The Just Inheritance

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

D'Var Torah By: Mona Alfi

Focal Point

  • Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, "Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names." (Numbers 26: 52-53)
  • The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, "Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah's faction, which banded together against Adonai, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!"
  • And Moses brought their case before Adonai. And Adonai said to Moses, "The plea of Zelophehad's daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them." (Numbers 27:1-7)

D'var Torah

When I was sixteen years old I had the unpleasant experience of sitting around my grandparent's dining room table with my siblings, our parents' personal possessions spread out in front of us. We were put into the uncomfortable position of trying to decide who would get what. My parents had died many years earlier, and without a will to decide for us, we were forced to resolve this last issue of our inheritance ourselves.

We sat there not as the close and loving siblings that we normally were, but as wary adversaries, each trying to capture memories, bits of our history, before they slipped away into someone else's pocket. Each of us was hoping to claim these elusive treasures not just for ourselves, but also for our future children and grandchildren. We wanted them to have both proof and understanding of our parents' existence. We were grasping for the last remnants of our family home.

What I now recognize is that we did not understand what our parents had bequeathed to us. The real inheritance that our parents had left for us was not the load of trinkets left on the table, but rather our memories of our parents and all that they had taught us while they were alive. The real "family home" that they had left for us was our dedication to each other, our connection to our Jewish heritage, and a commitment to keeping their memories and values alive for the next generation. It was these three things that were the real remnants of our family home. What was wrong was not our desire to have physical reminders of our parents, but rather the process we took to obtain them. By fighting with each other instead of working together, we were undoing the very inheritance we were trying to preserve.

Tucked into the Book of Numbers we are given a very different picture of siblings looking to claim their share of an inheritance. In Parashat Pinchas we see the second census taken of the Israelites in the desert. One purpose of this census was to determine how the land of Israel was to be divided amongst the tribes and clans upon the Israelites return to Eretz Yisrael.

The land was to be divided amongst the men of Israel: Each man was to receive a portion and the oldest of each clan, a double portion. In the midst of this the daughters of Zelophechad stepped forward protesting the injustice of the laws of inheritance. According to law, since their father had died without a son, he was considered to be without a "proper" heir, and his clan would not receive any land. They were afraid that without a land inheritance, the memory of their father would die in the desert, with them.

One of the hallmarks of sibling relationships in the book of Genesis is how profoundly dysfunctional they are. From Cain and Abel through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers, what quickly comes to mind is how much pain and struggle are involved in all of these relationships. Each of these relationships reveals a struggle for individual needs and the extreme measures that each person will take to fulfill them, despite the emotional and physical costs that their siblings might have to pay.

It is because of these many biblical stories of siblings fighting with each other to obtain what they desired, that the story of Zelophehad's daughters stands out. Unlike their predecessors in Genesis, these sisters worked together in harmony rather than through deception or rancor to achieve their personal goals.

Rather than being referred to only as "the daughters of Zelophehad," the Torah makes a point to name each one; Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Each one deserves credit not only individually, but also collectively for what is accomplished. It is only because each one of them chose to work together, that they were allsuccessful.

Ultimately, it was not the tangible piece of land that they inherited that ensured that their father's place in history would not be forgotten; it was their ability to work together, as a family. What the daughters claimed for themselves was not merely their right to the land, but also their dedication to family, a connection to their past, and a commitment to being a part of a Jewish future. In behaving as they did, they were claiming not only the land, but also their place in the Jewish community, their true inheritance.

A just inheritance cannot be separated from the way in which we receive it. What is often lost in familial battles is that a "just inheritance" is not something that needs to be divided into smaller parcels. Each of us can lay claim to a full portion of the most treasured gifts that our ancestors have left for us, if only we keep our sights on what is truly important, our relationships with one another, our connection to our past, and the values that carry us into our future.

By the Way

  • Whoever teaches his son teaches not only his son, but also his son's son—and so on to the end of generations. (Talmud, Kiddushin 30a)
  • Each of us is but a puff of smoke in eternity. What is immortal about us is that we are part of an undying Jewish people. The wisdom, which has been distilled in 3,000 years of unique history, is the greatest legacy a Jew can leave his children. For it is not economic wealth, but moral and spiritual treasure, which I can pass on to my children as did my ancestors through one hundred and twelve generations, stretching back to the midsts of Sinai. What I owe them is a chance to grasp a faith to live by. (Albert Vorspan,Jewish Values and Social Crisis, New York: UAHC Press, 1968, p. 193)

Your Guide

  1. According to the quote from Kiddushin 30a, what are the specific values and teachings that our parents and grandparents generations have taught us? How can we "unlearn" unhealthy values or family dynamics and replace them with "healthy" ones? What are the values and teachings that our generation is passing on to the next one?
  2. What do you consider your personal legacy to be? According to Albert Vorspan, our most important legacies are not temporal. How then can we try to ensure that future generations will treasure the inheritance that is left behind for them?

Rabbi Mona Alfi is the senior rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento, CA.

Reference Materials

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568

Originally published: