Chovevei Zion Parashat Pinchas 5774

Moshe and Aharon are approached by five sisters with a reasonable request [Bemidbar 27:3-4]: “Our father died in the desert. He was not in the assembly that banded together against Hashem in Korach’s assembly, but he died because of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us an inheritance [in the Land of Israel] along with our father’s brothers.”  Their father, a man named Tzlofchad, had died, leaving no sons. As only males inherit land in Israel, this meant that Tzlofchad’s immediate family would never have “a place to call their own”. Moshe takes their case to Hashem, Who rules in their favour: A person who dies without a son will be inherited by his daughters.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe ZT”L is troubled by the lengthy preface given by Tzlofchad’s daughters:

  1. What is the importance of Tzlofchad’s sin? Let’s say he had been part of Korach’s band of merry men who rebelled against Moshe thirty-eight years earlier. Does it say anywhere in the Torah that the families of Korach’s followers lost their share in the Land of Israel? In fact, we learn that [Bemidbar 26:11] “Korach’s sons did not die.” They weren’t part of the uprising and so they survived. Because Korach’s children were Levites they did not receive an inheritance in the land, but it is fair to assume that had they been from any other tribe, they would have inherited along with everyone else.
  2. Why would Moshe even assume that Tzlofchad was a part of Korach’s rebellion? Nearly every person who left Egypt between the age of twenty and sixty died in the desert as punishment for the sin of the spies. Only about fifteen thousand people were killed in Korach’s rebellion. The odds of Tzlofchad being part of the rebellion were less than three in one hundred[1].
  3. While the daughters of Tzlofchad tell Moshe for which sin their father did not die, they do not tell him for which sin he did die. Based on our previous point, it should mean that he died as punishment for the sin of the spies. However, Rashi brings a Midrash that identifies Tzlofchad as either one of the Ma’apilim who tried to enter the Land of Israel against Moshe’s explicit command, or as the “Wood gatherer” (m’koshesh etzim) who was put to death for desecrating Shabbat.

While the Rebbe offers a convincing answer to these questions, I’d like to suggest a slightly different direction[2]. The reason that I am taking a different path is because it suddenly dawned on me that even had Tzlofchad been alive, he would not have received an inheritance in the Land of Israel! Let’s look at Tzlofchad’s genealogy. He is [Bemidbar 27:1] “Tzlofchad the son of Hefer the son of Gilead the son of Machir the son of Menashe, from the family of Menashe the son of Joseph”. Now let’s fast-forward five chapters. The Tribes of Reuven and Gad ask Moshe to “trade in” their inheritance in the Land of Israel for the Land of Gilead, on the East Bank of the Jordan River. Eventually Moshe capitulates to their demand. For some reason Moshe also lets half the Tribe of Menashe settle the Gilead along with Reuven and Gad[3]. The Torah then describes the wars fought in the settling of the Gilead [Bemidbar 27:39-40]: “The sons of Machir the son of Menashe went to Gilead and captured it, and they expelled the Amorites who lived there. Moshe gave the Gilead to Machir the son of Menashe and he settled it”. Tzlofchad, as a direct descendant of Machir, would have received an inheritance not in Israel, but in present-day Jordan. On the other hand, it is difficult to presume that the daughters of Tzlofchad would have wanted to live in the Gilead, because they are effusively lauded by our Sages, who see them as ardent Zionists – the first “Chovevei Zion[4]”. Rashi asks “Why does the Torah relate their genealogy all the way back to Joseph? Just as Joseph loved (chivev) the Land of Israel [as he was the only one of his brothers who asked to be buried in the Land of Israel], so, too, did these women love the Land of Israel”. Perhaps they loved Israel, but not enough to live there. According to some opinions, the Tribe of Menashe had longed to live in the Gilead since before the exodus from Egypt. Is it really fair to call these women Chovevei Zion?

Truth be told, it is surprising that the Tribe of Menashe, as direct descendants of “Joseph the Zionist”, would give up their inheritance in the Land of Israel for the Land of Gilead. I suggest that the Torah, too, finds this surprising, and it makes a cynical comment: When Moshe gives the Gilead over to the Tribes of Reuven and Gad, we are told that [Bemidbar 32:33] “Moshe gave to the Children of Reuven, the Children of Gad, and half the Tribe of Menashe the son of Joseph the Kingdom of Sichon, King of Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan…” Notice that these people come from the very same “Menashe the son of Joseph” for whom the daughters of Tzlofchad are lauded, and yet these people have willingly given up their portion in the Land of Israel.

I propose that we travel the path blazed by Rashi. The daughters of Tzlofchad knew very well that their tribe yearned for the Gilead. Nevertheless, these women, as fitting for descendants of Joseph, want something else: they want to inherit in the Land of Israel, the land promised to them by Hashem. Their problem is not only the fact that they are women, and are thus prevented from inheriting land. Their problem is that are asking to inherit something that their father, had he been alive, would very likely not have owned or even wanted. Something that does not exist can’t be given as an inheritance[5]. In order to get what they want, Tzlofchad’s daughters must prove to Moshe that it does exist.

Tzlofchad’s daughters could not ask for a piece of the Land of Israel if their father was punished for actively spurning it. It is therefore critical that Tzlofchad have nothing to do with the spies, who said [Bemidbar 14:4] “Let’s pick another leader and return to Egypt!” The daughters don’t even want to mention the spies. Their problem is that once those who died as punishment for the sin of the spies are taken out of the equation, the chances that Tzlofchad died as part of Korach’s rebellion skyrocket[6]. So when his daughters explicitly tell Moshe that their father didn’t participate in Korach’s rebellion, they are implicitly telling Moshe he was also one of the precious few who didn’t die because of the spies. Their father had a passion for the Land of Israel and they inherited this passion. What caused his death was far less important than what didn’t cause his death. His lack of an inheritance in the Land of Israel was not by choice. His connection with Israel was real. It was something that his daughters could and should inherit.

After Am Yisrael are saved at the Red Sea, Miriam and all the Jewish women take out drums and sing praise to Hashem. Why don’t the men play the drums? The Midrash answers that only the women believed that they were leaving Egypt for good. Only they brought along drums. Forty years later, the women still understand what the men do not: Hashem took us out of Egypt in order to settle the Land of Israel. Forever.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774


[1]This point is not explicitly brought by the Rebbe, but it fits in quite well with the others.

[2]The interested reader is directed to Likutei Sichos Volume 8 Page 1710 for the original and to the Gutnick Chumash for a summary in English (For Gold Coast readers, this is the brown Chumash).

[3]Two possible answers were discussed in our shiurim of Mattot 5761 and Mattot-Masa’ei 5772.

[4]The modern “Chovevei Zion” included a number of organizations that are considered the forerunners of modern political Zionism. The first “Chovevei Zion” organizations were established in 1881with the aim of furthering Jewish agricultural settlement in Israel.

[5]The Talmud calls this “Davar she’lo ba la’olam” – “Something that does not exist”.

[6]Even though 24,000 people died in a plague caused by Midianite women who were seducing Jewish men, Tzlofchad was probably too old for that kind of behavior.