Here in the week of the Fourth of July, we come to the end of this year's reading of B'midbar with a double portion, Matot/Mas-ei. The fighting, rebellion, and violence that we've seen throughout B'midbar find echoes in the American Revolutionary War, already underway when the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. The birth of a nation seldom happens without violence, even when one believes—as the Israelites believed, as the Early Americans believed—that God was on their side. In fact, more than a few Revolutionary War leaders compared their plight under King George to the plight of the Israelites when they were still slaves in Egypt.1
Last week as we read Parashat Pinchas, we took note of the way God and Moses were perhaps trying to move the people toward a more human rule of law, albeit based on God-given laws. The plans for the future without Moses do not include random violence or anarchy, despite the ongoing preparations for battles and wars as they get ready to enter the Promised Land. Especially among the Israelites themselves, the end of B'midbar brings two examples of the kind of reasoned discussion and strategic planning that Moses and God may have been training them for all along, and especially once the Israelites enter the Promised Land without Moses.
In these concluding Torah portions of the Book of Numbers, we find illustrations of the way plans can (or should) be alterable by mutual agreement. In Parashat Matot, we find the Israelites encamped on the steppes of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan, cattle country so rich that two and a half tribes who are cattlemen—the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh—ask to remain there rather than go into the Land: "it would be a favor to us . . . if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan" (Numbers 32:5). Moses immediately suspects them: "Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?" (32:6). After some explanations and negotiations, Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh agree to be shock-troops for the rest of the Israelites by entering into battle first, provided they can then return and dwell on the east side of the Jordan. Moses does not live to see the plan accomplished, but we can find the plan still firmly in place when we read beyond Torah and into the Book of Joshua, the first book of the next section of the Hebrew Bible (see Joshua, chapters 1, 4, 13).
The compromise serves the special interests of these tribes and presumably the greater good, though it is a radical departure from God's forty-year plan for all of the surviving generations of the two and a half tribes to move into the land west of the Jordan.
At the end of Mas-ei, the last portion of B'midbar, we meet again the daughters of Zelophehad who brought about important legislation in Parashat Pinchas. Whereas their earlier request (their "law," mishpatan, Numbers 27:5) to inherit from their father was approved by God when first they stepped forward to ask ("The Eternal One said to Moses, 'The plea of Zelophehad's daughters is just . . . transfer their father's share to them,' " 27:6-7), this time their male relatives appeal the earlier decision, noting that "if they [the daughters of Zelophehad] marry persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion . . .; thus our allotted portion will be diminished" (36:3). Moses is not seen speaking to God this time, but he claims to be responding to the sisters al pi Adonai, "at the Eternal's bidding" (36:5). Moses amends the new law, requiring women who inherit ancestral land to marry into a clan of their father's tribe (36:6), which limits the women's choice of spouses and keeps the property within the tribe. And "the daughters of Zelophehad did as the Eternal had commanded Moses" (36:10).
The shock-troop tribes who remain outside the Land and the daughters of Zelophehad both make compromises, presumably for the greater good of the community. Yet their stories, included in Torah in such detail,2 speak to the importance of their desire and ability to change norms and expectations, as well as their willingness to bend when persuasive needs and desires of others arise. That Moses allows, even aids, in changing his earlier rulings and God's previous instructions, adds to the long list of what we can learn from him (and from God) about law, leadership, and life.3 The willingness of the two and a half tribes to place their lives in danger for the sake of others, and the amendments made in the laws of inheritance, emphasize the need for lawmakers and decision makers to look at the rights of all citizens, and not just the issues brought by lobbyists. All movements of liberation have discovered that the most effective and enduring changes are those that create justice for all members of society. Our U.S. founding fathers may not have realized that truth, but they set in place a constitution that allows for it. There seems little doubt that by joining together and speaking out, Mahlah, Noah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and the cattlemen shock-troops from the other tribes brought change that otherwise would not have occurred. Also, these episodes demonstrate how an idea may require fine-tuning even after it becomes law. All through the Book of Numbers, we have seen examples, these two being our most recent, of how Torah sets the stage for processes of change, showing us that even within the Torah itself (even when God God-self is the lawmaker), lawmaking is an inexact science requiring flexibility to change as issues arise and society evolves.4
The custom when Jews complete reading a Book of Torah is to recite the phrase, Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik, "Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another." The phrase seems especially appropriate here at the end of our study of B'midbar, as we have in these past nine weeks singled out so many characters in this extraordinary Book of Torah—God, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Joshua, Caleb, Balaam's she-donkey, Mahlah, Noah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh, among others—whose character, beliefs, and actions have encouraged, strengthened, emboldened our own.
