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Matot Ma’asei    5783 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

07/17/2023 09:32:52 AM


Finding Equilibrium

One of the techniques used by television writers to build excitement as a TV series reaches its grand finale is to bring back characters from earlier episodes for cameo appearances in the final episode. This resolves plot lines, brings closure to narrative arcs, and rewards the loyalty of viewers who can appreciate seeing a character from the first episode on screen for the finale. There is actually an online encyclopedia of television plot tropes where you can learn more about this one, but (l’havdil) as Sefer Bamidbar comes to a finale this week, there are some old characters from earlier chapters who are brought back.

וַֽיִּקְרְב֞וּ רָאשֵׁ֣י הָֽאָב֗וֹת לְמִשְׁפַּ֤חַת בְּנֵֽי־גִלְעָד֙ בֶּן־מָכִ֣יר בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁ֔ה מִֽמִּשְׁפְּחֹ֖ת בְּנֵ֣י יוֹסֵ֑ף וַֽיְדַבְּר֞וּ לִפְנֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ וְלִפְנֵ֣י הַנְּשִׂאִ֔ים רָאשֵׁ֥י אָב֖וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

וַיֹּאמְר֗וּ אֶת־אֲדֹנִי֙ צִוָּ֣ה יְהֹוָ֔ה לָתֵ֨ת אֶת־הָאָ֧רֶץ בְּנַחֲלָ֛ה בְּגוֹרָ֖ל לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַֽאדֹנִי֙ צֻוָּ֣ה בַֽיהֹוָ֔ה לָתֵ֗ת אֶֽת־נַחֲלַ֛ת צְלׇפְחָ֥ד אָחִ֖ינוּ לִבְנֹתָֽיו׃ 

“The family heads in the clan of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, one of the Josephite clans, came forward and appealed to Moses and the chieftains, family heads of the Israelites.

They said, “The LORD commanded you to assign the land to the Israelites as shares by lot, and you were also commanded by the LORD to assign the share of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters.”

Do you remember the story of Tzelofhad and his daughters? Tzelfhad had no sons. As Eretz Yisrael was being apportioned among the tribes based on the population of each tribe as mediated by family clans, the orphaned daughters of Tzelofhad approach Moshe and present their claim: since only son’s inherit land according to the Torah’s erstwhile system of inheritance, a man with only daughters will see his name erased from history as he will be denied a portion of Eretz Yisrael as a tribal inheritance alongside his brothers. And, in one of the most moving and inspiring episodes in the Torah, God tells Moshe that the Torah’s rules need an upgrade.. Daughters inherit when there are no sons. 

What a great story. Five heroines stand up for their father and achieve a victory for all Jewish women throughout history. Moshe listens to their complaint and the Torah itself is expanded through their inquiry. There is a happy ending for everyone, (except for the deceased Tzelofhad himself -or maybe even for him -this could have been what he wanted!). All's well that ends well. 

But this morning, in the final chapter of Sefer Bamidbar, we learn that that all is not well. Tzelofhad’s extended family come forward and point out that as a result of the changes instituted on behalf of the daughters of Tzelofhad, the possibility exists that the Tribe of Menashe, from which Tzelofhad hailed, could lose out as the property of Tzelofhad transfers to the tribal allocation of the men whom these women may one day marry. If a daughter of Tzelofhad were to marry, for example, a Benjaminite, their sons would be Benjaminite’s like their father and in this way, the tribal lands of Menahse will shrink since tribal identity is passed from father to son, but Tzelofhad had no sons.

Once again a claim is made to Moshe about an overlooked externality in the Torah’s rules. One problem was solved, but another problem was created. Once again Moshe has to turn to God for clarification and once again the rules are changed: 

זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֞ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֣ה יְהֹוָ֗ה לִבְנ֤וֹת צְלׇפְחָד֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לַטּ֥וֹב בְּעֵינֵיהֶ֖ם תִּהְיֶ֣ינָה לְנָשִׁ֑ים אַ֗ךְ לְמִשְׁפַּ֛חַת מַטֵּ֥ה אֲבִיהֶ֖ם תִּהְיֶ֥ינָה לְנָשִֽׁים׃

“This is what the LORD has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may marry anyone they wish, provided they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe.”

What a curious way to teach inheritance law. Do the attorneys in the room appreciate this? Instead of teaching us the law, in all its details, all at once, as we would expect in any code of law or ritual guidebook, we are taught these laws in three different iterations. The first stage in which only sons inherit, the second stage in which the daughters of Tzelofhad inherit in place of sons, and the third stage, in which the interest of the tribe is maintained as they are told to marry anyone they wish…so long as he is also from the tribe of Menashe. 

