Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

July 11, 2009 – 19 Tammuz 5769

Annual: Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 918; Hertz p. 686)
Triennial: Numbers 26:52 – 28:15 (Etz Hayim, p. 924; Hertz p. 690)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 968; Hertz p. 710)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God rewards Pinhas for his zealous action by granting Pinhas His pact of friendship (or covenant of peace) and His “pact of priesthood for all time.” God then tells Moses to attack and defeat the Midianites for their role in enticing the Israelites into sin.

After the plague that killed some 24,000 Israelites, God tells Moses and Eleazar to take a census of all Israelite men who are at least 20 years old, according to their ancestral houses. This census was to be used to apportion the land. The Levites are counted separately because they would not receive a share of the land.

Five sisters, the daughters of a man named Zelophehad, approach Moses and the other leaders. They explain that their father died without sons and they want to claim his share of the land. Moses asks God what to do, and God tells him that the women have made a just claim. Moreover, whenever a man dies without a son, his property shall be inherited by his daughters. If there is no daughter, the property will be inherited by other male relatives.

God tells Moses to ascend Mount Avarim. From that vantage point he will be able to see the land before he dies. Moses asks God to select a worthy successor and God tells Moses to appoint Joshua to lead the people after his death. God instructs Moses about the daily sacrifices and the additional (musaf) offerings for Shabbat, rosh hodesh, and the festivals.

1. Who Has Made Me a Woman

The daughters of Zelophehad, of the Manassite family – son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph – came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen! Moses brought their case before the Lord. (Numbers 27:1-5)

  1. “The daughters of Zelophehad... came forward.” When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the Land was about to be divided among the tribes – but only for males, not for females – they gathered to take counsel. They decided that the mercies of flesh and blood are not like the mercies of Him who is everywhere. Flesh and blood is apt to be more merciful to males than to females. But He who spoke and the world came into being is different – His mercies are for males as well as females, His mercies being for all. . . . “Give us a holding” Rabbi Nathan said: Women’s tenacity is stronger than men’s. The men of Israel [being willing to give up the Land], said, “Let us head back for Egypt” (14:4) But Israel’s women insisted, “Give us a holding.” (Sifrei 133)
  2. It is taught: The daughters of Zelophehad were extremely wise, knew well how to expound Scripture, and were perfectly virtuous. They were exceedingly wise, since they chose to speak at the right time; for just then, so stated Rabbi Samuel bar Rabbi Isaac, Moses our teacher was engaged in interpreting the section on levirate marriage. So they said, “If in levirate marriage, our status is like that of sons [since our deceased father was not childless], give us – as for a son – a possession. If not [since in matters of inheritance, daughters are not considered legal issue of a deceased father], let our mother be subject to levirate marriage. At once, “Moses brought their case before the Lord.” (Talmud Bava Batra 119b)
  3. Few Jewish religious texts have provoked as much indignation and discomfort as the brief passage that is recited by traditional Jewish men at the beginning of the daily morning prayers: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a woman.” For many, it expresses a quintessential misogyny that lies at the core of our patriarchal religion. (Dr. Eliezer Segal, “Who Has Not Made Me a Woman,”
  4. The episode of the daughters of Zelophehad is reliable testimony regarding the respect accorded to the women of Israel, even in the early period of our people’s history. Other nations at that time related to women with disregard, and they would not have dared even to imagine demanding their rights from a society which so discriminated against them. And here is the Torah, devoting a whole chapter to the five daughters of Zelophehad who “came forward... and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly.” And what did they demand? Equality of rights with the men – “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Simcha Raz, “The Torah’s Seventy Faces: Commentaries on the Weekly Sidrah,” edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, p. 295)

Sparks for Discussion

Imagine what it took for the daughters of Zelophehad to approach the all-male leadership of their sex-segregated society and ask for equal treatment! Why did they do it? Why did Moses treat their request with respect? What can we learn from this episode about how to approach authority successfully?

Some modern critics claim that traditional Judaism and traditional Jewish texts are inherently biased against women, even misogynist. Do you agree? Why? How do you think the authors of the passages from the Sifrei and Bava Batra saw the position of women in society?

2. Leadership Development

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, “Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh [alternate translation – God of the spirits of all flesh], appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:15-17)

  1. “Moses spoke to the Lord, saying:” The verse proclaims the excellence of the righteous: even when about to depart from the world, they set aside their own needs and occupy themselves with the needs of the community. (Sifrei)
  2. “Let the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community.” When Moses saw that his sons were not worthy to succeed him in the dignity of his office, he wrapped himself in his tallit, and standing up in prayer before the Holy One, said: “Master of the universe, the disposition of every one of them is revealed to You – the disposition of one is not at all like the disposition of another. After I depart from them, when You will be setting another leader over them, I beg you, set over them a leader who will put up with each and every man according to his particular disposition. (Yalkut, Pinhas 776)
  3. When Moses saw how great Pinhas was, he was afraid that he would be chosen as the leader, and he was not pleased with the prospect of having such a zealot as the leader of the Jewish people. He therefore asked of God that the leader be a tolerant man and not a zealous one. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1854, Poland)
  4. “Who shall got out before them” That he not act like others, who have their legions go forth while they themselves remain in their homes; that he not lead them out in myriads and bring them back in thousands, or lead them out in thousands and bring them back in hundreds. (Sifrei Zuta)
  5. A true leader must “go out before” his people and not trail behind them. He must raise them to his level and not allow himself to descend to theirs. He must “go out before them” and “come in before them,” always at the head of his people. He must have them follow him and not keep looking back to see what they want and follow their wishes.

    A leader who truly leads his people will raise them to his own level. He has a chance to “take them out” from corruption and to “bring them in” to holiness (as Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter of Ger explains it). A leader who trails behind his people will finally be dragged down by them to their own low level. (Avnei Ezel (Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman), 1897-1943, Poland)

Sparks for Discussion

What qualities do our commentators see as essential for leadership? Do you agree? Are there other qualities you would add? Do you think this is a good prescription for leadership in the modern world – for a president or prime minister? for a CEO? for a rabbi? How would you explain the difference between a leader and a politician?

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016