23 Tamuz 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Pinchas: Following Zelophehad's daughters
by Daniel Pinner
Parashat Pinchas begins with Pinchas killing the Jewish tribal leader Zimri and the Moabite princess Cozbi who were cohabiting in public; and by killing them, he put an end to the débâcle of Jews dying in a plague as a punishment for consorting with the Moabite girls.
And immediately following this, God commanded Moshe and his nephew, Elazar, to take yet another census of the Children of Israel.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:7 and Tanhuma, Pinchas 4) offers two explanations: “This is like a wolf which fell upon the flock, so the shepherd had to count them afterwards to know how many were lacking. Another explanation for why he had to count them at this juncture: This is like a shepherd whose employer handed over to him a flock of sheep which he had counted. When the shepherd finishes his watch and returns them, he has to count them. Thus when Israel went out from Egypt, God handed them over to Moshe having counted them, as it says ‘Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert…saying: Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel’ (Numbers 1:1-2). And even at the moment that they left Egypt it says, ‘The Children of Israel travelled from Rameses to Succot, about six hundred thousand men on foot, apart from the children’ (Exodus 12:37). So he received them counted. When his time came to leave his task, in Arvot Moab, he returned them counted”.
Rashi (who died 910 years ago this coming Thursday, 29th Tammuz) abbreviates this Midrash and cites it in his commentary to Numbers 26:1.
The Ibn Ezra laconically says: “The inference of ‘…after the plague’ is that God said: For these you will apportion the Land”. Indeed, immediately after the census, “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Among these shall the Land be divided as an inheritance, according to the number of names” (26:52-53) – “among these”, those who have survived the plague that struck the nation as a consequence of their mass immorality with the Moabite girls.
That is to say, the census was conducted at this time to prepare the nation for their forthcoming possession of the Land of Israel, in order to apportion the Land proportionately among the twelve Tribes.
The Ramban (commentary to Numbers 26:5) offers the same explanation.
And then five sisters, the five daughters of Zelophehad, came to Moshe with a claim: “Our father died in the desert, and he was not among the assembly that gathered against Hashem with Korach’s assembly; rather, he died for his own sin. He had no sons; why should our father’s name be omitted from among his family? – Because he had no son?! Give us a land-holding among our father’s brothers” (27:3-4).
Moshe, realising that he could not adjudicate their claim himself, brought their claim to God, and He affirmed that the sisters indeed were to be given a land-holding in Israel: “Correctly do the daughters of Zelophehad speak…” (v. 7). And God then continued by giving over to Moshe the general laws of inheritance.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a and Bava Batra 119a) tells us that “it would have been appropriate for the section of inheritances to have been written at Moshe our Master’s initiative, but the daughters of Zelophehad merited to have it written at their initiative; and it would have been appropriate for the section of the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat [and was stoned to death for his violating Shabbat – Numbers 15:32-36] to have been written at Moshe our Master’s initiative, but the stick-gatherer sinned to it was written on his initiative. To teach you that punishment is inspired by those who deserve it, and reward is inspired by those who deserve it”.
That is to say – because the daughters of Zelophehad had such a great love for the Land of Israel, they merited that the laws of inheriting land-holdings in the Land of Israel would be written in the Torah at their inspiration. Had they not been so passionate at wanting their inheritance, then these laws would have been included in the Torah in any event; but in the event, the laws were recorded in their merit.
Who was their father, Zelophehad?
The Midrash (Sifrei Numbers, Shelach Lecha 113) records two different opinions. According to Rabbi Akiva, he was the Jew who gathered sticks on Shabbat and was executed for it. Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira categorically rejects this view: “In the future time to come,” he says, “anyone who says that Zelophehad was the stick-gatherer will have to justify himself in judgement! As if He Who spoke and created the world protected his identity, and you expose him! Rather, he was one of those who came to Israel [after the sin of the spies when God expressly forbade them to, and were slaughtered by the Amalekites and Canaanites – Numbers 14:40-45]”.
Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira were close colleagues and friends, both had a deep and abiding and passionate love for the Land of Israel, both were pursued by the Roman occupation authorities for fighting for Jewish independence in Israel.
Rabbi Akiva was caught by the Romans and tortured to death for teaching Torah against Roman law (Berachot 61b and Yalkut Shimoni, Deuteronomy 837). Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira, who was born in Rome and lived in Israel, survived by escaping from Israel. He left Israel together with Rabbi Matiya ben Heresh, Rabbi Hanina ben Achi, and Rabbi Yehoshua. When they reached the border of Israel they parted ways: Rabbi Matiya went to Rome and founded a yeshivah there, while Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yehudah went to Babylon.
When they reached the border and were about to leave the Land of Israel, their eyes filled with tears and they rent their clothes in mourning (Sifrei Deuteronomy 80).
Maybe Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira differed in their views of who could have bequeathed such a passionate love of the Land of Israel to his daughters. Since Zelophehad “was not among the assembly that gathered against Hashem with Korach’s assembly”, but was nevertheless a sinner who had “died for his own sin”, Rabbi Akiva saw him as the wood-gatherer, the man who desecrated Shabbat immediately after the sin of the spies.
Maybe Rabbi Akiva reckoned: Since the wood-gatherer had obviously kept Shabbat every week since the Torah had been given more than a year previously, his fall was a result of his despair at ever reaching the Land of Israel. In this case, even though he desecrated Shabbat, he bequeathed his love of the Land to his daughters.
Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira disagreed. Had Zelophehad really committed so grievous a sin the Torah would have told us, and would not have hidden it. Rather, he was among those who had such a passionate, unquenchable love for the Land of Israel that they were determined to go up to Israel, even after God forbade them.
Their love for the Land cost them their lives – “for love is as powerful as death” (Song of Songs 8:6) – but at least they proved their love for the good Land (albeit too late). Even though God Himself had forbidden them to ascend to Israel, they loved it, and “great waters cannot extinguish the love” (ibid. v. 7) and “there is no water other than Torah” (Bava Kamma 17a, Avodah Zarah 5b, Kohelet Rabbah 11:1, and countless other places).
Even God’s command not to go up to the Land of Israel could extinguish their love for it. And this was the passionate, inexorable love for the Land of Israel that Zelophehad bequeathed to his daughters.
Zelophehad was the grandson of Gilead (Numbers 27:1), and Gilead’s allotted portion was in Trans-Jordan (east of the River Jordan, the area currently occupied by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan); hence we would have expected Zelophehad’s daughters to inherit their portion there.
However their portion was west of the River Jordan (see Joshua 17:3-6). Such was their love for the Land of Israel that they insisted on inheriting in the Land of Israel “proper”, so to speak, and not settling for the second-best.
It is no coincidence that ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Pinchas invariably falls during the Three Weeks of mourning for our lost Land and destroyed Holy Temple.
Zelophehad’s daughters stand as veritable beacons during these dark days, showing us where love for the Land of Israel can lead us.