Tag Archives: Inheritance

Parshat Beha’alotecha (5774)


Numbers 8:1-12:16

Is Jewish Honor Based on Birth or Merit?

One of the most difficult things for people to grasp is the way that inherited and earned roles play-out in the Jewish life. Is one form of recognition preferable over the other? Or is there a seeming dance going on between the two and their respective roles? That is what we are going to try to explore this week.

Outgoing chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

Outgoing chief rabbi of England, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with incoming Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

This week’s parsha begins with Aharon, the Kohein Gadol – the High Priest – lighting the Menorah. I don’t want to side-track us too much, as most of us will quickly remember that this section’s Rashi commentary brings up why this is mentioned here in this part of the reading mostly about ordaining the Levites for their roles. Our rabbis tell us this is in order to highlight that this role was given to Aharon and his sons as a sign of honor.

The midrash says that Aharon was previously distressed when he saw the princes of each of the tribes present their inauguration offerings on their own.  Without the presence or help of the Levites. (Numbers chapter 11) The Levites, they were excluded from this count and thus felt distressed. In light of this feeling of being overlooked, the kindling of the Menorah – a truly great rite – it was given to Aharon, who was now the tribal head of the Levites.

After this, in the early part of the first aliyah, we have the instructions for purifying and sanctifying the Levites. At the end of this reading we see that the Levites are brought before all the entire congregation of Israel and ordained for services with physical smicha – the laying on of hands, and conferring authority. (Numbers 8:10)

Aharon, as their leader, he was to be given instructions to “lift up” the Levites and offer them as a “wave offering” on behalf of the children of Israel. (Numbers 8:11) What do we mean by this? What did he do?

It’s not like he could serve them all up on a silver platter, lifting them towards the sky. No, instead it means symbolically. He lifted them up, as one would a flag, he made a symbolic rise to the occasion through a gesture of pride and honor. And instead of offering in the normal sense – by simply waving forward animals donated to be used in the service of the Temple sacrifices – Aharon, the Levite elder, he offered his sons in perpetuity to physically perform this service.

This is the meaning of the phrase, “Veheinif Aharon et haleviim tenufah lifnei Hashem / Then Aaron shall lift up the Levites as a waving before Hashem…” (Numbers 8:11) That Aharon was to elevate his sons for service by pushing them forward, driving them (tenufah) to take their role in service to Israel and G-d.

Now let’s back up a second and remember why the Levites are not accounted for as part of the Twelve Tribes during the inauguration offerings. Normally the Levites were not called-up or recognized, being regularly snubbed in the tribal roles and inheritances. This as a consequence of collective error on the part of the Levites several times in the past, going all the way back to their tribal role in the slaughter of Shechem and the sale of Yosef haTzadik. They were disinherited in a way, so that they were never counted as a normative tribe again. As a consequence the half-tribes (such as Efraim and Menasheh) slipping into the vacancy when it was time to take count and set-up camp.

So why are they honored now? How is it that the come to take this role as spiritual leaders among the tribes of Israel? Sure Moses and Aharon are both Levites, and this does distinguish the clan. But given their disinherited role, how is it that the Levites are able to take this place of honor now as the Mishkan service takes shape?

The answer comes by exploring the second aliyah. Let us look at this span of text which address this for us:

“Following this, the Levites shall come to serve in the Tent of Meeting. You shall cleanse them and lift them as a waving.

“For they are wholly given over to Me from among the children of Israel; instead of those that open the womb all the firstborn of Israel I have taken them for Myself.

“For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine whether man or beast since the day I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt; I have sanctified them for Myself.

“And I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.”

וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָבֹאוּ הַלְוִיִּם לַעֲבֹד אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְטִהַרְתָּ אֹתָם וְהֵנַפְתָּ אֹתָם תְּנוּפָה:

כִּי נְתֻנִים נְתֻנִים הֵמָּה לִי מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת פִּטְרַת כָּל רֶחֶם בְּכוֹר כֹּל מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָקַחְתִּי אֹתָם לִי:

כִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי:

וָאֶקַּח אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Numbers 8:15-18

Our text reminds us of two facts. First off, in the general sense every firstborn male belongs to G-d. Be it human, a kosher animals, or even an ass (donkey). As it is written, “Sanctify to Me every firstborn of the children of Israel, everything that opens the womb of man and of animal.” (see Exodus 13:2)

And even more so, after G-d inflicting wrath upon the firstborn of Egypt, while sparing the Israelite firstborn sons, these sons are even more so considered sanctified to G-d. They were spared and then set apart for His service. And this is the way that it should ideally have been, with the princes of each tribes offering up for their people. The firstborn of each tribe offering sacrifices on behalf of the people of Israel.

So the firstborn are: 1) naturally sacred, and 2) supernaturally set-apart. There are two reasons why the firstborn of all Israel should be set-apart as priests.

So why is it that we don’t see that happen here? Why are the Levites elevated to this role and pushed forward for this service instead? The answer is found in our Rashi commentary:

For all the firstborn… are Mine: The firstborn are Mine by right, for I protected them among the Egyptian firstborn, and I took them for Myself-until they erred through the golden calf; so now ‘I have taken the Levites’ (v.18)”

כי לי כל בכור: שלי היו הבכורות בקו הדין, שהגנתי עליהם בין בכורי מצרים ולקחתי אותם לי עד שטעו בעגל, ועכשיו ואקח את הלוים:

Rashi for Numbers 8:17

Our midrash teaches us that during the incident of the sin of the golden calf all of the tribes were involved in worshiping it, except for the tribe of Levi. (Yoma 66b) For this reason the firstborn of each tribe were set aside, and the honor of priesthood was thus given to the Levites in perpetuity.

So lets consider this. This issue of priesthood and honor.

To being with, priesthood is a topic that most of us are out of touch with. We just don’t generally see this role filled in our daily lives. Sure in the traditional word we have them acknowledged in the giving out of aliyot – when reading the Torah. And in rare ritual cases such as the pidyon haben – the redemption of the firstborn male, born of natural birth to a Jewish mother.  (see Exodus 13:13–16, Numbers 3:45-47) All this hearkens back to that age. But for the most part, rites overseen by kohanim are rather rare today. Except on high holidays, when the Priestly Blessing is given, most of us barely recognize the kohanim in our midst.

And in progressive synagogues the roles of priesthood is often overlooked all together, having theologically moved beyond affirming Temple ritual and inherited roles. With even the Priestly Blessing today being given by rabbi or cantor.

But the awkwardness and tension between the birth and earned roles is something that many people still struggle with in light of our Jewish tradition. It is not just modern readers and progressives that have struggled with this issue. Indeed the wrestling between inherited and earned roles goes all the way back go the beginning for the nation of Israel.

Yet there is one fact that we cannot ignore. That our religion and culture emerged for a world were the right of inheritance and status was given to the firstborn. More precisely the firstborn male. In the ancient world this was the only seemingly clear and objective way to settle the issue of inheritance and status. In such a system there is seemingly few points by which to argue. Everyone remembers which is their firstborn child, so this is the one who is blessed and to whom possessions of the father’s estate are to be left to.

This cannot be ignored or understated. And just in case this point is missed, the right of firstborn is explicitly reaffirmed by the Torah. (Deuteronomy 21:17)

Inherited roles which are assigned by birth and held in perpetuity are further stressed elsewhere, not just here and now in the Torah when discussing the Levites. It is also stressed with it comes to the role of the Kohanim, distinct from that of the general Levites. It is also later shown to be the case for nobility, with kingship being passed on by right and order of birth. And of course, Jewish identity is also assigned at birth. Being passed by maternal line according to halacha. Inherited status and recognition is something that is undeniably present in our tradition.

