Last week, I visited the Rabin Museum in Tel Aviv as part of a delegation of American rabbis and Muslim American leaders. I must admit that visiting this museum, dedicated to Rabin’s life, during the week of Parshat Pinhas was not easy. Pinhas, as you probably recall, opens with arguably the most famous act of zealotry in the Bible: Israelites and Midianites are fornicating with one another freely, God is outraged and sends a plague, and Pinhas, Moses’ nephew and a priest, takes matters into his own hands, murdering an Israelite man and Midianite woman, en flagrante, in front of all of Israel, halting the orgy. God apparently rewards Pinhas for his actions with a brit shalom, a covenant of peace.
One cannot tour the Rabin Center without feeling the deep conflict between a parsha that appears to glorify zealotry and the all-too painful realities of zealotry in our world. Even though the rabbis, in many ways, attempt to neutralize Pinhas — most notably by saying that if Pinhas were to seek counsel with the rabbis about his actions, they would counsel him not to do it — the parsha stands. Pinhas in biblical terms is a hero. The parsha stands in a world where we are daily reminded of the profound destruction that acts of zealotry wreak on the world, a world in which murder in God’s name has become a regular event. Even if the rabbis seek to neutralize Pinhas, the Torah does not.
And yet, I believe that the story of Pinhas is not the Torah’s last word in this parsha as to how people can seek justice when they feel justice is not served by the system. A few chapters later, a remarkable story is told, that of B’not Tzelophehad, the daughters of Tzelophehad. I want to suggest that this story serves as a counter to Pinhas.
Five daughters, Noa, Tirzah, Hogla, Mahla, and Milcah present themselves before Moses, before Elazar the priest, before the princes of the tribes and before the whole congregation of Israel. This is already extraordinary! Five named women standing before all of Israel! Their father has died without a male heir and their tribal inheritance will pass out of the tribe — their father’s name will be lost. They present themselves before Moses and say, “Give us an inheritance in the land of Israel.” While everyone is clamoring to go back to Egypt, the daughters of Zelophehad demand a piece of the promised land.
Rashi draws a fascinating comparison between the daughters of Zelophehad and Pinhas. In both cases, he says, Moses forgot the law. In the case of Pinhas, Moses was caught off guard, as he too had a Midianite wife. In the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, Moses, not knowing how to answer them, takes the question to God.
Amazingly, God sides with the women! Why? After all, Pinhas was Moses’ nephew, a priest, a man of standing. The daughters of Zelophehad are five women, previously unknown, without husbands or a father. They are nobodies. And yet, in this extraordinary moment, God ratifies their claim. Why?
I want to suggest that God does so because the daughters of Zelophehad prioritize relationship in four critical ways.
- They make their claim in the name of their father. Perhaps their claim is truly a feminist claim — that daughters should be equal to sons in terms of inheritance — but that is not what they say. They make their claim to preserve their father’s and family’s legacy.
- The daughters of Zelophehad are listed by name twice in the Book of Numbers, in a different order each time. In other words, we do not know who was the oldest and who was the youngest, who led and who followed. From this, the rabbis infer that the daughters regarded one another as equals, that they worked together, and that they consulted with one another.
- Finally, we are told by God, that the daughters of Zelophehad have spoken correctly (ken). What does this mean? Apparently they spoke words of truth and justice and they spoke them humbly. They were able to see what eluded Moses.
- They were presumably willing to take no for an answer.
The daughters of Zelophehad offer an alternative to Pinhas. Like Pinhas, they expose a blind spot of Moses. Like him, they are courageous. But they speak carefully, humbly, mindful of their relationships to one another, to their father, to Moses and to God. They prioritize relationship.
I would like to suggest that the daughters of Zelophehad are the antecedents of Beit Hillel. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were the Harvard and Yale of the first century in Palestine. They debated endlessly about all matters of things. But in the end, despite the fact that the rabbis say that Beit Shammai was intellectually keener, we follow Beit Hillel in all but six instances. Why? Because, according to the Talmud, they were kind, modest, and humble, they studied the words of Beit Shammai and cited the opinions of Beit Shammai ahead of their own opinions.
The daughters of Zelophehad, like Beit Hillel, placed relationship ahead of being right; they put love ahead of truth.
Last week, when we sat down with the Muslim leaders after our rather propaganda-filled tour of the Rabin Musuem, I felt scared. What if they resented the one-sided narrative they heard? What if they voiced their anger at us for the fact that 20 years have gone by since Rabin’s death and still no peace?
One Muslim among the group opened the floor. He said, “I feel so sad.” He voiced his pain and grief, he offered up his broken heart, and, in that moment, all of our hearts broke. The charged feeling in the room dissipated, tears fell, love shone through, and we all got a glimpse of a world that was more possible. We connected through our shared broken-heartedness.
Rachmana liba baye. God wants hearts. God wants broken hearts. And, just like the cracks in the Western Wall, it is in the cracks, and only in the cracks, that things grow.
This poem by Yehuda Amichai appears on the wall at the end of the exhibit at the museum.
The Place Where We are Right
by Yehudi Amichai
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and love
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
May we let love and doubt speak more clearly than our swords and certainty. May their whispers be heard above the din of our world, and may the house, destroyed by our hatred, become a sacred home for all humankind.