Shabbat Shalom! – Matot-Masei

This week we have a combined Torah portion, Matot-Masei. Matot means “tribes” and Masei means “journeys.” These two portions are often combined in the Hebrew calendar.

Matot begins with a set of commands about nedarim [vows or commitments.] This set of commands gives rise to an entire volume of Talmud, Nedarim. It continues with an account of a battle against the Midianites, and the fallout from that battle. Masei offers us an account of the journeys of the Israelites, followed by a fascinating set of commandments setting up the “Cities of Refuge.” Finally, we hear from the family of Zelophechad again, in Part II of their saga.

Notice, too, that we are also in the Three Weeks of communal mourning before Tisha B’Av. The haftarot on these Shabbats are haftarot that abjure us to take notice of our behavior in this world. This week Jeremiah 2:4 – 28and 3:4 rebukes us for faithless behavior.

Our online darshanim this week have lots to say about this menu of topics:

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild – Women’s Voices and the Public Space: Traditions and texts that must not disappear

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz – Coming Out/Into the Promised Land (2016)

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat – Redeeming the Instruction to Displace & Destroy (2012)

Rabbi David Evan Markus – How to Take a Real Vacation

Rabbi Eve Posen – Parenting by the Parshah (2016)

 

 

 

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Hidden Treasures in the Torah – Preparing a Text for Services

Image: Numbers 27:1- 5 in one of the sifrei Torah at Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Rabbi Adar.

I read Torah at Temple Sinai this morning. While I was preparing the portion, I was reminded again just how happy I am that I learned how to read Hebrew. I learned late in life, and I still struggle with it, but it is absolutely worth the trouble. Here’s why:

Last week’s Torah portion was Pinchas. (The sun has set, it’s a new week. This morning was last week in Jewish terms.) Pinchas contains the first part of the story of the Daughters of Tzelophehad, a story I’ve written about in O Daughters, My Mothers! 

I’ve studied these verses many times, but with Torah there is always more to learn. This time, preparing to read from the Torah scroll (see the photo above) the study carried me deep into the grammar of the text. (I know, sounds boring, but trust me here.)

The scroll is a close copy of the scroll from which Ezra read in Nehemiah 8. The scroll does not have nekudot – the little marks invented by the Masoretes centuries later to tell us about vowels, pronunciation, and punctuation. For those marks, I have to go to a tikkun or to a copy of the verses in Torah as in Sefaria.org.

If I’m going to read the text correctly, I have to learn which vowels to put in which places – that means I have to understand every single word of that text. (Granted, it is possible simply to memorize the sound of the words, which is what I did as a beginner, but as I age I find that it is better just to do it the hard way and actually learn each word because memory can fail me.)

These particular verses (beginning at Numbers 27:1) are tricky because the Torah is telling us a story about women. That’s fairly unusual, and the verb forms for women are less familiar because we don’t use them as much in Biblical Hebrew. It’s a nice grammatical workout.

Sure enough, the first word is וַתִּקְרַ֜בְנָה – vah-tee-KRAV-nah. It means “And they (f) drew close.” Then it hit me: this is a special word! The root of the word is kuf-resh-bet, which is the root having to do with sacrifices.The translations say something like “they came forward” but it there is much more meaning in that word. Yes, it means “come close” but it is a special sort of drawing close. The text could have had other verbs, but the fact that it uses this particular verb signals us that something special and holy is coming, something that will bring the Israelites closer to God.  I have circled the word in red at the top of the image below – on the image, not on the sefer Torah!

Num27.1-11.Marked

Another example of something really special in this portion is in the other word I have circled, a tiny little word of two letters. Here is the text and translation from Sefaria.org:

כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃

“The plea of Tzelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” – Numbers 27:7

It’s the standard JPS translation, but it waters down the meaning of the text. The little circled word, pronounced “Ken” means “Yes.” Here’s my alternate translation of the line:

“Yes! The daughters of Tzelophehad said it!* You must give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen. Transfer their father’s share to them.”

*In this case, “dov-roht” is a feminine participle from the root dalet-bet-resh. There’s no good way to get it into English without turning it back into a verb.

The whole point of the story is that God says “Yes!” when five women who are suffering from an injustice approach with a well-reasoned case. Had I been working merely from a translation the readings would be much more dignified but the passion in that “Yes!” would be missing. God rewards the women for standing up for themselves, and approves of their competence in doing so.

Feminist commentators have had much to say about this story, justly so, but in that “Yes!” I read broader meaning. When disenfranchised people bring a well-reasoned case before the legal authority, this story sets the precedent for hearing them out and finding a way to make things more fair.

In this story, God doesn’t quibble, or get defensive, or suggest that if they all got husbands it would be OK. God just says “Yes.” God then corrects the injustice by changing the rules of inheritance.

