Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
This week we get one of the biggest portions of them all, Va’Etchanan, which contains not only the 10 Commandments, but also the Shema and V’ahavta. The V’ahavta begins with one of the strangest commandments in the Torah, the commandment to Love God with everything we have. The question I’ve been thinking about is: can feelings be commanded? Can we make ourselves love another person, or even God? For now, I’m not going to try to answer the question. I’d be curious to know what you think, so please send your thoughts. Then on Friday, I’ll send a link to a short video interview in which I express my own ideas. What fun! Let’s get the conversation started!
Numbers 33:1 - 36:13
Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books is mostly a recapitulation of events that have already been recorded elsewhere in Torah. That would suggest that the action pretty much ends (with the exception of Moses’ death and burial) at the end of Numbers. This week we conclude Numbers with a double portion, Mattot-Masei. The very last verse of the last chapter reads: “These are the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab at the Jordan near Jericho.” (Num. 36:13) This certainly sounds like a final conclusion, and it locates the Israelites right on the edge of the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land. If this is really a significant ending of our narrative, then it begs the question, what happens right before the end?
Chapter 36 contains only twelve other verses, and they describe a brief epilogue to the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad, who had earlier requested the right (contrary to established legal conventions) to inherit directly from their father because they had no brothers. Moses, after consulting with God, agrees that that can do so. However, the issue is revisited at the end of Numbers because the family heads of Menasseh (their tribe) appealed to Moses to change the ruling. Here is the core of their argument. Each of the twelve tribes was assigned a portion of Promised Land based on their tribes and households. Since land represented security and power, each tribe was assigned land in a way that created a ‘national’ and tribal balance. However, if the daughters of Zelophehad were to marry men from other tribes, then eventually, their father’s land which was initially assigned to the tribe of Menasseh would be transferred to their children who would be from a different tribe. This would create a shift in the balance of power that would diminish Menasseh.
Moses considers the argument, again apparently seeking the answer from God, and rules that the challenge is just. In effect, the daughters of Zelophehad are free to marry whomever they wish, but, if they marry outside the tribe of Menasseh, then they lose the right of inheritance. The story ends with the five women choosing to marry within their tribe. I love this story because in it’s first iteration it creates a real precursor to establishing the concept of equality between men and women. The daughters earn the right of inheritance. However, this individual right is mediated in this week’s portion by being balanced against the larger good of the community (in this case the tribe of Menasseh). In effect, we learn at the very end of the Book of Numbers, when were are poised to leave the Wilderness for the Promised Land, that we should pursue our own interests, but that we also need to balance our own interests with the good of the larger community. Centuries later, Hillel famously taught: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I?” (Pirke Avot 1:14) I wonder if Hillel derived that teaching from this passage, and I wonder if this short little story was brought back at just this place in Torah to serve as a reminder of one of the most important lessons of our tradition.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras