Friday, July 15, 2011
Parshat Pinchas: Transition and Change
This week’s parashah/portion is Pinchas (Deuteronomy/Devarim 25:10 - 30:1). In reading the parashah, a few things caught my attention: 1) the parashah begins almost immediately with a census of all the males of the various tribes; 2) it then continues with the plea of the five daughters of Zelophehad to inherit their father’s holdings, even though inheritance at that time only went to sons, of which he had none; 3) the daughters of Zelophehad are all named, and in their plea make it clear that their father was not one of the faction led by Korach, who had rebelled against God; 4) God declares to Moses that the claim of the daughters was valid and that they should indeed receive their father’s portion, as should other daughters in the future, if they have no brothers and 5) following this incident, God tells Moses to appoint Joshua as successor and to climb the mountains of Avarim to see the land that he will be unable to enter.
It is easy to write about the daughters of Zelophehad as an example of “proto-egaliatarianism” or of Judaism’s ability to adapt to the needs of the times. However, there are other ways of looking at the story as well. What struck me first was that the five daughters individual names are given: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. We can count on one hand the names of the other women mentioned in the Torah. Most of them are matriarchs or in positions of leadership, such as Miriam.
The naming of these five women represents their importance as individuals, and simply as a unit. They each have their own rightful place to take, even if the case they are making is based on their relationship with their father. Furthermore, they make it clear to Moses that their father was not among those who joined Korach’s rebellion against God, but that he died for his own sin (though this sin is never named). It is interesting that they did not refer to this as a revolt against Moses’s leadership, which is how I would describe it, but a revolt against God. It is as if they are saying, “our father never challenged or lost his faith in God. He had his faults, but that was not one of them. So please remember that when adjudicating our case. And please judge him and us based on our own merits.”
The daughters make their plea not simply before Moses, but before Eleazar the priest, the tribal chieftains and the entire assembly. They proclaimed before the whole community their father’s (and by extension their) loyalty to God. Perhaps this is why Moses turns the case immediately over to God for a decision. After all, setting the stage like this, Moses would not want to make the wrong decision. And so God declares a new order for inheritance which includes daughters, but only when there are no sons. God then commands Moses to appoint Joshua as leader following his death and to then climb the mountain to survey the land that they are to enter without him. A new beginning has begun.
This entire story is about change and transition, perhaps two of the only certainties in life. The five daughters lost their father because of his sin, whatever that may have been. However, each is her own unique individual person. They want to continue with their lives, but the vestige of the past is preventing them. God realizes this and the rules are changed to meet the moment. The fact that they approach Moses and God as individuals and as a unit, as I wrote above, reminds us that they are not to be defined solely by who their father was, what he did or because they belong to this family. They are individual souls who are still a part of the collective soul to which we all belong. By arguing their case in front of priest, chieftains and the entire community we are also reminded that no matter how much we may view our selves as individuals or part of a clan, we are also part of something greater. We are each part of the community, which is also part of the Oneness that is the divine in the world. Hence this takes place in front of the Tent of Meeting, where all are gathered and where God is believed to “dwell.”
That this episode also takes place following the census of the men, reminds us that belonging to the community, or being able to connect to God, is not based on biology or, I would add, on gender, sexual or other identity. We are all included in the story. It is only after this is acknowledged by none other than God, that Moses is allowed to continue the transition by appointing Joshua as successor and by viewing the Promised Land.
This entire narrative can be seen as a lesson in terms of what we need in order to take the next step in our own personal journeys through life. Each moment must be lived in the present, yet each moment is also connected to our past and a way to transition into the next moment. We bring with us into the present our heritage and our inheritance, as well as the ability to move on towards our own Promised Land. And yet we don’t know if we will ever reach the destination, yet continue on we must. We may see it, or think we do, but whether or not we will reach it - and what it will look like if we get there - is a mystery.
We each must take the steps as individuals, each with our own unique name, our own identity. Yet we cannot deny that we are part of a family and that we are connected to all others around us. Ultimately, the associations are all about connecting ourselves to the Divine force in the universe. It is this force (or however you choose to define God) to which we connect as individuals and as a community. It is also that which will provide each of us with the ability, strength and courage to take the next step, to look into the unknown and to move beyond those things in our past that could keep us stuck.
So in some ways we are each one of the daughters of Zelophehad, regardless of whether or not we identify as female, male or other. We are each simultaneously seeking a connection to and a release from our past and our ancestors. We each are trying in each moment to take hold of the present and then take the next step into the future (which then, of course, becomes the present). We do what we must to take these steps knowing that we are taking them not simply by ourselves, but with all of those to whom are connected: family, friends, community and the universe. And that we are ultimately doing so as part of that force in the universe which connects us all, which I choose to call God.
Posted by Rabbi Steven Nathan at 4:55 PM
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