Story 1: The spies return with a bad report of the Promised Land. Many Israelites subsequently become despondent, beset with the knowledge that they would wander in the wilderness for the next forty years. ‘What’s the point of keeping all these commandments?’ they think to themselves. Sure enough, on Shabbat, one fellow emerges brazenly from the camp to collect firewood. Moshe is beside himself, not knowing how to deal with this public desecrator. He imprisons the man and awaits God’s instructions. The Divine word comes forth: the man is to be executed.
Story 2: Forty years later, Moshe is dividing up the Promised Land amongst the 12 Tribes of Israel and the specific families. Portions would be allotted on the basis of the male heads of each household. Five young women, the daughters of Zelophehad, suddenly appear before Moshe with a legal challenge. Their father is no longer alive and he left no sons. What would be the fate of their family portion? Once again, Moshe is unable to respond and turns to God for guidance. The Divine word comes forth: these women would inherit their tribal lot.
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מְקוֹשֵׁשׁ זֶה צְלָפְחָד, וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר: ״וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ וְגוֹ׳״, וּלְהַלָּן הוּא אוֹמֵר: ״אָבִינוּ מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר״, מַה לְּהַלָּן צְלָפְחָד, אַף כָּאן צְלָפְחָד — דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא.
The wood gatherer mentioned in the Torah was Zelophehad, and it says: “And the children of Israel were in the desert and they found a man (gathering wood on the day of Shabbat)”, and below it is stated: “Our father died in the desert (and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but he died of his own sin, and he had no sons)”. Just as below the man in the desert is Zelophehad, so too, here, he is Zelophehad; this is the statement of Rabbi Akiva.
Imagine how the daughters of Zelophehad must have felt after their father was caught chopping wood on Shabbat. Prior to his sin, the girls might have felt they were living in a patriarchal society, and consequently particularly vulnerable. They had no brothers to protect them. Just like the daughters of Yitro who were taunted and maltreated each day at the well, life in ancient times wasn’t always the kindest to those without male protectors.
And now, to add insult to injury, their father had managed to get himself executed for flagrantly violating Shabbat. Their fortune at the proverbial well certainly did not improve at that point. Having a father that was killed for his sins could hardly have helped their shidduch prospects. Previously, they had been vulnerable on account of their personal circumstances. Now they had become a public pariah. Mere walking down the street would have elicited finger-pointing and jeers from people they had never before encountered.
Dealt such a hand, many people would continue in a downward direction, their lives spiraling out of control. In today’s society, such individuals would be forgiven for turning to a life of debasement and self-harm.
But not the daughters of Zelophehad. They seized the moment, capitalizing on the family’s notoriety to change history for the better. They took their lemons and made lemonade. When Moshe heard they wanted an audience with him, they weren’t just random names seeking a piece out of his busy schedule. He was well acquainted with the family. Instead of hanging their heads in shame and blaming their poor achievements in life on their father’s iniquities, they chose to transform their misfortune into prosperity. They could have gone through life as victims, but they chose to be victors. Rather than disappearing into historical oblivion, they earned themselves an eternal mention in the Torah – multiple mentions, in fact – and the distinction of adulation and glorification by aspiring female leaders, in particular, for evermore.
You may have had an awful upbringing. You might have experienced terrible relationship woes. Perhaps you were made redundant from work, through no fault of your own. You could go through life feeling sorry for yourself. You could be bitter towards Heaven and those around you. And nobody would fault you for harboring such an attitude towards the world. You’ve been dealt a hard blow and it’s not for anyone to judge.
Or you could do what the daughters of Zelophehad did. They decided that they weren’t going to let life get them down. They were determined to be the masters of their own destiny. They maintained their faith that God doesn’t visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, unless they choose to follow the ill-fated path of their forebears. They believed that God had a plan for them that was greater than anything they might have achieved had their lives not taken a strange, and unfortunate, turn.
If life appears to have been unkind to you, instead of asking yourself, ‘How can I survive despite my challenges?’, ask yourself, ‘How can I thrive on account of my challenges?’ When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, he didn’t descend into hopelessness, he chose to overcome his challenges with hard work and determination. It was during that period that he developed Pixar, which was later purchased by Disney for billions of dollars. His greatest downfall became his greatest windfall.
Your difficult upbringing might have taught you how to be an extraordinarily loving parent. While others take relationships for granted to the detriment of their spouses and children, your experience may have taught you to cherish every moment. While others are eating dinner in front of their screens, you are utilizing every moment to build strong, enduring relationships with your children.
Maybe redundancy is a nudge from Heaven to start your own business. You would never have achieved financial independence working for someone else. Those entrepreneurial dreams and aspirations you’ve always nurtured at the back of your mind could never have come to fruition while you were busy making someone else rich. Now that the pink-slip has appeared out of the blue, it’s a signal that greener pastures are ready and beckoning.
To paraphrase boxing champion, Jersey Joe Walcott, the harder you fall, the bigger you can be. God creates everything in this world in equilibrium. As Newton would say: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The greater your challenges, the greater your opportunities. May you react to the negative forces of this world by outshining those who have never experienced hardship and suffering in their lives!