The Book of Numbers, and this week's portion of Masei, concludes with a recap of the ruling that the five daughters of Zelophehad could inherit the land of their father - since there were no male heirs - but would have to marry within their tribe of Manasseh, so that their familial inheritance wouldn't pass to another tribe (Numbers 36:1-12).
In effect, this decision orchestrated between female and familial rights on the one hand - after all, simply because Zelophehad had not borne male heirs was no reason to deprive his future generations of ancestral land - and tribal rights on the other. Were the daughters to inherit from their father and then marry men from other tribes, those other tribes would acquire the land of Zelophehad, who was a Manassite. In biblical history, tribal rights were zealously guarded (not unlike state's rights in early American history). Hence this decision created a win-win solution to what had threatened to escalate into a full-blown conflict: yes, in the absence of men, the women could inherit from their father, but the land would have to remain in their father's tribe.
The initial story concerning the five daughters of Zelophehad is told in the portion of Pinhas (Numbers 27:1-11). These five women went all the way up the judicial and political ladder until they stood before Moses himself, insisting on the justice of their claim. "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 spoke correctly" and were thereforeâ€¦ worthy of a portion of the inheritance. Indeed, they won the case for female rights to inheritance, and inspired an entire addendum to the Bible's inheritance laws. (Numbers 27:8-11). The commentator known as the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Lunshitz) goes so far as to interpret the divine command: "Send forth your men to scout out the Land of Canaanâ€¦" (Numbers 13:1) as dripping with irony: "You, Moses, insist on 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 Israelâ€¦"
But who was this man Zelophehad of the tribe of Manasseh, who fathered such special women? The Talmud records a fascinating dispute between R. Akiva and R. Yehuda b. Beteira (B.T. Shabbat 96b, 97a):
"Our rabbis have taught: 'the one who gathered wood [on the Sabbath and was stoned to death as a punishment - Numbers 15:32-36] was Zelophehad, as it is written "and the children of Israel were in the desert and they found a man gathering woodâ€¦", and later it is written "our father died in the desertâ€¦." [regarding Zelophehad]; just as the second refers to Zelophehad, so does the first,' these are the words of R. Akiva.
"R. Yehuda b. Beteira said to him: "Akiva, whether or not you are correct in your identification [of Zelophehad], you will eventually be punished. If it is as you say, then if the Torah saw fit to hide [the man's identity], why did you reveal it? And if you are mistaken, how dare you cast aspersions on such a righteous person?â€¦
"But then from where did Zelophehad come? From the group of brazen climbers (ma'apilim) atop the mountain (who defiantly attempted to conquer Israel without God in their midst and without the Holy Ark - Numbers 14:40-45).'"
Let us look at Zelophehad, and the character of his daughters, from the perspective of this talmudic discussion. R. Yehuda b. Beteira sees Zelophehad as one of the ma'apilim, the brazen would-be conquerors of Israel, and this picture assumes three distinct groups of Israelites, all opposed to Moses but each with its own platform: the first is Dathan and Abiram, who saw the fleshpots of Egypt as the real land flowing with milk and honey; the second is Korah, who like the Natorei Karta wished to remain in the religious "kollel" outside Israel, so as not to become sullied by the struggle of starting a state; and the third are the ma'apilim, the non-religious Zionists who storm the ramparts of Canaan without God or the Holy Ark in their midst. This third party may have been doomed to fail, but at least their idealism spawned the five daughters who never lost faith either in God, the equity of His Torah, or the significance of conquering the Land.
But why did Rabbi Akiva identify Zelophehad with the gatherer of wood, a wicked Sabbath desecrater? I believe Rabbi Akiva was stressing a foundation stone of Judaism: We are 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 revelation of a religious covenant at Sinai - so even though a man may have "lapsed" in terms of his religious obligations, this does not detract from his status as a member of klal Yisrael, the Jewish nation. Remember that the basis for the daughters' claim was that "the name of their father not be diminished" by his inability to bequeath land if he lacked male heirs. The counter argument might have been - according to R. Akiva - that their father didn't deserve a heritage in the Land if he publicly desecrated the Sabbath. Perhaps R. Akiva identifies Zelophehad as the wood-gatherer in order to stress that the one thing has nothing to do with the other; that one may cut himself off from the religious covenant without affecting his privileges as a member of the national covenant, the nation of Israel.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.