Masei Matot 5770 — Backlashing the Sisters

In the face of Zelophehad’s daughter’s victory comes a backlash — and not just against them.

This week is a double portion. In the aftermath of the Baal-Peor idolatry mess with the Moabite women, God mentions some rules for making vows, and how women might have their vows invalidated. After this, God tells Moses that he is to order the armies to wipe out the Moabites, and afterwards it will be time for Moses to die. The armies don’t follow orders as well as they were supposed and spare all the women and children to take as slaves. Moses, rather angrily scolds the troops for sparing the women who cased the problem in the first place, and order the execution of all males among the captives, and any woman who isn’t a virgin. After all this, the tribes of Ruben and Gad ask Moses if the conquered lands of kings Og and Bashan in Transjordan could be their inheritance, instead of the land east of the Jordan. After some haggling, the deal is made: yes the land can become the portion of Rueben, Gad, and half of Menasseh on the condition the men leave all their women and children in fortified cities, and the men enter the land as shock troops with the rest of the tribes. When the land is taken then they may return. The section ends with two and a half tribes settling this conquered land. In the second parasha read, there is a travelogue of all the places the Israelites stopped through the period of forty years of wandering, ending on the back of the Jordan not far from Jericho. The Torah then begins the process of figuring out how the land will be divided. The whole enterprise will be lead by Eleazar and Joshua. There will be princes over each tribe, who will then divide the inheritances by tribe. Since the Levite do not get a land inheritance, they instead will be given cities spaced through all the land. Six of the levitical cities, three on the east side of the Jordan, and three on the west, are to be set up as cities of refuge, places where someone who caused can legally hide if they caused an accidental death. The text ends with the objections of the elders of Menasseh concerning the inheritance of daughters.

When reading this week’s portion I had real problems getting into it. In a word, it’s rather misogynist. This didn’t seem not a complementary section for women. First, women are told that men are bound by their vows, but the vow of a woman may be overturned by the man who has power over her, such as father or husband. Secondly, the non-virgins of the Moabites were executed, but the virgins were made captives, for the “use” of the army. The last slight was a little subtler. While two tribes Gad and Rueben ask about staying on that side of the Jordan, three are granted land by Moses. The third, a part of Menasseh, just so happens to be the same part of Menasseh the Daughters of Zelophehad belong to. For those who remember last week, these are the same women who outclassed Moses in halakic debate, and even got a compliment out of God. One has to ask, was Moses trying to keep these women away from everyone else?

We find out a little more of the story.

1. And the chief fathers of the families of the sons of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near, and spoke before Moses, and before the princes, the chief fathers of the people of Israel; 2. And they said, The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for an inheritance by lot to the people of Israel; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Tzlofchad our brother to his daughters. 3. If they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then shall their inheritance be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and shall be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall it be taken from the lot of our inheritance 4. So when the jubilee of the people of Israel shall be, then shall their inheritance be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers. [Numbers 36:1-4]

This problem with inheritance is solved with the strictest ban on inter marriage: In the case a daughter inherits, then she must marry from within her own tribe only. The daughters do follow this, and marry their cousins. But note in our section (Numbers 32:39-40)

39. And the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead, and took it, and dispossessed the Amorite who was in it. 40. And Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh; and he lived in it.

Remember back in 27:1 the daughters were described as

Then came the daughters of Tzlofchad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.

Thus to bring the point so far, the daughters were not allowed to enter and live in the land of Israel. Their portion was apportioned on the east side of the Jordan, decided for them by Moses and their kinsmen, the sons of Machir, for taking the city of Gilead. They must live only there as they must marry within their own tribe, so living in Israel as a wife in another tribe was out of the question. Until the land was conquered, they were also locked up in fortified cities. If you wanted to keep the smart girls as far away from the action as possible, one couldn’t come up with a better plan.

There is another who is finding the same fate, but with a shorter ending. This week, God notes to Moses that its time to die, implying he will not set foot in the land of Israel. But very much unlike Moses the daughters do make their way into the land despite everyone’s best efforts to keep them out. We have in the text two possibilities for them to enter the land.

The first is a legal loophole. Only half of the land of Menasseh was to be Transjordan, the other half was to be in the land of Israel. Even if their inheritance were apportioned in Transjordan, they could marry family form Israel, and enter through marriage. Then there is the biblical story in Joshua, where these women show their halakic stuff. In the time of Joshua, the daughters come in front of Joshua and demand their inheritance, not from Gilead but from the land of Israel, recalling that God through Moses promised them a portion. (Joshua 17:3-6) Joshua gives each a portion of the land, along with five male descendants of Menasseh of their grandfather’s generation, for a total of ten portions in the land for Menasseh.

Yet that will be years away for them. In this portion, we seem to have a strong backlash against women, and I truly wonder if it was that Zelophehad’s daughters showed their smarts to all those men.

Their generation was far more praiseworthy than their male counterparts according to the rabbis, referring to one of the daughters whose name would become the capitol of the Northern Kingdom:

THOU ART BEAUTIFUL, O MY BELOVED, AS TIRZAH: this refers to the women of the generation of the wilderness, for Rabbi said: The women of the wilderness were virtuous and made up their minds not to give their rings for the calf. They said: ‘If the Holy One, blessed be He, could break the hard idols, how much more so the soft one! [Song of Songs Rabbah VI: 14]

The women of the wilderness refused to worship the stone idols of Egypt, and saw what God did to the Egyptian gods. They realized the God would find toppling the soft gold idol of the calf easy. In later times, The women of Jerusalem, once again resist what the men cannot, Baal-Peor, the god of the people of Moab, the people destroyed this week over the same god. There are always righteous women who don’t fall to idolatry. Not only that, but as the verse 5 of the Song of Songs notes, the daughters are the mighty flock descending from Gilead, into Israel. They reject living in Gilead, on the sidelines. Their eyes are intense on their prize, enough to make others cringe. If there is one thing to pull from the text this week, it’s the will and righteousness of these women, who stood up for what God promised them, and never took second best, like some of their kinsmen. Last week, we discussed these women as independent thinkers This week we once again looked into their story, spread out in small pieces throughout the biblical text, and their fight for their portion of land, even when others would restrict their rights.

Interspersed with the story of Zelophehad’s daughters in Torah, is the seduction of the men of Israel by the unrighteous women, the seductresses of Baal-Peor. I wonder if they might be intentionally in contrast to one another. Righteousness, strength, determination and Law, even in the most extreme conditions are what is to be praised, not idolatry and seduction. Both women and men have a choice in life, which of these paths to follow. Tirzah and her sisters are there to point us in the right direction.


Trainer, App developer. Author. Artist. Proprietor of and Host of Slice of App Pie Show

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