When people are complimented, there is often a reflex to deflect and negate. “No, it was really nothing” or “Oh, stop it—you did a ton,” or even “Are you serious? I messed up in…” Researchers wrote in Harvard Business Review that compliments make significant positive impacts, often more than the giver expects. Yet, in a 2020 survey of 400 people, 70% of respondents “associated feelings of embarrassment or discomfort with recognition or receiving a compliment,” Christopher Littlefield writes, also in HBR. The discrepancy appears to reflect how effectively individuals can accept compliments, but beneath the numbers lies a more problematic concern that, when addressed, can reap high rewards.
Weeks ago, we read Parshat Korach. There, Korach and his conspirers sought to rebel against Moshe and Aharon, claiming that “all the people are holy,” so the two brothers should not lead the people. In Parshat Pinchas, we witness what, in essence, seems to harness the same rebellious spirit as Korach. Yet the Torah records it as something entirely different.
Parshat Pinchas contains a large section apportioning the Land of Israel to the various tribes according to their size. The law noted that land inheritance passed from father to son. One man who died, Tzelophchad, had “no sons, only daughters: Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milcah, and Tirzah” (Bamidbar 26:33). Seeing the situation as unjust, the five women approached Moshe with their case: “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction, which banded together against Hashem. 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). One would expect them to meet a similar fate as Korach—who are they to contravene divine law?
Instead, Moshe brings their case to God. Not only does God grant their request, but He institutes that, should a father have no sons, his daughters will inherit the land. Moreover, Masechet Sanhedrin 8a deems their actions so laudable that the Torah attributed this new law through them. It almost seems unfair. Why would Tzelophchad’s daughters, who sought to change standing law, be treated differently than Korach and co, who also sought to change standing law?
The answer lies in their mechanisms of change.
Or HaChaim reads into the narrative that the women consulted among themselves before presenting their argument, knowing they had a strong case. Still, they approached Moshe with respect and humility. Korach, in contrast, acted solely with antagonism. Indeed, the Torah begins his downfall writing that he “took,” an act of aggression and entitlement. Noticeably, Tzelophchad’s daughters never make such demands. They request and ask for Moshe to “give” their portion, not threatening to “take” it.
Therein lies the central difference between Korach and the women: Whereas he sought to attack, they sought to consult; whereas he sought to demand, they sought to discuss; whereas he sought to take, they sought to receive. Taking is one party seizing something by their own authority: There is a taker and a target. Receiving is two parties practicing the art of relationships: There is a giver and a receiver. Tzelophchad’s daughters were prepared to receive, so Hashem gave.
Compliments embody receiving in its beautiful form. Both people feel loved and feel seen. For that reason, Kabbalah teaches that life is all about receiving—love, blessings, happiness, God’s presence. The gifts of life cannot be taken. They can only be received, from one to another.