Wise Women, Leadership, and Zealotry

As you read about and watch this week’s Torah portion, some ideas to consider:

  1. Is zealotry ever warranted? Why and why not?
  2. What do Zelophechad’s five daughters have to teach you about speaking truth to power?
  3. What do you think of Moshe’s reaction to being told he is going to die without going into Israel?

If you can remember all the way back to last week, we ended the parasha about the talking donkey (Balak) with the story of a zealot priest by the name of Pinchas who stabs to death Cozbi, the Midianite princess, and Zimri, the Israelite son of a chief in the Tribe of Simeon, while they are having sex. Pretty salacious and graphic — and an insight into the personality of Pinchas.

This week’s parasha is actually named after that very same priest, Pinchas, about whom we will say more later. For now, though, we concentrate on one of the most promising and up-beat stories of the entire Torah: the story of the five daughters of a man named Zelophechad.

Zelophechad: hard to pronounce but important to remember because of the way he might have inspired his daughters to speak truth to power. In English, you might pronounce his name Z’LOFF-HOD, the way the storyteller does in the G-dcast episode. In Hebrew, we pronounce it with a twist at the beginning, TZ’LOAF-CHOD (with a guttural ch sound for the final syllable).

The storyteller rightly zeroes in on the story of the perfectly articulated case of the five women, Mahlah, Noah, Hohglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah, the unwed daughters of Zelophechad, from the Tribe of Manasseh. The women state that they should be allowed to inherit their father’s portion of land after his death, just as would be the case if they had brothers — if Zelophechad had sons. But he didn’t, and so they come forward to Moshe/Moses to point out the inequity of this situation.

Now, here is the astounding part: Moshe presumably doesn’t know how to answer them because he brings their case forward to God. God replies,

“Rightly do the daughters of Zelophechad speak,”

and continues to amend the laws that had been previously understood concerning who may inherit land so that the tribe continues to hold onto its territory (Numbers 27: 7-9). Later, in chapter 36, we get an amendment to this law, which the storyteller points out.

This is a giant step forward for the women of the day (biblical times) and an essential message to all of us today. Namely, when something seems out of joint and plainly unfair, one must step forward to make the case for equality. Is it just coincidence that the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down this week by the Supreme Court? Hopefully, Mahlah, Noah, Hoghlah, Milkah, and Tirtzah will continue to motivate and even encourage us to bring forth arguments for equal treatment before the law to the legal authorities who have the power to change the status quo for the better.

Immediately after settling the issue of daughters being able to inherit, God tells his servant Moshe to ascend to the top of Mt. Abarim and look over the whole land that is promised to the Israelites. He is then told that he will not be allowed to enter the Land (Numbers 27: 13-14). Is Moshe shocked? He doesn’t seem to be. God gives him the reason (again, verse 14) and maybe, just maybe, Moshe realizes that his sin was sufficiently grievous, such that he merits this harsh sentence. Also, maybe Moshe understands that he is of the old generation and no longer an optimal leader.

Out of his love for the people he has shepherded all these years he asks God to appoint a successor (“so that the Lord’s community will not be like a flock without a shepherd”). God instructs him to take Joshua/Yehoshua, the son of Nun, and stand with him in front of Eleazar, the priest, in full view of the people and lay his hands upon the new leader, investing in him the power and the wisdom to lead the people into their Promised Land.

I think you might be wondering about the sin that Moshe merits. The hint comes when God says that Moshe and Aaron “rebelled against My word in the Wilderness of Zin…to SANCTIFY Me through the water” in front of the complaining masses of thirsty Israelites. God’s instruction at the time was for the two brothers to speak to the rock, making it crystal clear that it was the same God who redeemed the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt who is now slacking their thirst, bringing forth water from the rock, again saving them. Instead, Moshe and Aaron said to the Israelites, “shall we bring forth water for you?” implying that it is they who are the saviors of the people, rather than God. God knows that this people have little faith and need to be reminded of God’s miracles all the time — God needs to be sanctified and made holy at every opportunity. And in this Moshe and Aaron failed big time, and thus their punishment not to enter the Promised Land.

I said I would return to the character of Pinchas, who is a complicated figure because of his zealotry. As Moshe imagines who will lead the people after his death, one might imagine that Moshe would think that Pinchas would be the logical successor. After all, Pinchas is from the priestly clan, and has already shown himself to take leadership (when he killed Cozbi and Zimri to avert the decimation of the entire Israelite nation). In last week’s parasha, Numbers 25: 11-12, Pinchas is even granted a covenant of peace, a “brit shalom.” But… one letter of that word, shalom, the letter vov (which looks like a straight line and gives that “o” sound), is calligraphied with a break in its middle. Kind of a visual hint or reminder that true peace cannot come from zealotry. And true leaders cannot be hotheads, who take a spear in their anger, and aim to kill.

Maybe all of this runs through the mind of our leader Moshe, when he hears God tell him that the new leader will be Joshua. God may have awarded Pinchas a brit shalom, a pact of peace, but, maybe it’s not what it seems. To explore this idea, here’s another fascinating read by Shamai Leibowitz, in his blog, Pursuing Justice.

