‘Va’tikrav’nah b’not Zelophehad’ – the daughters of Zelophehad approached …. so begins one of the most intriguing stories to take place in the wilderness, a story where the bones of the developing society are laid bare for us to see, a rare narrative of the evolution of the legal code, and of the organising principles of our ancestral community. And how much richer and more rewarding a text than we might imagine – it begins with this proactive and dynamic move – the daughters of Zelophehad, a man whom we have never heard of up until now, a man who is distinguished at this point only through his death – approach Moses and demand what they see to be their, and their father’s right – inheritance of land for them, and continuation of name and memory for him.
The very first word on the story is unusual – the feminine plural form of any verb is a rarity in biblical Hebrew grammar, which defaults into the masculine with even a hint of testosterone, however many women there are involved. And this is an active verb – the action of drawing close to another, used routinely in the search for God with the ritual of korbanut – of offering something precious to God as a sacrifice. The verb one might expect – of simply coming to speak to Moses, is rejected in favour of injecting a sense of closeness – even of implying relationship. These are no supplicant outsiders, but people whose perception of themselves is of being at the core of the community, who are able to treat Moses with proper respect but without needing to beg.
Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah are clearly of interest to the biblical narrator – not only are all their names recorded, but in the book of Joshua they appear again – and once again all the names are listed – to demand that what God had commanded Moses here in the wilderness was honoured once the people reached the land. They obviously made a huge impression in their determination to inherit the land of their father, and in their determination to work together – five women, siblings, jointly fighting for their principles and their rights. Given the terrible sibling stories in the bible – the first murder is fratricide and takes place in the very first generation to be born into the world – the relationships each of the patriarchs had with this brothers and the behaviour of Joseph’s older brothers towards him – you might think that it wasn’t even possible to get along with, let alone work with, your peer generation relatives! There is a vestige of a hint that sisters might get along as long as they weren’t interested in the same man, in the midrash on Leah and Rachel, but actively co-operating with each other for joint good – that is unique I think to these five women. Small wonder they are remembered with such particular definiteness.
Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah break the mould of sibling relationships – but they break other moulds too. Up until this point no-one has come along with their own interpretation of Torah – God has simply given out commandments, either at reaching a new geographical place or during a social crisis. At no point has anyone so much as solicited a legal opinion from God on a matter God has not yet discussed, let alone come up with their own innovation. This is something entirely new in the narrative – for someone to come to Moses with a principled resolve based on what they understand to be the right thing to do, and a clear vision of what a Godly society should do.
Rather than merely following rules which have been transmitted to them, these women are willing to innovate, to change the world in accordance with their own principles. As other women have done before them:– Sarah persuading Abraham to have a son by Hagar, Rebecca disguising the young goat as venison so as to claim the birthright blessing for her favourite son Jacob – the daughters of Zelophehad have taken matters into their own hands and changed the course of history. This is a radical shift in the development of the Jewish people. While one can make the case that since Eve in the Garden of Eden, men have tended to follow the rules which are laid down (or at best to interpret them within a narrow focus), women have brought about disjunction and change, this is the first time that the women’s behaviour has been given the imprimatur of God – ‘ Kein b’not Zelophehad dovrot – the daughters of Zelophehad speak right’ – there is divine approval for the different model of approaching the world, that of creating something new that is not connected with what was already in place, of breaking new ground because one is driven to do so by a sense of justice, of the absolute rightness of the new action.
The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is a story designed to remind us to stand up for rights, even if they are not yet perceived to be rights; it is a story to remind us that all things might be possible, even with a God who seems to have it all sorted out already, even in a wilderness where the right might seem to be too abstract or too unfulfillable to be relevant.
The daughters of Zelophehad did groundbreaking work, which emerged from their confidence in themselves and the justness of their cause, from their supportive relationship with each other, from the need to link the past with the future and identify themselves within that future. They established a legal presence and right for themselves and for all women in the future – the right to control their own economic provision. We know that later on the right was constrained to daughters who married within their own tribe, that while they achieved economic power for women they were still kept away from the more potent power of the time – that of religious decision making – at least within the public and recorded sphere, but that should not change how we view this radical model of behaviour – you still have to stand up and claim your rights and responsibilities even if you don’t immediately or easily achieve them – you need to challenge even God if necessary, to battle for what you believe to be important, to make your mark upon the world by fighting to make the world a better place.
The world hasn’t changed since the days of Machlah, Noa, Hogla, Milcah and Tirzah – it still seems that generally speaking men tend to operate by following or implementing the rules and that women work by transforming them. You only have to look at the impact women have had on the rabbinate to see that generality in action! The question we need to be asking ourselves is not ‘why is the world so unfair’ but ‘in what way will I change the world because of what I believe in, because of my own faithfully held principles?’
