Parashat Pinchas: the Daughters of Zelophehad

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There is a maxim I learned at the Leo Baeck college whose truth has sadly been borne out many times in my career as a rabbi  – “where there is a will, there is a “broyges” (a Yiddish word meaning anger/ dispute)

Inheritance can be one of the most fraught areas of family relationships.  Even the best regulated and most even tempered families can discover the pain of frustrated expectation, begin to equate inheritance with love, fall out with each other and end relationships of decades standing once a death has occurred. 

The daughters of Zelophehad were the first people in the biblical narrative to query the inevitability of inheritance, though not the first to be upset about what they did or did not receive. 

These five women feel the injustice of their father’s lack of legacy strongly, they want his name to continue into the future, and it matters to them that the physical legacy he left was to be diverted to people who were not his direct descendants, simply because of gender.  They band together and approach Moses with their case, and Moses is perplexed – what should he do in the face of this determined group of improbable heirs?  As we know, he approached God with his problem and is told that the daughters of Zelophehad speak well, they should indeed inherit their father’s estate, and his name should be allowed to be remembered. 

So they inherit, but soon, as we learn in Deuteronomy and later in the book of Joshua, limits are afterwards put upon the inheritance of daughters, the old need for land to stay within the tribe takes precedence, and the case law established by these five brave women is constrained, though not repealed.

          Inheritance is a strange phenomenon. I think of Abraham, the Ur-ancestor, who tells God that there is no point making a covenant with him because he is childless and his estate will all go to a member of his household, Eliezer of Damascus.  This text made so much more sense to me once I too became a parent – somehow life focuses more when there is a child to pass on to.  And it doesn’t really matter in what area the transmission takes place – tradition, values, wealth, family stories, family name – simply knowing that someone will take it into the next generation makes a difference. 

Yet of course there are many ways of ensuring an inheritance besides that of having a child.  Alexander Pope spoke of his books embodying his legacy. Teachers know that the impact they make on students can reverberate into the next generations, and the Talmud tells us that when a student recalls a teaching in the name of their teacher, it is as if that teacher’s lips move in the grave.  (BT Yevamot 97a)

Anyone who makes a relationship of trust with another knows that the legacy of that relationship will continue until the end of the life of the partner – and maybe even for longer.  What we do, and how we behave with other people, has a lifetime far longer than we expect or think about, the impact of our actions resonates for far longer than we can imagine.

          Inheritance is a strange phenomenon.  It is one of the defining things to give meaning to our lives and at the same time can rupture our connection with the future and the past if not properly organised.  It is something we would do well to consider deeply, to make serious plans about, and to consider the impact and the consequences of what it is we bequeath to the world as a result of our life.

          We are used to the idea of making wills – documents which record what we want to happen to our possessions after our death.  Many of us have made a will and have found that contrary to superstition the making of a will has not somehow brought about our untimely demise. 

But there is more to think about than who gets the jewellery and who gets the house and car. Inheritance is far bigger than possessions – it is, as the daughters of Zelophehad so rightly recognised, what we bequeath about with how we lived our lives and how what we learned or made sense of is transported into the world where we no longer will be. 

There is in Judaism the tradition of making a regular and updated ethical will. The idea is simple yet so important – besides worrying about who gets what of our material possessions, we spend the time thinking about what values we want to transmit, what lessons we have learned that we want our chosen beneficiaries to understand, what was really of importance in our life that we want not to be lost along with the trivia.  It is a valuable exercise, to create an ethical will, in which we put down in black and white what really has mattered to us, be it simple good behaviour or the imperative to tzedakah; be it the need for the discipline of a prayer life, or the permission to doubt God as much as one likes, as long as you still engage in the doubt. 

There is a powerful tradition of writing the personal ethical will as part of the preparation for the High Holy Days – in other words to begin to do so at this time of year, as we take stock of our lived life and try to make judgements about it, and create a framework for the future in order to live a life more in harmony with what is important to us. 

It gives us the space to think about ourselves. Not simply as amassers of material goods, nor as people who just get on with life without much thought for any deeper purpose than to live well enough and be successful and good enough – but as human beings who consider that our lives must have meaning and that that meaning is something to be nourished and cherished and transmitted into the future. 

I heartily recommend that you consider what it is you want your legacy to be. I recommend that you not only make a will, but that you tell your children what that will contains, so that you minimise the broyges after your departure from the scene. 

I also recommend that you consider what you want your spiritual legacy to be – not something unattainable or perfect and not something that you yourself don’t actually manage to do – but that you distil your values, your belief system, your sense of who you are and why you exist, and write on a plain sheet of A4 some of the truths you have learned which have sustained you on your journey through life, and which you would like to project through your nearest and dearest into the future.

What will your legacy be?

Will it be one of infighting for your possessions, of indifference to your existence on this world?

 Of minor irritations or major frustrations? 

Will your legacy be framed in such a way that people will recognise your contribution to the world, or will it simply be a dividing up of the goods?

I have always been so impressed with Zelophehad and with his daughters.  What he owned is irrelevant to me, that his name continued is one of indifference, but the fact that he and his wife bred 5 such superb daughters, who had confidence and tact, who held together to fight for what they felt to be right – that is a legacy to be proud of, an inheritance for which he – and his wife – deserve to be remembered.

         

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