I finished my preparation of this story feeling inspired.

And yes, this is why I love studying Torah in Hebrew.

If you are older, if you are “bad at languages,” if you have perceptual quirks (aka learning disabilities) don’t let it stop you. I’m all those things, and I’m so glad I learned.

Shabbat Shalom! – Pinchas

Parashat Pinchas has a little bit of everything. It has the conclusion of the troubling story of Pinchas, who committed a double murder in defense of Torah in last week’s Torah portion. It has a census of the tribes, which can be interesting to compare with other censuses in Torah. It has commandments regarding many Jewish holidays, including Rosh ChodeshPassoverShavuotSukkotand the High Holy Days. And at its heart it has the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad.

So let’s see what the darshanot (yes, darshanot this week – all women!) make of this cornucopia of possibilities!

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild: #Girlpower; Or: The real stars of the sidra are the five women siblings who transform society and create justice.

Rabbi Ruth Adar: Oh Daughters, My Mothers!

Rabbi Dr. Margaret Jacobi: D’var Torah Parashat Pinchas

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman: “I’m gonna live forever!”

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman: Pinchas with Rabbi Ellie (VIDEO)

 

O Daughters, My Mothers!

Image: Five sisters sitting on a beach. Public domain.

Recently I received a question from  a reader asking me why I am a Reform Jew. The best answer I can give to that question appears in Parashat Pinchas:

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said,  “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons.  Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers.  And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.” – Numbers 27:1-11

Take a moment and read the passage closely. It begins with the five women, and identifies them as the daughters of Zelophehad, with a genealogy explaining precisely who they are. Then we get their individual names.

It is a moment of high theater: the five women stand at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the stage upon which great dramas happen in the Torah narrative. They are not summoned there; they take a stand. They take that stand before Moses, before Eleazar, before the leaders of the clans, and before the people.

Then they state their case: their father is dead. He was not a follower of Korach but died because he sinned, and he had no sons. Then they state the problem: under the inheritance laws as they stood, their father’s name would be forgotten, and they would be left without an inheritance, (therefore unmarriageable.) Then they ask directly for what they want: “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses has no answer for them; they have raised a problem he has not considered, so he takes their case before God. And God says something amazing: God says the women are right! And God sets out a revised version of the inheritance laws.

But this is not the last we hear of the daughters of Zelophehad. Indeed, all of Chapter 36 is devoted to the issue they raised:

The heads of the ancestral houses of the clans of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, of the Josephite clans, came forward and spoke in the presence of Moses and the leaders, the heads of the ancestral houses of the Israelites; they said, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the Israelites; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. But if they are married into another Israelite tribe, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestors and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so it will be taken away from the allotted portion of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the Israelites comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they have married; and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestral tribe.”

Then Moses commanded the Israelites according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The descendants of the tribe of Joseph are right in what they are saying. This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, ‘Let them marry whom they think best; only it must be into a clan of their father’s tribe that they are married, so that no inheritance of the Israelites shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for all Israelites shall retain the inheritance of their ancestral tribes.  Every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the Israelites shall marry one from the clan of her father’s tribe, so that all Israelites may continue to possess their ancestral inheritance.  No inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for each of the tribes of the Israelites shall retain its own inheritance.’”

The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord had commanded Moses.  Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, married sons of their father’s brothers. They were married into the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.

These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. – Numbers 36: 1-13.

Again, read closely: The uncles and cousins of the daughters of Zelophehad come forward with a new problem. God’s solution to the daughters’ problem was going to cause their tribe to lose land to other tribes. You can practically hear the men crying out, “Not fair!”

Moses again asks God what to do, and God revisits the revised decree. Now the daughters may inherit, but if they marry they must marry within the clan, to prevent the problem raised by the uncles and cousins. The daughters of Zelophehad – again listed by name, unlike their male relatives – agree to the revision.

There are several things that strike me in this narrative, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the fact that Torah law is presented as something that can change to address human needs. In fact, the text seems to be saying that God didn’t think of everything; there were some issues that the original Torah failed to address.  In this text, God isn’t troubled by imperfection in Torah. God revises and then revises again until everyone’s needs are met.

I am the first to admit that this is a radical reading of the text. An orthodox reader would point out to me that humans petition and God makes the revisions; the humans don’t make changes willy-nilly. I would counter to that that in this stage of Israel’s existence, one could do as the Daughters did and march up to the Tent of Meeting and get a meeting with God. This is a privilege unique to that generation.