(Adapted from the sermon for my daughter’s batmitzvah parashat Pinchas 2000 – a true disciple of the b’not zelophechad school of women fighting for social justice. Dedicated to the formidable Charlotte Fischer)
The Book of Genesis tells the stories of a succession of families, but the thread of sibling rivalry goes through them all – from Cain and Abel the sons of Adam and Eve, through to Joseph and his older brothers. And it has to be said that the rivalry between Joseph and his siblings overshadows all the other sibling squabbles in the intensity and passion with which it is played out – the near murder and the series of betrayals. From this sidra until we end the book of Genesis, everything, – including the going down to Egypt by Jacob and his family which will lead into slavery and ultimately the redemption by God – emerges directly from this sibling struggle.
On the one side of the conflict we have Joseph, oldest son of his mother Rachel, beloved and spoiled son of his father, the dreamer of dreams. On the other side we have ten of his eleven brothers, including Judah, the oldest son of his mother Leah, the son who loves his father much more than he himself is loved. The struggle between Joseph and Judah is not only a personal one, it is ideological, and that ideology is played out in our history.
The language of Joseph’s dreams implies that he will travel far from his family’s home into the wide world outside it and live his life amongst other peoples. Joseph dreams universal dreams, and though only 17 years old he senses that his star is rising, he is destined to make his mark on history, and he is keen to go further into the world, to rise above the parochial concerns of his immediate family.
In contrast to the outward looking Joseph, Judah represents the brother who never even dreams of leaving home, nor of wandering very far from his father’s sight. Tradition tells us that he was a studious man, a conserver of traditions, a man who cared deeply for his family and his inheritance, and was not at all interested in any interchange with the world outside – indeed he actively chose to repulse any attempts to ally his family with other groupings.
So which of these streams, the inward Judah or the outward Joseph, represents authentic Judaism?
The truth is that both are, and that both are needed to form the balance that makes Judaism the firmly grounded yet dynamic and responsive religion that it is. Our calendar contains festivals that are particularistic and festivals that are universalistic, our prayer books contain prayers that are particularistic and prayers that are universalistic. Judaism even recognises the possibility of two messiahs – one from the line of Joseph and one from the line of Judah (the House of David) because it understands and acknowledges both aspects of existence – the need to remain rooted in traditions and texts as well as the burning need to reach outwards and upwards – towards other societies and peoples, towards the stars.
Both aspects of Judaism are authentic and both are needed. Our texts and our historical narrative tell us that again and again. The problem we face is that in our day the polarisation between the two is again very strong: part of the Jewish world is increasingly internal, drawing stronger and stronger boundaries against modernity, and part of the Jewish world is choosing to be porous and open to the point of apparent assimilation. We need each other and we need the different ways to be Jewish, and as Jacob and Judah eventually do – but not yet in this sidra – we need to honour each other’s difference and recognise that we are and always will be family.
The book of Genesis comes to a close with this sidra, and many of the themes within it are addressed, if not resolved.
The stories of sibling rivalry which began in the very first family with the tension between Cain and Abel and which continue down through the patriarchal enerations finally come to some sort of resolution, with Joseph choosing not to use his power over his brothers to hurt them, as even after all these years they fear he still might. His sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, also do not argue with each other, even when the younger is given special treatment by their grandfather Jacob.
The themes of blessing – in particular the special blessings from father to son, are also addressed: firstly in the blessing by Jacob of Joseph’s two children and the deliberate switching by the bless-er to give the younger one the more advantageous blessing. Somehow when there is no betrayal or rivalry between the bless-ees this is seen as a kind of concluding of the story of dysfunctional sibling relationship, though of course it does leave room for the jealousy to break out once more in the future. But while Joseph protests, his sons do not and sibling rivalry is not a particular theme of the later books of Torah.
Blessings and the terrible burdens that can accompany them are also made explicit in the way that Jacob speaks to his sons on his deathbed– Reuben is as unstable as water, Shimon and Levi given to violence, Judah has the vigour and nobility of a lion, Zebulun would have a favourable territory with good coastline, Issachar is a large boned ass – physically strong and placid, Dan will be a judge but also a wily cunning foe, Gad would be constantly raided and raiding others, Asher will be happy and rich, Naftali would be both physically graceful and eloquent of speech, Joseph would be fruitful and honourable in the face of difficulties, someone who would surpass his victimhood, Benjamin would be a ravening wolf – warlike and terrifying.
Can we say that these are blessings in any sense that we understand today? They seem to be comments on the characters of his children for them to learn from, or aspirations for them to live up to, rather than calling for the protection and support of God for them.
It also leads us to ask the question: is the expectation of our parents something that can or should shape our lives?
Many of the blessings refer to the names given to the boys at birth – Dan, Asher, Gad, Naftali and Joseph all have names which imply characteristics or aspirations. Some of the blessings refer to actions we already know about – Reuben having betrayed his father with his concubine, Shimon and Levi whose violence to the Shechemites when their prince took Dinah has caused real heartache to Jacob that it seems he cannot let go even as he lay dying. Some of the blessings seem to refer to later events that he cannot have even dreamed of. The descriptions contained in these final words have a power and a hold long after their creator has left the scene.
The deathbed scenes of Jacob and Joseph are narrated dispassionately in Torah. The point is made that both father and son are keen to be buried back in their ancestral home, not in Egypt where they are accorded so much honour. Both remember the promise that has been passed down their family, that God will remember them and will bring about their establishment upon the Land we know as Israel. They are pragmatic about their dying, passing on no material artefacts but certainly transmitting ethical imperatives to their descendants. Connection to the Land and honest evaluation of oneself along with proper thought about how one behaves in life, seem to be the two fundamental lessons they have to give their family.
Reading this final sidra in Genesis, named “Vayechi – And he lived” which primarily details the transmission of values after death, we are prompted to ask “What can we leave to our children that will resonate in their lives long after we ourselves are gone?”
One answer is the expectations we lay down for our children that they may internalise without our even knowing it – a sense of right and wrong, of honourable and ethical behaviour, of common purpose with our both our particular family and with the rest of humanity. We can teach them about God, about our history, about our connectedness to the other. We can teach them that one life is simply that – a life well lived will provide a strong link to both past and future, that there is a longer time scale than our own conscious existence. We can teach them that actions have consequences, that behaviour shapes character as much as character can shape behaviour. We can teach them that there is a great diversity in the world, and that everyone contributes something of value, be they passive or go getting, be they solid citizens or free spirits.
What is important is that we too begin to evaluate honestly our selves and the life we have lived so far, think seriously about what will be read into how we have lived, consider how we will be remembered after we are gone.
The end of a book of Torah is always a powerful reminder that endings are part of the cycle, and this particular sidra, with its emphasis on both life and death remind us to take a moment and consider. A lot of the most painful problems in the stories of the human relationships in this book are finally ironed out as people forgive, let go, learn, change. We are ready to face the next book which will take us into a different world, full of people who remember their history and people who have forgotten everything that came before. Winter is here, we are into the last month of the year and we are becoming aware of how the secular year is turning. Many of us will try to achieve some kind of closure on unfinished problems before embarking on another new year. But before we do that, there is just time to pause and to remember the stories of the early families in Genesis– Vayechi – how we live will impact on a future we can only imagine.
When Joseph meets his brothers again everything is different. He is no longer an arrogant and specially adored child taken up with visions of his own importance much to the annoyance of his older brothers. Now he truly is an important man, second only to the Pharaoh. He is no longer the dreamer – now he is the interpreter of dreams. But one thing seems to remain the same – the relationship between him and his brothers is strained and unhappy.
He recognises his brothers as soon as they come to Egypt to buy food, but he doesn’t reveal himself to them. Instead he behaves in a cruel and unusual way, acting like a stranger to them, and speaking harshly to them, asking, “Where do you come from”. He must know that they are anxious and unsettled in a strange land where they have come to buy food because of famine at home. He must know too that their father has suffered greatly in his absence and will be suffering until the rest of his sons are home. He must have known that imprisoning Shimon would cause terrible pain to his family. And that demanding for Benjamin to come to Egypt – and then keeping him – would potentially destroy his father. He must have known, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to affect him.
Why does Joseph behave in this way? Has the passage of time and the huge respect for him in Egypt not changed him? Has he not matured and let go of some of his justifiable anger towards his brothers? Does he actually believe what he will later tell his brothers, that God has arranged for him to be in Egypt and thus ensure the survival of his family? Is he deliberately humiliating and testing his brothers or is something else going on?
The Berdichever Rebbe Levi Yitzhak suggested that Joseph was actually acting in defence of his brother’s feelings – knowing that it would be a terrible humiliation for his brothers were they to learn that the man towards whom they were making obeisance and bowing with their faces to the ground was their young brother who had once dreamed that they would do precisely this. Instead of revelling in their defeat and in the reversal of their positions, Joseph chose to keep quiet and appeared to be a stranger so as not to shame them.
While this is an ingenious way of keeping the character of Joseph unblemished and righteous, it is I think a stretch too far for us. But there must be some reason why Joseph keeps his silence, and then goes on to test his siblings, and test them again.
Assuming that Levi Yitzhak was right, and Joseph was acting from compassion rather than vengeance, it may indeed be that he was protecting his brothers from knowing who was standing before them. Before they could have any kind of true and credible reconciliation, the brothers would have to understand what they had done all those years ago to Joseph and to repent – even if they thought they could no longer ask forgiveness of him. Had they known that while they were in the presence of this powerful Egyptian, that they were actually standing in the presence of Joseph, any move towards Joseph, any plea for forgiveness would seem to be insincere and made out of fear or a need for the food he could supply.
Before Joseph could let go of his own anger and pain, he needed to hear that his brothers were repentant of their behaviour towards him and that they understood that their current predicament was some recompense. His strange behaviour towards them does not have to have been vengeance, but part of the process that could lead them all to forgiveness and reconciliation. Once he could see that the brothers truly atoned for their behaviour, then he too was able to take the next step towards conciliation with them. By seeming to be harsh he was in fact allowing for an opportunity for real understanding and credibility.
We can’t know what was really in his mind, why he had not contacted his family when he became powerful in Egypt, why he dealt with his brothers in the way he did; – but we can see that the process of reconciliation is not easy nor does it require us to ignore the real pain we feel when we have been wronged or when we ourselves have wronged others.