Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Numbers, which is a bigger deal than you might think: the narrative of our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land is just about complete, and some would say, ends here with Israel encamped on the edge of the Jordan River.
It turns out that the book of Deuteronomy stands apart from the other four books of Torah, because it primarily contains the words of Moses, rather than God. Almost the entire book consists of a series of speeches Moses delivered to Israel in the weeks before his death. They recount the past forty years, contain all 613 commandments in the Torah, and offer tough-love wisdom for how to prosper in the Promised Land. Indeed, the word Deuteronomy literally means “second-law” – meaning a recapitulation of what has already been given. This has led some scholars to theorize that perhaps there are only four books of Torah proper, and that the book of Deuteronomy should be grouped with the book of Joshua in the prophetic cannon.
Regardless of whether we accept this premise, how would Torah have concluded if there were only four books instead of five? With a story of inheritance.
Zelophehad was an Israelite from the tribe of Manasseh, who had five daughters and no sons. In last week’s parasha, he died, and although the law was that only sons could inherit land, his five daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit from their father. Moses, amazingly, did not deny the request but instead asked God, who granted permission. This week, their story – which seems almost a footnote in the larger narrative – evolves into the conclusion of Numbers.
Chapter 36, the final chapter, is all about a legal challenge to Moses’ ruling. The tribal leaders of Manasseh complain to Moses, observing that the division of land between the tribes is carefully balanced between the tribes by clan and family. They argue that if the daughters of Zelophehad marry outside of the tribe and take their father’s property with them that the balance of power would be changed – at the expense of Manasseh.
What a conundrum! The elders are correct about the balance of power changing if the daughters marry outside of the tribe. Yet God has clearly given the five daughters of Zelophehad the right to inherit from their father, a right which cannot be revoked.
Moses’ response is extraordinary: the daughters are free to marry whomever “is good in their eyes,” but only within the tribe of Manasseh. This tribal limit did not exist for women who did not inherit land but was deemed necessary here to preserve the larger integrity of tribal balance of power. Presumably, if they wished, any of the daughters of Zelophehad could choose to marry outside of the tribe and give up her inheritance.
Today, we can criticize this resolution in several ways. The very idea of a patriarchal system grates against our understanding of feminism, and the details of this compromise do not seem even close to sufficient as a real solution. I agree with these critiques. Yet, this legal compromise is not about feminism, nor the rights of individuals at all, even if it seems so on the surface.
Earlier in the parasha we read about another petition to Moses, this time from the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and then later from half of the tribe of Manasseh. They all prefered the land on the east side of the Jordan river to the actual Promised Land and asked to settle there instead of crossing over into Canaan. Moses was concerned that the rest of the Israelites would be demoralized if these tribes stayed behind and allowed them to settle on the east bank only if they fully committed to the conquest with the rest of Israel. They could leave their children and cattle behind, but the men would only be able to return once all the Promised Land was under Israelite control.
In both cases, there is a tension between the desires of the individual (or tribe) and the needs of the larger community. In both cases, the wishes of the individual are supported, but only if they do not harm the needs of the community. When the desires of the individual conflict with the health of the community, the health of the community takes precedence. The sons of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh must fight the war, even though their own land is already secured – and some of them will sacrifice their lives. The daughters of Zelophehad marry within their tribe, trading a narrower choice of future husbands for the right to inherit land.
If Torah really ended with the book of Numbers, then the final lesson would be clear: to inherit and thrive in the Land of Promise we must balance the wants of the individual with the needs and health of the collective.
“These are the commands and the regulations that the Lord charged the Israelites by the hand of Moses in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Num. 36:13)
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