A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya
This week’s parsha opens after the plague punishing the Jews for letting themselves be lured into relations with Moabite women, leading to their worshiping Peor. Pinchas stopped it by killing two of the prominent actors, Zimri, a leader of the tribe of Shimon, and Kazbi bat Zur, a princess of Moav.
Rashi several times (such as in 25;15, on the words ושם האשה, and verse 18 on the words על דבר פעור) reads the Torah as stressing that the Moabites were so concerned with destroying the Jews that they lowered themselves to the point of letting princesses be used for this purpose. It would be one thing, Rashi implies, if lower class Moabite women, perhaps promiscuous anyway, were encouraged to set their sights on Jewish men.
But that they turned the daughters of their leaders into sexual tools in the war on the Jews shows an extraordinary level of hatred. The proper response to which, Rashi reads צרור in verse 17 as saying, is to hold on to our sense of their enmity; for all that many Jews had engaged in sexual and emotional relationships with them, they had to come to realize these were in fact enemies.
I would add that it is not clear that Rashi accurately gauged the Moabites’ feelings about having their princesses go after Jewish men. Especially if Moav didn’t value sexual restraint in general, it might have been insignificant to them to decide to sample Jewish men for a while. That doesn’t — to me — change the value of Rashi’s comment. The Moabite focus on destroying the Jews was such that they didn’t even pay attention to how they were degrading their own women, even the most privileged among those women, by using their sexuality as means to an end.
The Complexities of Inheritance
Later in that chapter, verses 54-56, the Torah speaks of dividing Israel among the tribes, saying larger tribes should get more, smaller should get less, but that it should be done by lottery, based on the names of the fathers of the tribes.
The Torah is not clear on how all of that is to be accomplished. Rashi’s view — which others, such as Ramban, dispute at length — seems to have been that Moshe split the Land into twelve pieces, each of an appropriate size for a particular tribe. He then enacted a lottery, in which it turned out that each plot went to the tribe it fit. Even though all should have known that was the necessary outcome, the lottery was there to prove that this was Hashem’s will as well.
Within a tribe, Rashi understands the division of shares to have mixed a count of who left Egypt with who was entering the Land. In verse 55, he gives the example of two brothers who left Egypt, one of whom had one son enter Israel, the other three. The four living men would get four shares, but those shares would then go back to their deceased fathers — the ones who left Egypt — and be divided equally, leaving the one son with two of the four shares, and the three sons to split the other two shares.
We don’t have to accept that this was what happened historically (since there are other readings of the verse) in order to wonder at Rashi’s sense of what was going on. His view wouldn’t have been fair in the ordinary sense of the word; why should the surviving son of one brother benefit from his uncle’s having had more children, at the cost of those very children?
I think Rashi would say that the distribution was to make certain points, not guarantee a fair share (after all, I think he would add, Hashem can make a small plot produce rich harvests, and limit larger plots to less). It was more important that the generation that entered Israel know that their share was partially their own, partially a legacy of the generation that left Egypt (that also explains the Torah’s ruling that any women who inherited land had to marry within their tribes, a rule that applied only to that generation; but that’s a different topic).
So that all future generations know that as well — the Land belongs to the Jewish people, by virtue both of their having left Egypt and their having entered the Land. It’s the two together that got us the Land, and therefore the two together that determine how much of that Land we got, with the fairness of the outcome left to Hashem to ensure.
Punishment or Success?
The beginning of chapter 27 tells the story of the daughters of Tzlofchad and their plea for their father’s share in the Land (because, as we’ve just seen, anyone who left Egypt was supposed to take a share; to not get his share would be an added tragedy of their father’s passing). On verse five, when Moshe brings their case to Hashem, Rashi offers two reasons for his inability to rule on this on his own.
A first option is that Hashem punished earlier arrogance of his. When Moshe appointed judges, he told them (Devarim 1;17) to bring to him any problem that was beyond them. To teach him that that was overly certain he would know the answer, he here forgot an issue and had to bring it to Hashem.
The second possibility is that the daughters of Tzlofchad earned this moment in the spotlight with their dedication to perpetuating their father’s memory. In verse seven, Rashi comments אשרי אדם שהקב”ה מודה לדבריו, fortunate is the person whom Hashem agrees to his or their words.
That second comment is actually independent of the first, of whether these women earned their place in the Torah or were given it by Moshe having misspoken. Either way, they then made a claim Hashem ratified fully, a sign of their success.
An Unrecognized Focus
In our holiday prayers, we mention the special sacrifices we would have offered on each of those holidays, a list that appears in this week’s parsha. One of them, the goat offered as a chatat as part of each of those, focuses on a very specific kind of sin.
As Rashi notes on verse fifteen, the words ושעיר עזים, all Musaf sin-offerings come to wipe away unknown instances of having defiled the Mikdash by entering when ritually impure or having offered sacrifices that were ritually impure. When we know it happened, we atone in other ways; these sacrifices are for those cases where no one knew, before or after.
We often excuse, minimize, or laugh off our unwitting sins, let alone those we don’t know about. Here, the Torah seems to make clear that part of the Jewish people’s being able to celebrate with Hashem at the Mikdash was their first wiping the slate clean on those sins that affected the Mikdash itself. Defiling that building, even if no human being knows it, still defiles the building, getting in the way of it serving its purpose of linking the Jews with their Father in Heaven.
It’s not an onerous atonement that’s necessary, but it is atonement. Because the Mikdash cannot function when it’s been defiled, regardless of whether we meant to do it or not. That’s a lesson that can be generalized to all sin, if we think about it.
Different Ways to Be Held Back
29;35 tells us that the eighth day of Sukkot should be an עצרת, a word that has some relation to being held back. Rashi offers two readings, one that it means held back from performing מלאכה, creative labor, the other being that we are held back from leaving, that offering a sacrifice to Hashem obligates us to stay overnight.
He then offers a Midrash Aggadah, that the Mussaf offerings of Sukkot were about the other nations (seventy bulls are offered over the course of the seven days of the holiday, corresponding to the seventy nations of the world), and Shmini Atseret is Hashem asking us to stay over for one private meal, the reason that only one bull and one ram is offered for that day’s Mussaf.
We can be held back with only prohibitions — don’t do work, don’t leave — or we can be held back for a positive goal, having a day alone with Hashem. In the case of Shmini Atseret, Rashi leaves room to think that it’s all of the above.