1. It's worth noting that among the early designs for the Great Seal of the United States were some that included Moses and the Israelites. Benjamin Franklin's proposal is preserved in a note in his own handwriting: "Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."
"Thomas Jefferson also suggested allegorical scenes. For the front of the seal: children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night."
2. The names of all five sisters—Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah—appear in all three episodes about them (Numbers 27, 36; Joshua 17). Think how relatively rare it is in the Bible that women's names are mentioned at all, let alone so consistently.
3. I can't help but think here, writing this in the month the U.S. Supreme Court is set to make possibly historic rulings about same gender marriage, of former President Bill Clinton's recent recanting of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), an Act he signed into law in 1996. In an op-ed piece he wrote for the Washington Post, March 7, 2013, Clinton asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn DOMA, writing: "Americans have been at this sort of a crossroads often enough to recognize the right path. We understand that, while our laws may at times lag behind our best natures, in the end they catch up to our core values. One hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln concluded a message to Congress [regarding the abolition of slavery] by posing the very question we face today: "It is not 'Can any of us imagine better?' but ' Can we all do better?' The answer is of course and always, yes."
4. See also "Contemporary Reflection" on Mas-ei by Lisa Edwards and Jill Berkson Zimmerman in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Eskenazi, Weiss (New York: WRJ/URJ Press, 2008), p. 1,032-33
Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Ph.D. is the leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim (www.BCC-la.org ) in Los Angeles. Founded in 1972 as the world's first lesbian and gay synagogue, today BCC is an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual Jews, and their families and friends. Rabbi Edwards' writing appears in books including Kulanu: All of Us (a URJ handbook for congregational inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews) and The Torah: A Women's Commentary, published by URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism.
Many of us struggle with the issues Rabbi Lisa Edwards addresses in her discussion of Zelophehad's daughters: Does the Torah allow for women's rights? What are the limits? Are those rights enough?
In the beginning of this week's double portion, in Parashat Matot, we get a glimpse of the biblical woman's religious life and spiritual freedom. In Numbers, chapter 30, we read that if a woman makes a vow to God, her father or her husband has the right to annul that vow under certain conditions.
At first glance, we might easily become absorbed in the power a father or a husband has over a woman's vows and thus her religious rights. As Reform Jews, we are offended by laws that limit a person's personal religious practice simply because of their gender.
Yet the text is more liberal and innovative than we might think. The society in which the Israelites lived had very little concept of "women's rights." In addition, vows were serious business, and we were—and still are—encouraged to refrain from making any vows at all. In Ecclesiastes it is written, "It is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill." (Ecclesiastes 5:4). Later in the Babylonian Talmud, two sages argue over the danger of vows. Rabbi Meir says that it is best not to vow at all. But Rabbi Judah says: best of all is the one makes a vow and pays it up (see Babylonian Talmud, Chulin 2a, N'darim 9a).
Considering the gravity of vows and the societal norms, the significance in our Torah passage is found in the fact that a woman is allowed to make a religious vow at all. In some ways, the guidelines found in our portion protect a woman's right to make vows within the framework of the society. If vows are so dangerous, why would a woman's right to make a vow be preserved? Could it be that vows are not as detrimental as our sages led us to believe?
The fulfillment of a vow can be a deeply moving and meaningful accomplishment. I know I feel satisfied when I exercise regularly after joining a gym (a vow implied by an investment of money). When I vow to pay more attention to my spiritual life and I do, I am more than satisfied—I am peacefully centered.
What vows might you make and fulfill to improve your religious life?
Rabbi Valerie Cohen is the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi.
Matot, Numbers 30:2-32:42
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,215-1,229; Revised Edition, pp. 1,099-1,112;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 989-1,012