Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Pinchas 5764

Parshat Pinchas presents the story of five remarkable sisters, the Bnos Tzelefchod, the daughters of Tzelefchod. Praises for the Bnos Tzelefchod in rabbinic literature are arresting. They are described as chachmaniyot (wise women), darshaniot (Biblical explicators) and tzidkaniot (righteous women). They are credited with extraordinary appreciation of the spiritual qualities of the Land of Israel.

The Bible often credits women with having a superior ability to remain faithful in cases where men have lost their faith. A famous example of this is during the Sin of the Golden Calf. It was men, and not women, who participated in the Sin of constructing a Golden Calf to worship. In fact, women were so reluctant to give their gold jewelry to be melted down to make the Golden Calf, the Rabbis teach that husbands literally tore earrings off of their wives’ ears, in their misguided zealousness. The reward for the women's refusal was Rosh Chodesh, a minor holiday that occurs at the beginning of every Hebrew month. Rosh Chodesh is a special holiday for Jewish women, leading to a proliferation of women's Rosh Chodesh groups and other means of celebrating Rosh Chodesh, as women reclaim the Jewish expressions that are uniquely ours.

In introducing the Bnos Tzelefchod, the Torah traces their lineage back to Yosef, to Joseph. This is to demonstrate that, just as Yosef loved the Land so much that he had his brothers take an oath that they would carry his bones out of Egypt when they left for Israel, that's how much the daughters of Tzelefchod loved the Land. You might say it was a family tradition.

When Moshe, when Moses, began apportioning the Land of Israel through a census of males eligible for military service, the Bnos Tzelefchod grew concerned. Since their father, Tzelefchod, died in the wilderness without sons, the daughters worried that, because they had no father and no brothers, their family would be without a share of the Land and their father's name would be forgotten.

In an attempt to have their case heard, the Bnos Tzelefchod approached a series of judges, each of whom referred them to a higher court until eventually, they were referred to Moshe himself. The fact that they went to such great lengths to resolve the matter is a further indication of how much they loved the Land and wanted to share a part in it.

They are said to have argued cleverly. They offered several arguments to boost their claim that they should be given an inheritance in the Land in their father's name. One of the cleverest things they did was to speak up at an opportune time. They raised the issue exactly when Moshe was teaching the subject of inheritances.

Moshe took their question to G-d. This is one of only two cases Moshe brought before G-d. G-d answered that the daughters of Tzelefchod argued correctly. They were rewarded with a double portion in the Land. From this, they merited to have the laws of inheritance, which would certainly have been taught anyway, recorded in their name.

A highly recommended English novelization of the story of the Bnos Tzelefchod is Daughters Victorious by Rabbi Shlomo Wexler.

Astonishingly, the daughters are quoted in rabbinic literature as saying, “The compassion of G-d is not as the compassion of men. The compassion of men extends to men more than to women, but not thus is the compassion of G-d; His compassion extends equally to men and women and to all, even as it is said, ‘The L-rd is good to all, and His mercies are over all his works.’”

Rashi teaches that the Bnos Tzelefchod loved the Land of Israel for its holiness. Their desire was to elevate something in the material world – a plot of land, to connect to G-d.

Elevating simple material items by using them for a holy purpose is a task at which Jewish women excel. Think of the Shabbat candle, one of the most potent symbols of Jewish women. Of what is it constructed? Nothing more than uncolored, unscented wax and an ordinary wick. And yet, through the lighting of Shabbat candles, through the bracha, the blessing, she makes and through the prayers and requests she recites at the auspicious time of their lighting, the Jewish woman elevates the simple candle by using it to usher in Shabbat.

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