INSIGHT

5770 - #32

THE RACHAMIM OF GOD

             

            

As we so often find, a small word or a specific context can deeply affect our whole understanding of not only a verse in the chumash but also of a significant Torah concept. The word vatikravna, and they drew close,1 and the placement of the petition of the bnot Tzelafchad, the daughters of Tzelafchad, are cases in point. The word vatikravna seems so out of place; they drew close to whom? While one could maintain that the placement of this episode following the second desert census is understandable since, as explained just a few verses earlier,2 this is the count of the nation upon which the division of the land was to be based, the specific verses before the telling of the request of these women do seem unconnected. Why is it important for us to know, leading into this story of the daughters, that all the men over 20 in the first census, except for Calev and Yehoshua, had died in the desert? These two questions, though, may actually provide for us the focus through which we can fully understand this event.

            Rashi, Bamidbar 26:62 immediately explains the connection between the verses. Only the men died as a result of the sin of the meraglim, the spies, for it was only the men who specifically rejected the land of Israel declaring, in response to the spies’ report, that the nation should return to Egypt. The women of Israel, though, as evidenced by the request of the bnot Tzelafchad for their inheritance in Israel, loved the land and thus were not included in the punishment of the spies.4 According to Rashi, it would seem that the episode of the bnot Tzelafchad is placed where it is in order to explain why women were not included in the punishment of the spies – they loved the land. Kli Yakar,5 however, seems to see in the juxtaposition of these two verses a more powerful message: it is to demonstrate the potent distinction between the men and the women in relation to the land. The natural inclination of the men was to reject it; the natural inclination of the women was to desire it. It is this desire that is praised in regard to the bnot Tzelafchad. Yet, if the desire for Eretz Yisrael is so important and women have more of this desire while men have less, why are men more generally involved in the laws of inheritance which include possession of the land? Why was Israel not, in the first place, divided up amongst the women who desired it rather than primarily divided up amongst the men who wished to abandon it?

            In the case of the bnot Tzelafchad, it would seem, though, that their desire was significant and did play a role in what occurred. This would actually seem to represent a shift in perspective. The male lack of desire for the land did not seem to be a factor in the original distribution of the land only to males and not females. It was this very desire for the land of the bnot Tzelafchad, though, that motivated them to step forward and raise the question regarding their inheritance. Yet desire for the land seems to be of little significance within this legal scenario. This is perhaps what bothered the bnot Tzelafchad and caused them to hesitate in approaching Moshe with their question. Ohr Chaim, Bamidbar 27:1 is bothered by the word vatikravna. The following verse informs us that they stood before Moshe Rabbeinu so one could say that vatikravna is simply telling us that they drew close to Moshe before standing before him. Why, though, the separation between the two verbs? This leads the Ohr Chaim to conclude that vatikravna means they drew close to others before eventually going on to stand before Moshe. One view is that they consulted many leaders of the nation, their tribe and their family before going before Moshe Rabbeinu. Ohr Chaim’s first answer, though, is that vatikravna means they drew close to each other, consulted with each other to see if their argument had any merit before approaching Moshe. Their issue: it was their very love of the land that was motivating them to speak out about this law that would seem to deny them their father’s portion in the land, yet love of the land did not appear to be a factor of consideration in the very distribution of the land.

            Sifri 8 (Bamidbar 27:1) also states that they drew close to each other to discuss the propriety of their claim. They concluded that the rachamim, mercy, of human beings is not like that of God for the former are more concerned about men over women but God’s mercy is equal for both; thus they decided to ask Moshe their question. Throughout the Torah, though, there are many distinctions presented between men and women. Even in this very law of inheritance and ownership of the land, there is a distinction. The bnot Tzelafchad were not, though, challenging this basic law. They did not argue that is was simply unfair for women to not share in the land as equals with men. They accepted that there are justifiable, Divinely-ordained distinctions between men and women and this general rule of inheritance is based on one of these just, inherent principles. They were specifically focusing on this one situation wherein a father dies leaving only daughters and no sons – and their contention was this was a case for rachamim. In such a case, while human beings will be biased in favouring the male, God treats men and women equally. They must thus get the land. What, though, is this case of rachamim?

            On the surface, it actually seems that the way of human beings is to be more merciful to women than to men.6 Is the cry in times of emergency not “women and children first”? What does the Sifri mean when it states that human beings are more merciful to men than to women? The actual concern of the bnot Tzelafchad was not the possession of the land itself but that the legacy of their father in the land would be lost, that their family name in the land would be lost. Their love of the land was not just a simple love of the land but a love for the significance of the land. They did not question the original distribution of the land; it had a significance which excluded women and this they accepted. Now, though, the rules as they applied to women challenged this very significance and the bnot Tzelafchad felt this. Would human beings, though, be sensitive to these perceptions of a woman in regard to a value concept? God, though, has equal rachamim for men and women. He will not discount the perceptions and feelings of these wise, pious women simply because they were women. Divine Rachamim does not distinguish between men and women and thus the expressions of wise, pious women are heard equally before God.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 Bamidbar 27:1.

2 Bamidbar 26:51-56

3 Bamidbar 14:4.

4 One may question Rashi’s proof that all the women of Israel loved the land as all the actions of the bnot Tzelafchad really show is that this specific group of women loved the land. Rashi, Bamidbar 27:1, himself, in connecting the daughters’ love of the land to their ancestor Yosef’s love of the land, also seems to provide further information to support such a question.

5 See, also, Bamidbar Rabbah 21:10. The motivation for the women’s love of the land is also explained in much more generic terms. The case of the bnot Tzelafchad is thus not the proof but rather the scriptural source. Rashi’s reference to Yosef is still, though, problematic

6 Of course, this may be only in our society

(c) Nishma, 2010


 


 


 


 


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2006 NISHMA