celebrating women and ending tribalism

parshat pinchas

There are followers of the Supreme Court who monitor decisions like baseball fans keep batting statistics. I’ve been keeping track of the Divine Court and by my count we do really well when we go directly to God.  It’s a shame we don’t ask more difficult questions of our Spiritual leaders and go directly to God more often.

First in Exodus 18:24-26 Jethro questions Moses’s top down judicial system and, with God’s input, we get a workable court system.  Score 1 for the people.

In Numbers 9:8 Moses was asked by men who were impure or had travel plans, whether they may bring the Pascal offering at a later date, and again, with God’s intercession, we get the one and only make-up ritual sanctioned by God. Score 2 for the people.

And then there’s the daughters of Zelophehad Numbers 27 1-12:

Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, … And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying: Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.’

And Moses brought their cause before the LORD.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. …. And it shall be unto the children of Israel a statute of judgment, as the LORD commanded Moses.’

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Get thee up into this mountain of Abarim, and behold the land which I have given unto the children of Israel.

 וַתִּקְרַבְנָה בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד

 וַתַּעֲמֹדְנָה לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה, וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, וְלִפְנֵי הַנְּשִׂיאִם, וְכָל-הָעֵדָה–פֶּתַח אֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד, לֵאמֹר

  אָבִינוּ, מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהוּא לֹא-הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל-יְהוָה, בַּעֲדַת-קֹרַח:  כִּי-בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת, וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לוֹ

 לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם-אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ, כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן; תְּנָה-לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ

לִפְנֵי ה’ וַיַּקְרֵב מֹשֶׁה אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטָן

 וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר

 כֵּן, בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת–נָתֹן תִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֲחֻזַּת נַחֲלָה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אֲבִיהֶם; וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ אֶת-נַחֲלַת אֲבִיהֶן, לָהֶן

 וְאֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, תְּדַבֵּר לֵאמֹר:  אִישׁ כִּי-יָמוּת, וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ–וְהַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת-נַחֲלָתוֹ, לְבִתּו…ֹ

 וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עֲלֵה אֶל-הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה; וּרְאֵה, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי, לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Three out of three decisions for the people is a pretty good record.  It’s a shame the Children of Israel did not approach the divine bench more frequently, but the lesson is clear, we have to badger our leaders with inconvenient questions and force them to question the status quo and acknowledge those annoying facts.  If they don’t have the answers we need to go to a higher authority.

Rashi wonders why the biblical editor chose to place Moses’s iconic  “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” moment next to the account of the daughters of Zelophehad.

Go up to this mount Abarim: Why is this [passage] juxtaposed here [with the previous passage]? When the Holy One, blessed is He, said, “You shall certainly give them…” (verse 7), he [Moses] said, “The Omnipresent commanded me to allocate the inheritance! Perhaps the decree has been annulled, and I will enter the Land?” The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “My decree remains as it was” (Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 9).

 עלה אל הר העבריםלמה נסמכה לכאן, כיון שאמר הקב”ה נתן תתן להם, אמר אותי צוה המקום להנחיל, שמא הותרה הגזירה ואכנס לארץ. אמר לו הקב”ה גזרתי במקומה עומדת

It’s a sad and unsatisfying explanation….  God gives Zelophehad (the father) the ability to retain his tribal plot of land in the Promised Land and Moses asks: “What about me?” ..  I think it misses the point.  Moses didn’t take God up to the Mount of Abarim to teach God a lesson, God took Moses to the mountaintop to teach Moses a lesson. More to the point, the daughters approached God primarily to claim what was theirs, not to insure that their father had a legacy.  Sure they diplomatically couched their argument in terms that would appeal to a patriarchal society: “Why should the name of our father be done away” לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם-אָבִינוּ but what they were really looking for was equal property rights: “Give unto us a possession”  תְּנָה-לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה

Moses and all the men gathered in front of the Tent of Meeting lacked the vision thing….  They couldn’t see beyond their male chauvinism and they couldn’t see beyond the confines of tribalism.

God took Moses up to the mountaintop to let him see the vision of a Promised Land which was not to be confined to male dominance and tribal paternalism… that’s why the Mountaintop moment is placed right after the daughter’s day in court.

To their credit, some Rabbinic sages saw this enlightened message too.  Listen and smile…

“Their eyes saw that which Moses’ eyes did not see” (that is that there are times when women can see something that even someone as great as Moses, who spoke with the Shechina “mouth to mouth,” did not see.) And God consented to their words unequivocally: “Correctly have the daughters of Zelaphchad spoken.”  God listened to their claim (“God conceded the truth!” Avot D’Rebbe Natan Ch. 37) and changed the laws of inheritance to make them more egalitarian (relatively, as should be understood) see this quote in a lengthy polemic between R. Ysoscher Katz in a letter to Rav H. Schachter in Hebrew on page 3 here.

R Ysoscher Katz Letter to Rav H Schachter

R Ysoscher Katz Letter to Rav H Schachter

ומודה על האמת – זה משה, שנאמר: (דברים ה) “ויאמר ה’ אלי וגו’ הטיבו (את) כל אשר דברו”. וכן הקדוש ברוך הוא הודה על האמת שנאמר: (במדבר כז) “כן בנות צלפחד דוברות”

Yalkut Shimoni (Yehoshua 15, also appears in at least one other midrashic source): see comment by Emma here

Since the daughters of Zelophehad saw that the land is divided to males and not females, they gathered everyone together to get advice.  They said that the benevolence of humans are not the same as the benevolence of God.  The benevolence of humans (lit. flesh and blood) is [favored] on males more than females, but He who said “Let the world be” is not so [biased] in His benevolence to males and females, and on all [other genders?], as it is written “He gives bread to all flesh, He gives to animals bread.. and as it is written “God is good to all and His benevolence is on all of his creations.

כיון שראו בנות צלפחד שהארץ נתחלקה לזכרים ולא לנקבות, נתקבצו כולן זו על זו ליטול עצה, אמרו לא רחמי בשר ודם כרחמי המקום, רחמי ב”ו רחמיו על הזכרים יותר מהנקבות, אבל מי שאמר והיה העולם אינו כן רחמיו על הזכרים ועל הנקבות, ועל הכל, שנאמר נותן לחם לכל בשר, נותן לבהמה לחמה, ואומר טוב ה’ לכל ורחמיו על כל מעשיו

Similarly, but with less nuance regarding the male chauvinistic bias it is written in the Sifre’ (quoted in Torah Temimah)

And the daughters of Zelaphchad came close: Since the daughters heard that the land will be divided by tribes and not to women [ed interesting juxtaposition] they all gathered to get advice.  They said, “Not like the benevolence of flesh and blood is the benevolence of the Holy One.  Blood and flesh is benevolent on males more than females, but the Holy one is benevolent on everyone as it is written (Psalm 145) “and His mercy is on all His creations”

 

Sifre Tzelofchod

Much as been written lately about using the way a society treats its women as a gauge to determine whether that society can support democracy and the rule of law. It seems to me that that in the biblical text and in the Rabbinic texts we have visited, there is an additional link made between women’s rights and a post-tribal society.  It is afterall, tribalism that is responsible for so much of the blood-letting, honor killings and cycle of revenge killings that mars our world today.

What did Moses see at the mountain top?  Maybe he saw into the future, in the streets of Jerusalem, women dancing and celebrating the end of misogyny and tribalism….. The 15th of Ab when not only could women inherit, they could also marry outside of their tribe. Let’s hope that such a vision is in our future too….

Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit 30b

Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 30b

 

tanit aramaic

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Filed under Bible, Judaism, social commentary, Torah, women's rights

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