Noah and The Flood: What You Don’t Know

What to say about this Torah portion, Noah (Genesis chapters 6 – 10)? There are just so many different ways to view this narrative.  Many people like to think of the story of Noah’s Ark, the flood and the rainbow as a children’s story, and that’s fine–as long as you don’t look too closely at it.  Because once you take a closer look, you will understand that not only did all the depraved human beings drown in this cataclysm sent by God to undo all of God’s own recent creation, all of the innocent babies, children, and animals also drowned, except of course, the fish, other sea creatures, and those saved on the ark.

So, first, let’s agree that this is more than a child’s fable, and it raises disturbing questions.

For the basic outline of the story, take a look at g-dcast  for this parasha:

Who was Noah?  Was he a “righteous man” as described in chapter 6 verse 9? And what does that mean?  The rest of the phrase describing him is that he “was a righteous man IN HIS GENERATION.”  The rabbis of the Talmud debate:  does this mean Noah was absolutely pious and good, with the right moral compass or rather, that he was just a good-enough fellow, and good only in comparison with the absolutely debased human beings populating the earth at that time?  What do you think?

Then, let’s agree that this biblical story has much in common with the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian tale recorded on clay tablets dating back to at least 2000 BCE, based on some even older accounts, written in archaic poetic style, found in the geographical area of what is today modern Iraq.  Contemporary scholars believe that the biblical account fuses several traditions of near-eastern flood stories, and although there are dozens of similarities, the biblical authors have a different purpose in mind when they re-tell the story of the Flood.  Instead of warring gods on a quest for immortality, the narrative in the Hebrew Bible is an argument for a Creator who demands adherence to a universal moral code. From this story, western civilization derives something called the Noahide Laws, which seem to be a precursor to the Ten Commandments and are laws incumbent upon all people, not just the Hebrews.

Finally, Noah gets off his Ark and builds an altar to God; he is witness to the sign of the covenant (the rainbow) when God promises never to destroy creation again with a flood.  And what does he do? Plants a vineyard. And when the grapes are ripe, he gets rip-roaring drunk (chapter 9 verse 21).  Why do you suppose this is included in this iconic story?   And what do we think of the way his sons react and the consequences for the family? (verses 22-27)  This is definitely some R-rated material, not just for kids!

If you’re intrigued by the more “mature content” of this story, here are links to reading material that may catch your fancy:

Finally: here are some life lessons one could take from the Noah’s Ark story; after you read the biblical narrative, pick which lesson is meant especially for you.

  • Plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark.
  • Stay fit. When you’re 600 years old, someone may ask you to do something really big.
  • Build your future on high ground.
  • For safety’s sake, travel in pairs.
  • Speed isn’t always an advantage; the snails were on board with the cheetahs.
  • Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic, by professionals.
  • No matter the storm, when you are with God, there’s always a rainbow waiting.
  • You might be a righteous person, but someone still has to shovel the poop.
  • Remember: We’re all in the same boat.

Bereshit! Again!

On Simchat Torah this year (Tuesday Oct. 9) we finished reading the entire Five Books of Moses and rolled the Torah scroll back to the first of the Five Books, Bereshit/In the Beginning, more commonly known by its Latin name, Genesis.  This Shabbat, October 13, our parasha (weekly Torah reading) is called Shabbat Bereshit, and we start the annual reading cycle over again with Genesis chapter 1 verse 1.  I don’t know about you, but I think new beginnings are exciting in and of themselves, partly because we have an expectation that something new and surprising is going to unfold.

No matter that we may have read these verses before — in fact, we may have read them many times. And no matter that echoes of these verses have entered our lexicon and the consciousness of Western Civilization. After all, here is the biblical creation story — the poetic rendering of the way our world began. This is where we here sonorous, lofty phrases such as “Let there be Light!” This is where we meet some of the best known Bible figures: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and Noah.  Lots of us have memories of these guys from our childhood, from the comic book version of the Bible, or a beautifully rendered children’s book.

These first five chapters and the first 8 verses of chapter 6 are so chock full of interesting things — so many puzzles, so many questions, so much angst and drama and so many beautiful images — that it is really hard to focus on just one thing.  In fact, the creators of the G-dcast produced TWO renditions of this Parasha; watch both — each has different big ideas!

Chapter 1 gives us the famous creation story. But right away, in chapter 2, we get another creation story!  How does that happen? What are the differences between these two stories? Which do you like more?  Why do you suppose that the editors of the Torah kept both stories?  Chapter 3 gives us the story of the Garden of Eden, and how the two humans interacted with their new pristine environment, with each other, and with God.  In Chapter 4 we read more about this first human family, the two sons born to the first couple, and the first murder!  Chapter 5 provides the first biblical genealogy, which some folks think has lots of fascinating tidbits to chew on.  And in the first verses of Chapter 6, we get the set-up to the flood saga…

Doesn’t it seem like this should be divided into at least a month of Shabbat readings instead of all being packed into one week??

Lots of people have favorite parts in Parashat Bereshit. I happen to love verses 27 and 28 of Chapter 1:

And God created adam (human) in the Divine image,
in the image of the Divine God created It —
male and female God created them (gender sensitive translation)
God blessed them and God said to them:  “Be fruitful and increase
fill the earth and master it; rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky
and all living things that creep on the earth.”

Why?  Well, it embodies a core Jewish belief—that each human is created in the image of God, and, at the very beginning, the first human was both male and female, some mystical androgynous being that later was separated.