Pinchas. The Power of Few


This is a parsha which looks forward with eager anticipation to Israel’s entry to the land of Israel. With the nation already poised on the border (22:1), we now read how “the land is to be apportioned by lottery; according to the listings of their ancestral tribe”(26:52-4), and we witness the appointment of Joshua who will lead the nation into its national home.

This is a parsha that presents a diverse array of powerful and colorful leaders: the zealous Pinchas, Joshua - “the man who has spirit within” (27:18), and the five daughters of Zelophchad.

I love the names of the daughters of Zelophchad‎. Each of them is indicative of movement: The name Mahla – from the root “to dance”; Noa – to move; Milka – a derivative of the verb “to walk”, Hoglah – from a root that indicates a circular motion , Tirza – contains the root “to run”. They are literally movers and shakers.

Sometimes, these five women are hailed as feminist heroes, as they stake a claim to land inheritance as women, in a place where men are the sole inheritors of the land.

“Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Lord, 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!” (27:3-4)

But I would like to share a reading of this story that gives the daughters of Zelophchad an even wider leadership role:

This is to inform you the historic context in which they approached Moses. It was at the time that the Israelites were saying to Moses, "Let us head back to Egypt!"(-during the episode of the spies – Num. 14:4).

Moses said to the daughters of Zelophchad: How can it be that all the Israelites are asking to return to Egypt, and you are asking for an ancestral portion in the land?

They responded: We know that ultimately all Israel will have a portion in the land.

It is as the verse: “It is a time to act for the Lord, Your teaching is being violated.”(Ps 119:127). Read it this way: When they [the Israelites] violated Your teaching, [the daughters of Zelophchad declared], “It is a time to act for God!” (Midrash Sifrei Zuta 27a)

The Midrash depicts the period of the spies, with the nation in deep crisis, when the Israelites lost faith in their ability to conquer and settle the land of Canaan. They even proposed a return to Egypt, giving up their newfound freedom! It is precisely at this juncture that these powerful women approached Moses to stake their ancestral claim of their inheritance in the promised land. Their unusual, even audacious request was a reflection of a profound belief that the nation would eventually fulfill its historic legacy of inheriting the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the view of the Midrash, their deep and powerful desire to gain acquisition of their family inheritance was an outgrowth of the feeling that “It is a time to act for God!” In other words the staunch conviction of these five women sought to affect the nation and generate a sea-change in public opinion. Their enthusiasm and grit reignited and restored a national confidence in Eretz Yisrael.

What is the source for this novel Midrashic reading? It is the verses that immediately precede the episode of Zelophchad‎’s daughters. There we read:

These are the people listed by Moses and Eleazar the priest … at the Plains of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho. Among these there was not one person who had been listed by Moses and Aaron … for the Lord had said: “They shall die in the wilderness.” Not one of them survived, except Caleb son of Jephuneh and Joshua son of Nun… The daughters of Zelopchad approached …” (26:63-27:1)


In the mindset of this Midrash, the daughters of Zelophchad approached Moses in response to the decree of the Spies. This story does not merely teach about the women who succeeded in generating a new law if inheritance; maybe that would be insufficient to have their story recorded in the Torah. Rather, this is a heroic drama of women who took upon themselves the task of reviving the national connection to the land. Their mission was in fact successful, and the very fact that the nation is poised in our parsha on the border of the promised land in the fortieth year, anticipating the division of the land into ancestral units, can be attributed to the transformation, the revolution that these ideological women generated, by demonstrating their love and devotion for the land through their insistence on receiving their inheritance.

So, please discuss:

  • How do attitudes to a land fluctuate and change?

  • Yesterday was Herzl’s “yahrzeit”. He was someone who radically altered Jews’ attitude to land and nationhood. This iconic quote illustrates how he saw himself as a game-changer:

“At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it.”

  • How do we foster and cultivate positive sentiments to national homeland, to other national priorities?

  • As for leadership, is it possible for a small group, a few determined individuals to sway public opinion?

  • Can you think of historical instances when this has occurred?

  • What is needed to generate the personal confidence to speak-up and affect public discourse on important national issues?

  • What issue would you choose if you were to try to impact and reorient priorities in the Jewish people?

Shabbat Shalom!

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