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Being a People Evokes Many Layers of Meaning

July 31, 2008 By:
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
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The book of Numbers, and with it this week's Torah portion of Masei, concludes with a reiteration of the earlier ruling of Moses from God that the five daughters of Zelophehad would be able to inherit the land of their father -- since there were no male heirs -- but that they would have to marry within their tribe of Menashe, so that their familial inheritance would not pass over to another tribe.

In effect, this final biblical decision orchestrates a bridge between women and familial rights on the one hand, and tribal rights on the other. The ruling was that in the absence of men, the women could inherit their fathers' land, but the land would have to remain in the father's tribe by forbidding these female inheritors from marrying into another tribe.

The initial story concerning the five brilliant, learned and religious daughters of Zelophehad is told a few chapters earlier. These women went all the way up the judicial and political ladder until they stood before Moses himself, insisting upon the justice of their claim to inherit their father's land so that Zelophehad have a portion in the future eternity of Israel through his descendants' working and living in ancestral land in Israel.

"Why should the name of our father be less than the rest of his family merely because he has no son, grant us [women] an inheritance among the brothers of our father" (Numbers 27:4). And the Almighty grants a ringing endorsement to these brave women who won the case for female rights to inheritance, and caused an entire new addendum to be added to the previous inheritance laws of the Bible.

Rav Ephraim Lunshitz finds these women so remarkable that he goes so far as to interpret the Divine command to Moses, "Send forth your men to scout out the Land of Canaan" (Number 13:1) as dripping with irony: "You, Moses, insist upon sending male scouts, and the result will be disastrous; had you listened to Me and sent female scouts like the daughters of Zelophehad, the report would be completely positive and the Land of Canaan would soon become the Land of Israel."

But who was this man Zelophehad of the tribe of Menashe who fathered such special women? The Talmud records a fascinating dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteyra: "Our rabbis have taught: 'The one who gathered wood (on the Sabbath and was stoned to death as a punishment) was Zelophehad.' "

Rabbi Yehuda disagreed.

Why did Rabbi Akiva identify Zelophehad with the culpable gatherer of wood, a wicked Sabbath desecrater who was condemned to death? I believe that Rabbi Akiva was stressing a crucial foundation stone of Judaism: We are both a nationality as well as a religion.

God entered into a national covenant with Abraham "between the pieces" in which He guaranteed the first patriarch eternal progeny and the boundaries of the Land of Israel, as well as the Divine Revelation of a religious covenant at Sinai. Zelophehad certainly "lapsed" in terms of his religious obligations by desecrating the Sabbath; however, this did not detract from his national status as a member of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish nation.

Remember that the basis for the claim of the daughters was that "the name of their father not be diminished" by his inability to bequeath land in Israel if he lacked male heirs.

Perhaps Akiva specifically identifies Zelophehad as the culpable wood-gatherer in order to stress that one may cut himself off from the religious covenant without removing his privileges as a member of the national covenant -- the historic nation of Israel.

And since his daughters learned their Zionism from him, his name is glorified throughout Jewish history through the special daughters whom he parented and inspired.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.


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