Later generations would deal with issues like this in other ways: one of the most famous such questions is addressed in the story of Akhnai’s Oven:

The rabbis are disputing whether a particular design of oven is ritually clean or unclean. Rabbi Eliezer, a great scholar, says, “Clean” but the rest say “Unclean.” Each side calls upon miracles and wonders, but neither side will give in. Rabbi Eliezer is supported by a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, which argues that Rabbi Eliezer is always right. Rabbi Joshua retorts by quoting Torah, “It is not in heaven!” And a later rabbi tells us what he meant by that, that the Torah was given, and after that, the rule follows the majority (human) opinion! And then God laughs, saying, “My children have defeated me!” (a paraphrase of Bava Metzia 59a-b)

Why am I a Reform Jew? Because the Torah itself tells us that not all cases are covered in the Written Torah! And the Oral Torah tells us that not all cases are decided and final, either. Sometimes we learn better. Sometimes we get new information. Sometimes a situation comes up that needs a new answer.

Does this mean, as some critics of Reform say, that Reform Jews believe in nothing? Nonsense. I and other observant Reform Jews do our best to live Torah out to the best of our understanding, in the light of study and the whole body of Jewish tradition.

Does this mean, as some critics would say, that there are Reform Jews who use the flexibility of Reform to justify doing exactly as they please, with no reference to tradition? Sure, just as there are Orthodox and Conservative Jews who use the practice of teshuvah [repentance] as a license to do whatever they please in the moment. It’s no better to say, “I will repent on Yom Kippur” than it is to say, “I’m Reform, I can do what I want” – if anything, it’s worse, because the former is explicitly forbidden. We cannot have a reasonable discussion about these things by comparing the worst of one group with the best of another.

I am a Reform Jew. I believe that God gave us Torah along with the freedom to wrestle with its puzzles. I am not free to “do what I want.” I am free to struggle, as Jews have always struggled, to stay on a path towards holiness described by the sometimes mysterious words of Torah. I am going to be wrong sometimes; I accept that. I will do my best, informed by my study and my reflections with my Jewish community.

I believe, in fact, that the early sages – those gentlemen arguing about Ahknai’s Oven! – were doing exactly the same thing, trying to carve out a path towards holiness through the wilderness of the world. Their decisions were not always “the halakhah” [Jewish law] – as the bat kol pointed out, the halakhah always followed Rabbi Eliezer. Their decisions were what they deemed the best path at their time in history.

At our best, we do our best, whatever our understanding of Torah. Whenever I am perplexed, I return to the words of the prophet Micah:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

[God] has told you, Human, what is good, and what the Holy One requires of you: to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

Which Passage Speaks to You?

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Over on Wrestling With G-d, shocheradam asked for suggestions for blog post topics. On a whim, I asked him which passage of Torah is speaking to him lately, and he wrote a fascinating take on a passage from Numbers.

This leads me to ask readers: what about you? Is there a passage of Torah talking to you at the moment? Or perhaps one that speaks to you over the long term, a passage to which you feel kinship?

When I was getting ready to go to rabbinical school, my friend Barbara asked me if there was a passage to which I felt a special connection. At the time, selling all my goods and getting ready to move across the world to go to school, I felt drawn to Genesis 12:1:

And the Eternal said to Abram, “Take yourself from your land, and from the land of your birth, and from your father’s house, and [go] to the land which I will show you.”

So Abram loaded up the family and his herds, and hit the road without knowing exactly what was ahead.

I felt a lot of kinship to Abram, as I sold my furniture and broke up 25 years of housekeeping, reducing my belongings to four giant duffle bags before I moved to Israel. Unlike Abram, I didn’t take my family along: my children were adults, one in college and the other already in the work world. It was scary, but this passage made me feel less alone.

Six years later, when my class was getting ready for ordination, again it was time to list a passage of Torah that spoke to me. This time it was the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad, from Numbers 27: 1-11. They were five educated women who pointed out to Moses that a part of the Torah law, as given, was grossly unfair. Their father died without a son, and the daughters were to be left without a share in their tribe’s land as a result. Moses wasn’t sure what to do, so he took it to the Tent of Meeting and asked God what to do. God said they were quite right, and altered the law of inheritance. The story spins out further in Numbers 36 and Joshua 17, but the daughters’ challenge to the law was successful.

I felt a connection to this story because I had just spent six years studying to become a rabbi. I knew that not everyone in the Jewish world would be willing to see me as a rabbi, but I took comfort in this passage. The daughters of Zelophehad were role models for me, examining the law and even challenging it. They challenged me to continue studying and building my rabbinical skills to meet their high standard, an argument that could stand up before God.  Since then, I’ve also come to admire them for their willingness to speak up for themselves; the more I study them, the more I want to be like them.

So, readers, is there a passage that speaks to you? A character in Torah or Tanach (the Jewish Bible) or in rabbinical literature with whom you strongly identify? If there is, I invite you to tell us about it in the comments, or to do so in some other venue (your blog? on facebook?) and leave us a link here.

I look forward to seeing Torah through your eyes.

Photo: “Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue Torah” by Steve Garfield. Some Rights Reserved.