Pinchas – Wonderwomen
In Parshat Pinchas we find a story about women. The five daughters of Tzelofechad approached Moses to petition him for their father’s portion in the Promised Land. The full Torah rules of inheritance had yet not been revealed, and it was assumed only sons inherited their fathers, just as common law of all other societies in that era dictated. These daughters of the late Tzelofechad wished to receive their father’s portion of the land so that they could maintain the family estate and have a part of Israel’s future.
Moses was caught flat-footed. He didn’t know the answer and he turned to the Lord for instruction. God relayed that the request was legitimate, and the complete rulings of inheritance were subsequently instructed, including the inheritance rights of these daughters.
If we may ask an inappropriate question, what drove these women to seek a court ruling? Were they not intimidated to approach Moses, the great leader of Israel, to demand a simple piece of property? After all, it was not as if they would truly lose out. Surely these ladies would marry and partner in their husband’s estate, raising a family which would continue their legacies on that estate. It appears that they were opportunists, seeing a vacancy of ownership regarding the piece of land that their father would have received. They jumped on the opportunity, proclaiming to be heirs to the estate.
The story of Ruth, which always rises in popularity around Shavuot time, contains lessons for all time, for every month and every day. This is another story about women, in fact it is exclusively about women. The men in the story of Ruth are almost incidental, merely part of the setting. A wealthy family from Beth Lehem leaves Israel during a protracted famine, apparently because of the pressures placed upon them to provide for the multitudes. Naomi seems reluctant, but she goes along with her husband and two sons. Naomi’s husband dies and her two sons marry Moabite princesses from the nobility of the land. Her two sons perish as well, and Naomi is bereft of everything. She has no family, no money, only the company of her two Moabite daughters in law, who insist on joining her upon her return to her people. Ruth and Orpah pack their bags and set off with Naomi, despite her objections. Naomi does not see a future for her daughters in law with her, and she urges them to return home where they can rebuild their lives. Eventually Orpah relents and returns home. Ruth, however, refuses to leave Naomi, and the two travel together, back to Naomi’s former community.
The story is familiar. Naomi cleverly arranges for Ruth to be taken under the wing of Boaz, and they have a child who becomes the grandfather of David, the future king of Israel. Orpah, on the other hand, has a fling with a Philistine man, and the child born therefrom is the grandfather of the famous Goliath. The two princesses split ways early in their life, but their descendants meet on the battlefield to settle an old score.
Why is it that Ruth stubbornly insisted on sticking with Naomi while Orpah followed Naomi’s instructions to return home? The split was fateful, and it defined the destinies of both families. But what led to the difference of paths they took?
Rabbi Berel Wein explains why the chosen paths of Ruth and Orpah deviated one from the other, resulting in drastically different destinies. The answer lies in the chosen words of the verses. In all of Tanakh, every word is heavy with meaning and insinuation, conveying layers of understanding. “And they raised their voices and wept again; then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth cleaved unto her.” (Ruth 1:14)
Orpah’s love of Naomi is expressed here with a kiss. A kiss reflects sentiment. We kiss when we feel connected emotionally to another person, be it our children or spouse. Orpah’s connection to Naomi was skin deep, purely sentimental, expressed in this kiss. When push came to shove, when Naomi had nothing else to offer her, when Naomi’s path took a direction which held no benefit for Orpah, she left. Ruth, on the other hand, was connected to Naomi in a deeper way. She “cleaved unto her.” Her relationship to Naomi was not merely sentimental, it was a commitment. She would remain with Naomi through hell and high water. She would go where Naomi goes, sleep where she sleeps. She would accompany Naomi all the way home “and there be buried,” expressing with these words the ultimate devotion, tying her destiny with Naomi’s.
This was the type of commitment expressed by the daughters of Tzelophechad. They were in it for the long haul. The 17th century Rabbi Ephraim Lunschitz, in his Keli Yakar commentary, notes that the two major sins of the wilderness did not include the women. The two most egregious sins were the construction of the Golden Calf and the rejection of the Promised Land following the report of the spies. Both of these tragic episodes involved only the men of Israel. Rabbi Lunschitz graphically describes the shortcomings of the men, and their weakness for self-gratification which drove them to failure in both instances. These weaknesses were not present among the women of Israel. The pure-hearted daughters of Israel did not waver in their fidelity to the Lord, and they were steadfast in their commitment to entering the Promised Land, where they could serve God with loyalty and modesty.
The daughters of Tzelofachad were not merely seeking riches and independent land-ownership. Opportunists they were, but not out of greed. Committed as they were to the destiny of Israel, they understood the special quality of the land God had promised their nation. The untimely death of their father, who had no sons to carry on the family name and estate, prompted them to mobilize in order to establish their families with a portion in the eternity of the land of Israel. Their love for the home God had promised their people surpassed the commitment of the menfolk, and they petitioned Moses so that they would not lose this precious opportunity to become builders of a nation.
The city of Hebron always had a Jewish presence. Caleb, one of the scouts, passed by Hebron during the reconnaissance of the Promised Land, and David first established his reign in that city a few hundred years later. For over 2000 years Jews maintained a presence in that city, near the holy site where our Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried. In 1929 67 Yeshiva students were killed by Arabs who were incited by rumours that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount. This brought an end to Jewish presence in Hebron for the first time in many centuries. A few Jews returned, but they were subsequently evacuated in 1936 during the Arab revolt. The city remained Judenrein for three decades, until 1967. While Jews resumed visiting the city and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, they were not permitted to settle in the city due to Arab resistance. A few families, however, were determined to re-establish Jewish presence in Hebron. In 1980 15 Jewish women, along with their 30 children, barricaded themselves in Beit Hadassah, the abandoned building which had formerly housed the Jewish hospital in Hebron. The government did not believe these women would last more than a few days without their husbands, so they let them be, and instructed the army not to allow their husbands to join them. They lived without electricity and running water, in the worst of conditions, but they would not leave. They knew that if they left they would not be allowed back, and there would be no Jewish settlement in Hebron. Their husbands, having prayed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs on Friday night, came each week to sing eishet chayil (A woman of valor) outside the windows, expressing their admiration and support for their wives. Due to the efforts of these stalwart women the government eventually relented, allowing limited Jewish settlement in Hebron. Today there are over 800 Jewish residents living in this city, a population whose fierce commitment to a land they love is inspirational. One of those pioneering women, Sarah Nachshon, has 10 children and 70 grandchildren, and many tour guides bring their groups to meet her as part of their Hebron visit. It is through such visits that people can understand that the Jewish heritage in Hebron has nothing to do with UNESCO’s designation. It has everything to do with a commitment whose roots date back thousands of years, a commitment which produces dedication and sacrifice.
Women like Ruth, like the daughters of Tzelofachad and like Sarah Nachshon, have shown us what it means to be committed to our faith. They have been the force which fed our nation with the inspiration in every generation, and they are the cause behind every Jewish story of success. These are the true Wonderwomen. Biz’chut nashim tzidkaniyot, in the merit of righteous women.