Drash on Parashat Pinkhas
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Center for Progressive Judaism
Although it takes its name from Pinkhas, Aaron’s grandson, himself also a priest, this portion actually starts with the conclusion of his story, which came at the end of the previous portion, Balak. There, Pinkhas publicly speared an Israelite man flagrantly whoring with a Midianite woman. In so doing, Pinkhas apparently fulfilled God’s instruction, and managed to bring the Israelites to their senses, and a terrible plague raging against them to an end.
So this portion starts with his reward – difficult as the entire story may be for us, who believe plagues are challenging natural events but not supernatural punishment! According to our story, God grants Pinkhas a ‘pact of friendship’ and that his descendants will inherit the priesthood for all time (though actually all of Aaron’s male descendants inherited the hereditary priesthood).
Professor of Family Medicine at Ben Gurion University Liubov Ben-Nun has researched what these biblical plagues may have been. He concludes that the previous one, after the Korakh uprising, where 14,700 Israelites died, was most probably smallpox.
In the devastating plague after being led astray by the Midiante women, which concludes in this portion (Numbers 25:19), and in which some 24,000 Israelites died, Professor Ben-Nun says it may also have been smallpox, or one of four other possibilities, but there is not enough information to be sure.
Whatever had been the cause, a new census was now needed to reassess the readiness for battle. The Midianites could attack at any time and the Israelites would have to be ready. A further reason is, perhaps, to reassure the survivors, to divide up the land they are soon to enter and to apportion it to the tribes according to their remaining numbers. The census results are recorded from 25:5 to 51, concluding with a total of 601,730 Israelite men – though as usual this does not include the Levites who did not go out to fight. They are listed after – there are 23,000 of them, though counted from one month old, not from fighting age. With the exception of Joshah and Caleb, the two scouts who believed that, with God’s help, the people could go up and conquer the land, we are told that not one of the names listed was on the original record of those who left Egypt, all of who had died during the intervening period, as God had decreed.
In the middle of the census listing is a note that Zelofakhad of the tribe of Manasheh had no sons – only daughters – and it names all five of them (25:33). At a time when women are commonly unnamed if not entirely invisible - for example the rest of the census is only the Israelite males – it is noteworthy that Makhla, Noa, Khogla, Milka and Tirtza are each listed – and even more unusual that, as their story is told after the census, they are each named a second time. This is not because of some individual action they have taken or something that has happened to them, but because they worked together as a group, supporting each other in their claim for justice. Together they came before Moses and the entire assembly (26:2) and pleaded that their father’s name not be lost from history. Each time we come to this section I am struck by it – not only because of the courage of these strong and courageous women in a male-dominated world, but also because it is such a great example of developing law, of ‘case-history’. Surely we have here the record of a situation that must really have arisen? They accept the long-established tradition that the inheritance passes through the male descendants. They ask only that, in rare cases like theirs, when there are only female descendants, they should be allowed to inherit, to maintain the family name.
Moses doesn’t know what to say. So he brings their case before God (26:5). The Hebrew text is interesting here – the scribal tradition is to enlarge the ‘nun’ of ‘mishpataN’ – ‘their case’ – in Hebrew the ‘their’ is gendered and indicates feminine plural, as opposed to the far more common ‘mishpataM’ which is masculine plural. Such a scribal device might be likened to a highlighter pen in the text – ‘look… it is a WOMEN’s case being taken before God!’. In my opinion, ‘taking a case before God’ really means Moses goes somewhere quiet and private and considers existing law and precedents and plays out all the pros and cons as a judge would sit and consider a case. If we believe God gave us learning, experience and intelligence, then this is the process by which we can best determine ‘God’s will’. And the conclusion is ‘Their case is correct (‘ken’). Transfer their father’s holding to them’ (26:7). However, in deliberating it, God (or Moses!) goes on several further steps. First, this case leads to a general law: ‘If a person dies with a son, then the inheritance passes to the daughter’ (26:8). But he also asks the question ‘And what if there is no daughter either?’ and concludes that the inheritance then goes to his brothers – and if he also has no brothers, then to his paternal uncles – and failing that, to his nearest relative. So Moses conveys these rulings to the Israelites.
What makes this example of case-law in action all the more compelling for me falls not in Pinkhas but two parshiotlater, at the end of Masei, where the affected family of Manasheh appeal the decision. ‘If they marry into another tribe, then they’ll take their inheritance with them and our tribe will lose out to that one’, they argue. And Moses says ‘They are correct (‘ken’ again). So daughters who inherit may marry anyone they wish – as long as they are from their father’s tribe, but no inheritance may pass to another tribe’ (36:5-9). Then all five women, Makhla, Tirtza, Khogla, Milka and Noa, are named for a third time (perhaps in the order they got married) and we are told that they married their cousins, thus keeping the inheritance in the tribe.
So in this extended story, we have a victory for women’s rights, let’s say a big step forward, though still nothing like equality – and then a step back. In this year when we celebrate 50 years of regular women’s ordination (though we also acknowledge the ordination of Rabbi Regina Yonas in Berlin in 1935), we should acknowledge that in every area, progress is halting, and there are frequent reverses, but overall we should draw hope that we are indeed moving in the right direction in brining what we fervently believe to be ‘God’s will’ to our world through the application of our ‘God-given’ learning, intelligence and experience!