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  • Writer's pictureGabbai

Matot / Masei – Limiting Options

Previously we discussed the daughters of Tzelofechad, exposing the virtues that drove their demand for inheritance. At the very end of the book of Numbers the Torah revisits the story of these ladies, but now they are the object rather than the subject of the narrative. This time it was the leaders of the tribe of Menashe who came to Moses. Tzelofechad had been a member of their tribe, and his portion of land, which was now allocated to his daughters, was within their tribal territory. They anticipated that these daughters of Tzelophechad would be courted by many eligible men. The chances that they would marry within the tribe were 1:12. This presented a problem. While these women were slated to receive their father’s land, their children, who would identify with their fathers’ tribes, would subsequently inherit the land. Unless they married exclusively men from the tribe of Menashe, the land would be lost permanently to the tribe of Menashe.

Moses then delivered God’s instructions in response to this petition. “…rightly does the the tribe of the sons of Joseph speak. This is the matter the Lord has commanded the daughters of Tzelofechad, saying, let them be wives to whomever is good in their eyes, but only to the family of their father’s tribe shall they become wives.” (Numbers 36:5-6)

A special marriage limitation was put into place for that generation, affecting all women who were heirs to territory in the Promised Land. In order that the integrity of the tribal territories be maintained during that first distribution all such women were restricted to marry within their tribes, No land would thus be lost to its tribe of origin through inheritance. These instructions, however, applied exclusively to that generation. Women who inherited lands in subsequent generations were free to choose partners from other tribes despite the possible loss of land to their respective tribes. The integrity of tribal territory was only to be strictly maintained during the initial distribution.

In fact, the lifting of that restriction after the distribution of the land was a cause for great celebration. The 15th of Av is known in our tradition as a time of rejoicing. The Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) states that on this day the tribes were permitted to intermarry one with the other. Although the restriction on such an “intermarriage” limited only those instances where a woman inherited land, the limitation was seen as a compromise to the unity of the nation. Therefore, when this restriction was abolished, allowing absolute freedom to intermingle, there was cause for celebration since now nothing stood in the way of Israel’s complete unity.

The Talmud (B”B 120a) discusses the commandment to these women, noting an apparent contradition in the verse. On the one hand it states, “let them be wives to whomever is good in their eyes,” while immediately afterward the verse limits them, “but only to the family of their father’s tribe shall they become wives.” What are we to make of this verse? Are they indeed allowed to marry anyone they choose, or are they restricted to marry within their tribe?

Rav Yehuda teaches in the name of Shmuel that the daughters of Tzelofechad were indeed allowed to marry men of their choice. The caveat to marry within their father’s tribe was merely a suggestion, an urging that they preserve the integrity of Menashe’s territory. Moses thus advised them (under God’s instruction) that it would be preferable to marry men from Menashe.

An interesting point, which is outside the scope of this discussion, is that the other women who were in similar positions did not gain the license to choose any man they wanted, as did the daughters of Tzelofechad. Other women who inherited land were restricted by law to marry within their tribe. Only these five women, perhaps because of their extraordinary qualities, were given freedom to marry even outside their tribe.

I saw a quote from Nathan Scharansky’s book, Fear No Evil, written by the Soviet prisoner of Zion who rose to Israeli leadership in the Knesset and later in the Jewish Agency. Coming from the Soviet Union, deprived of so many of the commodities we enjoy in our lands of free commerce, Scharansky was overwhelmed by the sheer variety beckoning to him. He writes that he looked through the shop windows, seeing tens of cheese types available for purchase. Many types of shiny fruit and a whole range of juices sparkled with appeal. There were vegetables which he had never seen or heard of while in Soviet Russia. Coming from years of solitary confinement, where he had lived with simple decisions everyday of black and white, yes or no, he was now swimming in a sea of options with no lifeguard in sight. He writes of waking in the morning and having to choose whether to drink tea or coffee. Does he want sugar and milk with his drink? Which newspaper should he read – or should he read at all? Should he spend the morning visiting friends, which friends should he visit, etc. Under the KGB he had not dealt with such challenges.

Scharansky points out that people are more likely to make rational decisions when their range of choices is limited. When we are confronted with boundless options we become confused, and under such circumstances we are less likely to make a truly educated decision. That is where advertising controls the market. We make impulsive choices because we are not equipped to be selective when the selection is so broad. Marketers then make our decision for us.

Moses informed the daughters of Tzelofechad that they were free to marry into any tribe. The entire nation of Israel was at their feet. Many thousands of eligible men were on their tinder accounts, to be swiped to the right or the left. But who could swim in such floodwaters of options? Moses thus gave them sound advice – limit your options so that you can make a more rational decision. They were advised to limit themselves to less than ten percent of the market so that they could deal with the choices.

Scharansky’s truism extends beyond fruits and vegetables. The stark contrast between his early life imprisoned by the KGB and his later life in a liberal democracy gave him a unique understanding of the need for boundaries in order to practice freedom. Freedom cannot be expressed in an unrestrained, unlimited society. True freedom can only be exercised when it is anchored to defined parameters.

When the nation of Israel experienced the revelation at Mt. Sinai they were given the Torah whose words were “charut al haluchot,” etched upon the tablets. (Ex. 32:16) The Midrash in Tana D’vei Eliyahu notes that we must slightly change the pronunciation to understand a lesson the Torah is conveying. Instead of reading charut al haluchot we must read cheirut al haluchot. Rather than etched upon the tablets, it reads freedom upon the tablets. No one is truly free, the Midrash teaches, unless one in engaged with Torah. The Torah limits our choices, but in doing so it defines our options more narrowly, enabling us to make conscious and deliberate decisions, thus living lives full of meaning and intent.

Scharansky learned this lesson from elsewhere, but its source predated Scharansky by thousands of years. Without defined boundaries, without setting limits to freedom, freedom cannot be exercised. The myriad choices in fact remove the ability to choose wisely. The lack of limitation detracts from, rather than adds to, our opportunities. A young person seeking to train and subsequently embark on a career is faced with an unending onslaught of directions a modern career can take. Thousands of different businesses exist today. There are all types of trades and crafts, arts and services. Sales and marketing, management and administration, teaching, consulting, IT, engineering. In one field alone one can develop expertise in one of many different specialties. A good career counselor can help expose the strengths and inclinations of a person, thus filtering through the vast sea of careers, narrowing the options down to a manageable number, a number in which freedom of choice can be realistically expressed.

The cry “Freedom or death,” demands an understanding of the application of liberty. Having no restraints can certainly make one free, but in order to use that freedom, in order to put it into real practice, limits need to be imposed. Yes, the daughters of Tzelofechad were given the freedom of marrying any man, but they were wisely advised to limit their selection, not only to preserve the integrity of Menashe’s territory, but to enhance the decision process for making their own choices.

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