Parshat Shlah: Learning from the daughters of Zelophehad

‘And God spoke to Moses: “…Send forth for yourself men and they will tour the Land of Canaan…”’ (Numbers 13:1,2)

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June 11, 2015 19:03
4 minute read.
Painting by Yoram Raanan

Painting by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)

Much has been written and debated recently about the proper role and place for women – in the corporate boardroom, on the synagogue-talmudical academic directorate, and especially within the synagogue sphere of spiritual and religious direction. Fascinatingly enough, a 17th-century chief rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz, in his commentary Kli Yakar on the opening verse of this week’s biblical portion, provides an important insight which may be helpful in our current discussion.

Moses is about to make what is the most significant appointment of his career as “Master” of the Jewish people (Moshe Rabbenu): He is about to designate the advance reconnaissance “committee” who will investigate the “lay of the Promised Land” and bring back a report to the newly freed Hebrews wandering in the desert.

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I refer to this as his most crucial appointment because God had initially promised the Hebrews whilst they were still in Egypt that they were to be taken out of their bondage and brought into the Promised Land of Israel (Exodus 6:6-8); if this advance mission was to bring back a discouraging report about the prospects for their conquest of the land, God’s plan and Moses’ avowed goal would be thwarted for at least another generation! Hence our initial biblical verse goes on to delineate each of the scouts as being “a unique leader of the tribe of his fathers, each one a prince” (Numbers 13:2). But the Kli Yakar in his commentary is struck by a pronoun that doesn’t seem to belong in either syntax or context: “And God said to Moses, send forth for yourself men…” These scouts were not only to be agents of Moses but were rather meant to be agents of God and the entire Jewish people, who were to continue the movement towards freedom and redemption by paving the way for the conquest of Israel. God should have said, “Send forth for us”! And alas, as we know only too well from the continuation of our biblical portion, they totally discouraged the possibility of conquest. Indeed, the very next chapter opens with all of Israel weeping aloud the entire night of the transmission of the report, causing the Midrash to identify it as the ninth day of the month of Av, the day of the destruction of both of our Holy Temples.

Enters the Kli Yakar with a penetrating comment: “The reason why our text specifies “(send forth) men” is because our Sages of blessed memory maintain that it was “men” who hated the Land of Israel and who suggested new leadership and a return to Egypt [Dothan and Abiram], whereas it was women who loved the land and fought for an inheritance within it even while still wandering in the desert [the daughters of Zelophehad]. Therefore the Holy One Blessed be He declared: ‘According to my mind it would be better for you to send women, who would never speak disparagingly about the Land of Israel. But you will act in accord with your mind because you believe that these men are worthy [Hebrew kosher; as the Kli Yakar explained previously, it is easier for men to appear externally worthy]. Therefore, you will act in accordance with your opinion because you believe that they are worthy men and that the land is beloved to them; so send men. And that is why the text reads ‘Send forth for yourself,’ in accordance with your opinion, men; however, in accordance with My opinion, it would have been much better to send women.”

The Kli Yakar maintains that God would have preferred women-scouts because, when the disgruntled men were arguing with Moses and asking to return to the “fleshpots” of Egypt, the daughters of Zelophehad had total faith that the Hebrews would eventually enter the Promised Land; hence their struggle to inherit the land of their father.

Indeed, the Midrash Sifrei calls them righteous and wise (tzadkaniyot and hachamot); I understand their righteousness because of their faith in God’s promise to bring the Hebrews into the Land of Israel, but where do we see their wisdom? The Bible records their amazing persistence by telling us that they went up the judicial ladder with their claim of inheritance until they reached the court of Moses himself.

And then the Midrash pictures Moses giving a Torah lesson on the subject of levirate marriage. Here the daughters gently interrupted with a brilliant question: If the widow of a man who dies without leaving sons but does leave daughters is disqualified from a levirate marriage with her brother-in-law, then it is not only fair that the daughters be empowered to inherit the deceased and support their mother? The question came before Moses, Moses brought it before God, and the Almighty Himself decided in accordance with the daughters of Zelophehad that the daughters do inherit their deceased father. The position of the daughters of Zelophehad was ultimately championed by God (Numbers 27:1-11, Sifrei ad loc).

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His latest book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.


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