By Shlomo Riskin
“This is the matter that the LORD has commanded concerning the daughters of Tzelofhad, saying: Let them be married to whom they think best… Just as the LORD commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Tzelofhad” [Num. 36:6,10].
What can we do to transmit a love of the Land of Israel to the next generation? The Book of Numbers, by concluding with the case involving the five daughters of Tzelofhad, touches on this very issue. These women – Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milca and Tirza – moved all the way up the judicial and political ladder until they stood before Moses himself.
By insisting on their rights of inheritance so that Tzelofhad would also have a portion in the future eternity of Israel through his descendants’ working and living in the Land of Israel, they won the case for female rights to inheritance, causing an entire addendum to be added to the previous inheritance laws of the Torah!
Who was this man, Tzelofhad, and how did he instill in this daughters such a strong love of the Land of Israel? The Talmud [Shabbat 96b-97a] records a fascinating dispute that offers insights into this question.
According to Rabbi Akiva, “the one who gathered wood [on the Sabbath and was stoned to death as a punishment] [Num. 15:32–36] – was Tzelofhad, as it is written, ‘and the People of Israel were in the desert and they found a man gathering wood,’ and later it is written, ‘our father died in the desert’ [regarding Tzelofhad; ibid., 27:3]. Just as the second case refers to Tzelofhad, so, too, does the first.”
The Talmud provides a different interpretation in the name of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteyra, who takes Rabbi Akiva to task for his commentary: “Akiva, whether or not you are correct in your identification [of Tzelofhad], you will eventually be punished. If it is as you say, then if the Torah saw fit to hide [the identification], why did you reveal it? And if you are mistaken, how dare you cast aspersions on such a righteous person?… Rather, from where did Tzelofhad come? From the group of brazen climbers [ma’apilim] atop the mountain [who defiantly attempted to conquer Israel without God in their midst and without the Holy Ark (ibid., 14:40–45)]”.
From the perspective of this Talmudic discussion, we can glean much about Tzelofhad. Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteyra sees Tzelofhad as one of the ma’apilim, the brazen would-be conquerors of Israel, the non-religious Zionists who storm the ramparts of the Land of Canaan with neither God nor the Holy Ark of the Torah in their midst, but nevertheless with a strong love for the land and peoplehood of Israel. They may have failed at their attempt in the desert, but it was apparently their passionate love for the land of Zion that produced these very special five daughters, who learned their love for the land from their father, and added to it an indomitable faith in God and in the equitability of His Torah.
In contrast, why did Rabbi Akiva identify Tzelofhad with the culpable gatherer of wood, a Sabbath desecrator who was condemned to death?
Rabbi Akiva is emphasizing a crucial foundational principle of Judaism: we are both a nationality as well as a religion, with each of these critical compartments of our faith having been worthy of a Divine covenant. The Torah [Gen. 15] records national covenant with Abraham “between the pieces” in which He guaranteed the first patriarch progeny and a homeland, and the religious revelation at Sinai, a Divine covenant with the entire nation of Israel [Ex. 19 and 24].
Even though Tzelofhad, in desecrating the Sabbath, may have “lapsed” in terms of his religious obligations, this does not detract from his status as a member of Klal Yisrael, the historic Jewish nation. “A Jew, even though he sins, remains a Jew,” teach our Talmudic sages [Sanhedrin 44a].
And remember that the daughters’ claim was that “the name of their father not be diminished” [Num. 27:4] by his inability to bequeath a portion of land in Israel because he lacked male heirs. Certainly, there were some “sages” at the time who may have claimed to the five sisters that they were not entitled to any land, to any parcel of the Israel patrimony, if their father had been a transgressor of the law.
Perhaps Rabbi Akiva specifically identifies Tzelofhad as the culpable wood-gatherer in order to stress that even though a Jew may cut himself off from the religious covenant, he still remains an inextricable member of the national covenant, the historic nation of Israel. And although his five righteous daughters re-established a profound relationship with the Hebraic laws and traditions, they undoubtedly received much of their Zionistic fervor from their father! Therefore, his share in the land was indisputable, and deserved to be bequeathed to his daughters.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.