Parashat Masei: Sons - and daughters - of the Land

I believe that there is no price too high to bring our soldiers back - hopefully alive, but even, if dead, for kever yisrael.

Our embattled state has just suffered the traumatic burial of soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, abducted and killed by Hizbullah, as well as a high-pitched debate surrounding the wisdom of the exchange: four Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands - including Samir Kuntar, cold-blooded murderer of an innocent father and two children from Nahariya - for two Israeli corpses. What about the Mishna (B.T. Gittin 45a), which teaches that it is forbidden to redeem captives for exorbitant ransoms so as not to incite further kidnappings? What of the probability that Kuntar will now attempt to wreak further destruction on innocent Israelis? And even if we argue that no price is too high to ransom an Israeli captive, how can we justify freeing a convicted murderer for two corpses? I believe a direction toward understanding may be found through a study of the story of Zelophehad's daughters - five women who managed to bring their petition to inherit their fathers' portion in Israel (in the absence of male heirs) all the way to Moses himself, and then to the Almighty! Why do our talmudic rabbis call the women sages, jurists and saints (BT Bava Batra 119)? Feminists and advocates I can understand, but saints? And why is the incident recorded twice, first in the reading of Pinhas (Numbers 27) and then again in this week's reading, at the very conclusion of the Book of Numbers? The first thing we must understand is that these daughters are not merely feminists out for personal gain. Listen well to their argument: "Our father has died in the desert. He was not among the group that testified against God within the congregation of Korah, since he died because of his [individual] sin and had no sons" (Numbers 27:3). They introduce their plaint with a description of their father: he was neither of Korah's congregation nor of the party of Dathan and Abiram; Korah wanted to remain in the desert, and Dathan and Abiram wanted to return to Egypt. The father of these five women had sinned - and therefore died young - not because he didn't want to go to Israel; indeed, some of our sages say he was one of the ma'apilim who were determined to storm the gates of the Promised Land even though God was not in their midst, and the Ark of the Covenant was not with them. (Numbers 14: 42-45). He may not have been religiously observant, but he did bequeath love of the Land to his vivacious daughters. The very fact that these women devoted so much time and effort to reach the highest judicial echelons demonstrates their commitment to the Land, and their faith - unlike those who sided with Korah and Dathan and Abiram - that the Eternal One keeps His promises. Hence they were righteous saints. And when they said their father had no sons, they were arguing that either yibum should also apply to the widows of men who die after fathering only daughters, or those daughters should be allowed to inherit. Hence, they were wise expounders of Scripture as well. But the sterling character of these women emerges with the continuation of their argument: "Why should the name of our father be lessened from the midst of his family merely because he has no son? Grant us an inheritance in the midst of the brother of our father.' (Numbers 27:4, 5) The major burden of their argument is not a feminist demand for rights of inheritance; it is rather a filial demand for the continuity of their father's name. It was less about them than about him. From the biblical perspective, two things bequeath eternity to an individual: progeny who will bear his name (and hopefully his values and lifestyle), and a portion of the Land, eternal heritage of all Jews, which he can give over to that progeny. The tragedy of the Book of Numbers is the refusal of the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land. The hope with which Numbers concludes is the stubborn faith in and commitment to the land of the covenant - for which these women were willing to brave a judicial bureaucracy as well as a narrow, chauvinistic interpretation of the law. They understood, as King Solomon would teach 1,000 years later, that "the generations come and go, but the land abides forever." It is the Land of Israel which contains our key to eternity, which holds our past secrets and future dreams. The daughters of Zelophehad correctly saw in the Land the very continuity of their father and their name - and when God adopts their cause, their faith is vindicated. This is why kever yisrael, burial in Israel, has been so important to Jews for 4,000 years. When our bodies dissolve into the Land, we merge with the eternal Jewish nation. Who deserves to share in that national eternity more than our best and bravest, our most courageous and committed, who sacrificed their lives for our land and our nation? Hence I believe that there is no price too high to bring our soldiers back - hopefully alive, but even, if dead, for kever yisrael. The cycle of life must come full circle - from earth were we formed and to earth do we return - and the families of our holy ones deserve closure, so that everyone involved may live and die and rest in peace. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.