Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Pinchas 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Pinchas 5760/22 July 2000

"The Good Deeds of the Mothers are an Omen for the Daughters."

Rabbi Dr. Noam Zohar

Department of Philosophy

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad, which gives inheritance to women, raises a simple question: what would have happened if these five sisters had not had the courage to petition for their right to inherit? After all, in the final analysis confirmation was received from Heaven that they should inherit along with their father's kinsmen. Therefore, the initial intention not to let them inherit turned out to be unjust and contrary to the Lord's will. Is it conceivable that this injustice would have remained without remedy had the daughters of Zelophehad been more passive and acquiescent?

Of course, we can raise this question today because we know the final outcome, but in the course of deliberating their petition, precisely the opposite question might have arisen. It is not difficult to imagine how some people around them must have reacted to the request of the five sisters. After all, instructions for parceling out the land had been given: only males age twenty and up had been counted, and the command had been issued, "among these shall the land be apportioned as shares" (Num. 26:53) It was patently clear that women had no share in the land at all. Presumably some people in the camp must have argued, "These women, what right have they got to complain? Have they any right to challenge G-d's law? Whether they are petitioning on their own behalf, or on behalf of their deceased father, and even if there were some logic to their argument that 'why should our father's name be lost...,' how dare they bring charges against Heaven and demand a change in the commands of the Holy One, blessed be He?" One might also have heard the argument, "If there were real substance to what they say, from the outset the Lord's command would have been to transfer their father's inheritance to them!"

In principle, we have to ask both of these questions together: On the one hand, since, like all the commands in the Torah, the first directive that men only are to inherit was given by G-d to Moses, what room was there for questioning it? On the other hand, since ultimately Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah were found to have a just claim, how was it that the Almighty gave the original directive? If G-d intended a part of the land to be given to female heirs such as these, why did He not say so from the outset?

Regarding this theological question, Sifre on Numbers (§ 133) says: [1]

The passage on inheritance deserved to be said by Moses, except that the daughters of Zelophehad were awarded the honor of it being said by them. Thus privilege devolves upon the meritorious, and blame on the culpable.

In other words, the passage on inheritance, i.e., the four verses beginning with the words, "Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: 'If a man dies...'" (Num. 27:8-11), reflects the original intentions of the Giver of the Torah. The Lord never thought to flatly deny the possibility that a daughter might inherit. If so, why was this passage not delivered like all the other passages of the Torah, "by Moses"? Sifre responds that this was due to the special merit of the daughters of Zelophehad.

Note that this does not mean that the merit of the daughters of Zelophehad lay in the very fact that this teaching of the Torah was given by them, as if to say that they simply had the good fortune or were bestowed some special kindness to have this section of the Torah attributed to them. The ending words, "that privilege devolves upon the meritorious", proves that privilege devolves upon the person who has already shown merit, who is righteous and worthy. The privilege of delivering the passage on inheritance was given them because they were worthy of this reward.

Likewise, Yalkut Shimoni comments on Parashat Emor (§758): [2]

The passage about the blasphemer deserved to be written; but the blasphemer was blameworthy, so the passage was attributed to him. This is to teach that blame devolves on the culpable and privilege on the meritorious.

The blasphemer (cf. Lev. 24) was blameworthy, i.e., had committed a grave sin, and therefore the section about blasphemy was not simply written as another law of the Torah, but was written in the context of the story about him, so that he is remembered infamously as the proto-sinner in regard to this transgression. True, the latter case is not entirely symmetric to the midrash in Parashat Pinchas. In Parashat Emor the midrash does not seek to indicate that the passage on blasphemy deserved to be written by Moses, for Moses had not committed such a sin and did not deserve to be associated specifically with this grave episode. [3] The midrash states that this passage "deserved to be written," that is, the law of the blasphemer was intended to be included in the Torah. The passage on inheritance, in contrast, was not only fitting to be included in the Torah; rather, as a passage indicating special merit, it was fitting that it be "said by Moses." However, in this particular regard the daughters of Zelophehad were found to be more deserving than him, and therefore the passage was attributed to them.

In what way were the daughters of Zelophehad more deserving? In the case of the blasphemer, the evil act for which he was deemed culpable and hence deserving of blame for this grave crime is clear. But what was the good deed for which these five women were deemed worthy (even more than Moses!) and privileged to have the passage about inheritance attributed to them?