One defining feature of the way that the Torah teaches - and we see this in law and in narrative -is to divide a topic and present it from multiple perspectives that are scattered throughout the Torah. And so, for example, the episode of the sin of the spies is described in Parashat Shelach and again in Parashat Devarim. The death of Nadav and Avihu is described in Parashat Shimini and Parashat Acharei Mot and in Parashat Pinchas. Shabbat is described as commemorating creation and as commemorating the exodus. Kashrut is detailed in Sefer Vayikra and in Sefer Devarim. Only by combining all the different facets and all the different perspectives can we attain a full picture. 

But the laws of daughter’s inheritance is an example of something more. Not only are different perspectives combined into a fuller and richer and deeper whole, but we see a real-time grappling with the negative consequences of even Divine law. At each stage of the progression of the rules of inheritance, there is a negative externality that is recognized and centered and solved. This is perhaps the earliest example of a profoundly Jewish way of thinking about law and society and progress. 

Halakhic thought is the process by which values and interests that are in conflict work themselves out through time as Torah scholars and pious Jews wrestle with the unanticipated consequences of the status quo and discover solutions in the Torah itself in a process that never ends.

In the Talmud this is called “Tikun Olam” which does not mean, until the 20th century, “repairing the world” but rather it means “fixing the Torah itself so that our mitzvot and way of life promote social stability and fairness.” The daf-yomi Talmud study schedule, right now in Massechet Gitin,  has been exploring some Talmudic examples of tikkun olam. The rabbis closed loopholes that could allow for the divorce process to be abused. And the rabbis added safeguards to legal proceedings to increase the confidence that the parties would have in the durability of the procedure. But nothing is fixed forever.

We saw another example of the dynamic of refinement and improvement in the opening of our parasha this morning in which the Torah delineates the ways that husbands can nullify vows made by their wives if those vows negatively impact their marriage. There is no parallel mechanism in the Torah for a wife to nullify her husband’s vow if his vow has a negative impact on the mariage. But the Talmudic rabbis, as found in Massechet Ketubot,  filled in that gap in the Torah and found a mechanism by which married women can extricate themselves from oppressive and unreasonable vows made by their husbands. 

The Maharal, the great 16th century rabbi of Prague, explained that everything that God made in the world is meant to be improved upon by human beings. We turn wheat into bread. And we use our reason to study the Torah and to understand it and, with love and devotion, make sure that the Torah’s impact on the world is consistent with justice and fairness and solidarity. “Even though the Torah was given on Sinai through Moshe,” he writes,  “the Torah was completed through the application of human reason which then clarifies everything. For the Torah came into the world like all other natural things, not fully clarified. It was left for human reason to clarify.”

Today in Sweden a public burning of the Hebrew Bible has been planned, alongside a public burning of a Christian Bible as a way to make some sort of distorted political statement. I have no way of knowing if the event occurred or if it was stopped at the last minute. The burning of Jewish books in the capitals of Europe evokes memories from some of the darkest days in Jewish history. Indeed, in just a few weeks on Tisha b’Av we will sit on the floor and wail “She’eli Serufah Ba’Esh” and mourn the burning of Jewish books in Paris in 1242 as we mourn the other calamities of Jewish history.

But aside from the implicit violence entailed in burning scripture, there is something so pathetic and ignorant about burning a Chumash to protest religious fundamentalism. Because, as we have seen, the Torah is a book of balance and equilibrium between competing interests. The Torah is not a fundamentalist book although it is from God. The Torah was given to us in order that we use our reason to explain it and understand it, and to complete the Torah, but that process has no end.

There is a strain of thought that emerged in the European enlightenment that believes that through the application of rationality, the crooked timber of humanity can be made straight. There is a competing strain in western thought that believes that the existing institutions of culture and government and family must be conserved as their very antiquity speaks to their consistency with human flourishing. Of course both strains express a facet of truth and of course both strains can lead to tyranny of one variety or another.

But we have seen today that the Torah and halakhic thinking and halakhic life point us to an entirely different stance from which to understand the world and its problems. Every topic can be understood from diverse vantage points and the job of a lawmaker, or of one interpreting the law, is to balance conflicting interests and to seek equilibrium between conflicting perspectives. Even Divine law has gaps that we are charged with filling. Every repair creates some new gap which in turn must be fixed by the next stage of the Torah’s expansion. 

This process will never end. The daughters of Tzelofhad did not solve all of the problems inherent in being a Jewish woman (so I am told). And each solution creates a new problem, perhaps for someone else, that must then be solved. The secret of Jewish eternity is that all are invited into the beit midrash to participate in the deliberations and study that renew and repair the Torah in every generation. 

I cannot wait to learn with all of you. I can guarantee that we will definitely not solve any problems conclusively. Because no problem worth solving can ever be conclusively solved. Our goal is to bring the Torah to life, to bring the Torah into our very souls, so that no amount of book burning can ever bring it down.


Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784