Numbers Change from the Inside
Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:1-30:1)
In a time when many of us long to be able to “do something,” to repair even a small part of an increasingly broken world, we can feel ourselves drawn to a decisive leader who seems totally sure about what to do. In a story that spans two Torah portions, it looks as though we may have that kind of leader.
At the end of Parshat Balak, the Israelites (here, the men) have angered God yet again, by worshiping another god as part of their sexual attraction to Moabite women. Just at this time of estrangement and punishment from God, a time of intense fear and anxiety―“the whole Israelite community… was weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers 25:6)―an Israelite man publicly displays to his companions his Midianite lover, blatantly involving himself in exactly the behavior that has aroused God’s anger.
Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the high priest, takes it upon himself to respond. “[He] saw and he rose from the midst of the community and took a spear in his hand. And he came after the man of Israel …and stabbed the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman…” (Numbers 25: 7-8). The Torah tells us of two consequences to this act of violence. First, at the end of Parshat Balak, the plague, sent as punishment for the people’s sexualized idolatry, ends immediately―which would seem to endorse the act as righteous retribution. Second, at the beginning of Parshat Pinchas, God explicitly tells Moses that Pinchas has acted as the embodiment of God’s own kin’ah”―zeal or passion, or, as the great commentator Rashi understands it, “righteous vengeance” or “destructive anger”. But the Divine voice then continues with a tantalizing sequel: “I hereby grant him briti shalom, My covenant of peace.”
Why would God offer a bond of peace to this champion of zealous action? Most rabbinic commentators say that God was troubled (as we should be) by this self-appointed executor of righteous vengeance. Pinchas needs to find ways of embodying divine attributes of peace, not what one commentator calls “zealous vigilantism.” Rather than offering us a positive model of a decisive leader, acting on God’s side in difficult times, our tradition casts him as a fanatic who sets a dangerous precedent, and needs to be limited and constrained by the priestly role in which he is now invested.
But this parashah has more to teach us about leadership. Much of this last section of the book of Numbers turns from the memory of past journeys, toward creating a map for the future, laying the groundwork for order and justice in the land that will become the Israelites’ heritage. It begins with a census of the new generation that will go forward into the land. Surprisingly, within the long list of male heads of clans, a few well-known women’s names are mentioned. Also, among the descendants of Joseph’s son Menashe, we learn the names of five daughters of a previously unmentioned man, Tzelofchad. Their names are repeated three times in the Torah: Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah.
The purpose of this census is to divide the land according to the number of members listed for each clan. But we are suddenly made aware of an injustice, when these five daughters of Tzelofchad speak up. They “draw near” and “take their stand” (Numbers 27: 1-2) before all the leaders and the full male community, in the place where significant encounters occur, the entrance to the Tent of Meeting―thus also in the presence of God. They make a claim to a share in the land, presenting that claim first as an outgrowth of filial piety. “Why should our father’s name be lost just because he had no son?” They ask that they, too, be given a portion of land “within the heritage of our ancestors” (Numbers 27: 4).
Moses recognizes this as a question of justice. He brings their case before God, whose response resounds powerfully in their favor―“The daughters of Tzelofchad speak rightly. You shall surely give them a secure holding in the midst of their father’s brothers” (Numbers 27: 7)—and goes on to change the laws of inheritance permanently, in the case of a man who dies leaving only daughters. As Rashi explains, the daughters’ words are, from God’s point of view, well grounded. Quoting rabbinic midrash, he even says that they saw what Moses could not see. Through their insight, a change occurs in the law of inheritance―and in the inherited law.
The ancient rabbis were extravagant in their praise of these women. In Sifrei B’midbar, one of our oldest classical midrashim, the rabbis imagine the conversation among the women that led them to stand up before all the significant leaders. “The compassion (rachamav) of the Holy Blessed One is not like human compassion, because human beings show more for males than females, but the compassion of the Holy One is for everyone, as it said : ‘The Lord is good to all and God’s love (rachamav) is over all God’s works’” (Psalm 145: 9). In this depiction, the daughters interpret the verse as a support for their claim, with its appeal to change the law—and to God’s compassion.
The rabbis praise the fact that the daughters of Tzelofchad use the mode of classical midrash, basing a new religious understanding on the interpretation of the biblical text, seeing the possibilities for change in the Torah’s own words. The daughters are referred to not only as tzadkaniot, righteous, and chokhmaniot, full of wisdom, but also darshaniot, creative, insightful interpreters of Torah, who look deeply into Torah and find sources of life and truth for each living generation. As Rashi says about them (quoting another midrash), “Happy is that person with whose words the Holy One agrees.”
In this depiction, speaking the language of Torah and of learning is the process through which the daughters of Tzelofchad effect change in law and practice. They both perceive life-giving potentialities in Torah and become persuasive advocates precisely because they have immersed themselves in traditional ways of understanding―expressing their need in a mode that is sacred to the Jewish people, and in doing so, becoming masters of (incremental) change. When we feel urgently the need for the waters of our own communal and national heritages to run in new channels, the daughters of Tzelofchad provide a model of how to change a system on its own terms, calling it to a higher version of itself.
Dr. Judith Kates, Professor of Jewish Women’s Studies at Hebrew College, teaches Hebrew Bible and Jewish interpretive traditions in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School and in many community programs of adult learning. She is co-editor (with Gail Twersky Reimer) of Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story and Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holidays.