his days.  Soon, Joshua will replace him as leader (ibid. 18).  A primary concern of Moses is the future well-being and leadership of Israel.  Even as he prepares the nation for the future division of the land of Israel amongst the tribes and families, he wishes to demonstrate to them how to grapple with future queries.  The people have grown accustomed to asking Moses for guidance.  How will the nation conduct itself once Moses is no longer?  Will it continue to seek guidance from its spiritual leaders?  Moses wished to impress upon the people that they should continue to look to their men of vision for instruction.  Moses himself is not self-sufficient; he seeks the advice of God.  Future leaders must emulate this and always look for divine guidance.  The nation, in turn, must also continue seeking the word of God from its future prophets and leaders.

 

 

III.  The Verdict

 

"Moses brought their case before the Lord.  And the Lord said to Moses, "The plea of Tzelofchad's daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding amongst their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them" (27:5-7).

 

            Tzelofchad's daughters' claim is correct.  They will inherit their father's share of the land and perpetuate their father's name.  Ironically, in attempting to insure that their father's name would not be forgotten, they themselves earned eternal fame and a place in the book of books.