Since we are not told anything more about the deeds of the daughters of Zelophehad, we must try to discover their merit in the one act of which the Torah does tell us: the act itself of petitioning for their right to inherit. Here an attorney might argue that their act was designed to serve their economic self-interest. If so, even if their initiative was legitimate it would not be particularly praiseworthy and certainly not indicative of greater merit than that of our teacher Moses.

Looking at Sifre on this passage can help us resolve this question. First let us see what Rabbi Nathan had to say there (p. 177):

Rabbi Nathan says: The strength of women is finer than the strength of men. The men said, "Let us head back [nitnah rosh] for Egypt" (Num. 14:4), and the women said, "Give us [tenah lanu] a holding among our father's kinsmen" (Num. 27:4).

This edifying contrast reminds us that personal interests in Biblical times were inter-woven with the historical context of leaving Egypt and heading for the promised land. The motives of those who sought to return to Egypt also stemmed from self-interest, according to their understanding and faith (or lack of faith). Their sin lay in defining their interests in opposition to G-d's promise and in turning their backs on their destiny as manifest by leaving Egypt, receiving the Torah, and entering the promised land.

In contrast, the women sought a share and inheritance in the promised land amidst the children of Israel (and not among the assimilators in Egypt) in accord with their firm faith in G-d, and were therefore praiseworthy and meritorious. True, the Torah was given in the wilderness, but it was not given to the ministering angels; for it was intended to be realized in life upon earth, especially in the lives of the Jewish people on their land. [4]

On the theoretical level, there need not be any contradiction between seeking personal success and worshipping the Lord. Quite the contrary, it is characteristic for human endeavors to involve a variety of motives. When a group of women demand their share in realizing their destiny regarding the Torah and the land, the fact that they might also derive some personal benefit from this should not derogate from the purity of their motives. Their great merit, or in the idiom of Rabbi Nathan, their fine strength, lay in the fact of their personal ambition being directed and focused on that which is sacred.

Although now we understand the merit of the daughters of Zelophehad, we have yet to see how their exceeded that of Moses. Moses, too, desired with all his might to enter the land of Israel. To understand this last link in the Sifre's homily, let us return to the beginning of the passage:

"The daughters of Zelophehad ... came forward" -- when the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land would be divided among the tribes, but not to women, they all gathered in consultation. They said, "The mercy of the Omnipresent is not like the mercy of flesh and blood. Flesh and blood are more merciful to men than to women; but not so the Creator. His mercy extends to all, as it is said: 'Who gives food to all flesh' (Ps. 136:25); 'Who gives the beasts their food' (Ps. 147:9); and 'The Lord is good to all [and His mercy is upon all His works]' (Ps. 145:9).

Who is this "flesh and blood" who is "more merciful to men than to women"? One could say human beings in general. But in contrast to the Holy One, blessed be He, Moses too was "flesh and blood"; he too, like the rest of mankind (at least as was perceived by the ancients) emotionally tended to have more regard for men than for women. Therefore, he himself did not bring up the issue, which in the end proved fully justified, of why they should not inherit. The virtue of the daughters of Zelophehad lay in their not making do with the first formulation of the law. Out of their deep faith that the Holy One, blessed be He, transcends the emotional tendencies of men, who favor men over women, they came forward and demanded their share in the Divine destiny. Therefore they merited having this passage attributed to them. The Torah recorded for all time not only the laws on inheritance themselves, but also the context in which these were given: the story of the petition that the daughters of Zelophehad addressed to Moses and their ultimate success in their endeavor. To paraphrase Nahmanides, "the good deeds of the mothers can serve as an omen for the daughters."

[1] All quotes from Sifre are translated from the Horowitz edition, according to the Rome manuscript, pp. 176-177.

[2] The original source is Tractate Semahot, ch. 8.13, in which a lengthy midrash is presented in the name of R. Akiva on "privilege devolving on the meritorious, and blame on the culpable," including other examples of privilege and blame than these, due to which several sections of the Torah are associated with certain people.

[3] A similar expression ["the passage on such-and-such deserved to be written"] appears in Sifre on Numbers, § 114 (p. 123), with respect to the person gathering wood on the Sabbath, except that there, several versions include the words, "by Moses." However, the first printed edition and the Rome manuscript do not include these words, and they are correct.

[4] Cf. Pesikta Rabbati, ch. 20.

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