But as I’ve previously stated, the challenging of birth status has always been part of the Hebrew-Israelite experience since the beginning. Our patriarch and namesake being Yisrael – also known by his birth-name, Yaakov. Yaakov, the same one who overcame Eisav the firstborn, for the right to be the heir and spiritual chieftain. And this is not a lone example. Such tension is similarly mirrored in Avraham Avinu’s recognition of Yitzhak over Yishmael, who was technically the first-born son. We also see this later on when the tribes are established, when Yitzhak gives inheritance to Yosef’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. There we see the tension between Yosef and Yitzhak palpably present in this incident, as the patriarch insists that the younger once again rises above the older. (see Parshat Vayechi 2012)

Our founders and leaders have challenged the natural order and risen above it, time after time again. And this is the legacy they leave to us, an inherited drive to be people who would will to smash the glass ceiling. To rise above obstacles to a place of leadership and honor, as opposed to those who gingerly ease into that seat. People who acquire their rightful place through merit and zeal, not just through mere nepotism.

When we read here in this parsha of the ordination and assignment of the Levites as priests by the congregation we can get caught-up in a narrow view of this text, and maybe even see this narrative as reaffirming the appearance of nepotism and favoritism. Until we remind ourselves the reason they are called up for this role, because of their tribal merit in avoiding the golden calf. In this light, their appointment is not to be seen as an example which reaffirms a perception of the mighty establishing their heredity. It is a story of people who come from a lowly and unlikely place to the height of honor through merit.

And in the not so far off future in this very book of Bamidbar (Numbers), we are going to see the roles shaken up once again. As Pinchas, who was not ordinarily not eligible to be High Priest, has this honor as Kohen Gadol given to him and his descendants in perpetuity. An honor given to him on account of his act of zealotry. (see Parshat Pinchas 2011) We will again see the earned role trump the inherited role.

Something to consider

To this day much of Judaism still struggles with the issues of balancing out honor and respect based on lineage, and that of showing proper recognition to those who are honorable in their own right. For which is more worthy of recognizing? Which should we lunge to honor first? The noble through heredity or the honorable in their own merit?

Even for traditional Judaism, which still recognizes the roles of the priestly lineages, there is still a seeming awkwardness. One that is seen through a philosophical and practical dance to help us maneuver the contortions we feel stretching us in this matter.


While commenting on this topic of heredity vs. merit
relating to kohanim in Parshat Tzav, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin – a Torah commentator well-known for his discussion series highlighted by the Orthodox Union – he states the following upon consideration of the way the Levites and even Pinchas shake up the roles of heredity. He observes how the shake-up is not just far-off in the past, it’s still seen present in our halachic lives:

“Even in the less dramatic realm of daily halacha, the law dictates that a sage is given precedence over a Kohen in the distribution of honors, such as leading the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 201:1–2) Many scholars maintain that such precedence would also be shown to the sage in the order of aliyot (ascension to the Torah during the synagogue service), were it not for the need to apply an objective standard in the synagogue, thereby preserving congregational harmony. (Ibid., 135:4; Arba Turim, Orach Chaim 135; Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 135; Mishna Berura 135:11–12)”

As we know, even when the roles of priestly caste are recognized, in the real world we still most often give precedent to the meritorious over the blue-blooded.

In closing, today I would like to leave you with the continuing and closing words of Rabbi Goldin for consideration. He offers us some words which are wholly appropriate for us as we come out of Shavuot – celebrating the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai:

“Perhaps, however, the greatest proof of the transcendence of earned rights over birthrights can be gleaned from the moment of our nation’s birth. As we have noted before, the national era of our people’s history begins with the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Revelation, in fact, becomes both the moment of the Jewish nation’s birth and the defining event for individual affiliation with that nation.

“Full descendants of Avraham and Sara, who choose not to leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus, disappear into the mists of history. Even further, a full Hebrew who participates in the Exodus, reaches Sinai, yet refuses to accept G-d’s law, is also lost to his people forever. Conversely, an individual who is not a Hebrew at all, yet is present at Revelation and accepts the Torah (e.g., an Egyptian who joins in the Israelite Exodus), becomes a full member of the Jewish nation. Commitment to G-d’s law, not blood relationship, is the defining factor for individual affiliation with our nation at its birth. (See Bereishit: Vayeshev 4, Approaches B, for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon and its implications.)

“The verdict of our tradition seems clear. When a choice must be made between earned role and birth role, earned role triumphs.”

Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra’

Parshat Tzav – by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin

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Parshat Yayigash (2013)


Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Are you better off than your parents were?

One of the things that I enjoy the most is listening to my grandfather tell stories. Though he is suffering from Alzheimer’s which impairs his memories, his recall of the far-off past is still intact. It is those wandering stories that always kept me enthralled hour after hour. Now after all these years of our talks I see our time together becomes less frequent, so I cherish these moments all the more. I long to hear about what he has seen and done, to give context to how my family and I came to our place and position in life. I think it’s important to hear the scale of their challenges and the measure of their toil.

How will you recount your journey? Will you look back with nostalgia or regret?

I’ll be honest with you, I often feel that the rest of my family doesn’t spend enough time taking with the grandparents about their history. And I hear the reasons why some shy away. I supposed it is easy to understand how one can be a bit intimidated by our elders often crotchety talk sometimes. In their senior repose, even the coming of good fortune can tend to be downplayed and met with a wry face.

This is how I picture the way that Yaakov Avinu reacts to his arrival in Egypt and his presentation to Pharaoh. He has been reunited with his long-lost son, and they are being granted amnesty in Egypt instead of suffering the famine of Canaan. As the night continues and Pharaoh tries to make conversation with Yaakov we see this awkward exchange. Pharaoh just asks him how old he is and we get this cranky response:

“And Yaakov said to Pharaoh

the days of my wandering

have been 130 years.

Few and bitter

have been the days of the years of my life,

and still I have not achieved

the day of the years

of the lives of my fathers

during the days of their wandering.”

| Vayomer Ya’akov el-Par’oh

| yemei shnei megurai

| shloshim ume’at shanah

| me’at vera’im

| hayu yemei shnei chaiai

| velo hisigu

| et-yemei shnei

| chaiei avotai

| bimei megureihem

Genesis 47:9

Now we must ask ourselves, what is Yaakov saying here? Is he just falling into nostalgia or is he really saying something? Is this just the ranting of a tired old man, or is he trying to relay something?

I have to start this way because in modern-speak among the young people the word nostalgia doesn’t really mean the same thing it used to. Instead of nostalgia being the glowing admiration of the past that our parents saw, for the youth of today nostalgia means being crippled by the trapping of the past. As they say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. At this point most often the brains turns off. And that’s tragic, because there is a wonderful lesson that is completely relevant to our generation which can be learned by listening to what Yaakov has to say here.

If we actually take notice we will see that Yaakov is not so much praising his past. He isn’t really rose-tinting the old-days. In fact what he says about his life is kind of striking. Here at 130 years old he says his days were “me’at ve’ra’im / few and evil.”

One one had we can look at it this way, Yaakov is 130 years old but he has not lived as long as his fathers Abraham and Isaac, who lived about 180 or so. So is he begrudging that he doesn’t seem to have the longevity of his forefathers?

Yaakov’s life is not yet over when he makes this statement, this is said upon his arrival in Egypt. Surely this was not the end of his life that he could speak which such certain remorse. Secondly, having lived 130 years he is not exactly having his days cut short. Sure, he didn’t live as long as his ancestors. But he did live beyond the normal 120 years we associate with natural life.

What some fail to recognize about this verse is that he is not talking about his life being short. He is saying hat his megurai – his sojourn, his journey, his pilgrimage has been short. His wandering has been short.

Now how can he say this? Is it not true that Yaakov spent many years on the run away from home? In fact if anything his wandering in life actually ate up a lot of his early years. His years spent with Laban in service for his wives were 14 years alone. We aren’t exactly sure how many years he spent on the run from Eisav and in his journey to return home to Canaan.

But he did have a lot of years spent in servitude after running away, we can’t ignore that. However, in the context of his youth it is said, “And Yaakov served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him but a few days, because of the love he had for her.” (see Genesis 29:20) Many years were consumed with hardship, but he didn’t get overwhelmed by them because of his passion that propelled him. In his mind those days went by quickly. He can’t be talking about the flight of his youth here.

The reason why mostly quickly jump to the conclusion that he is talking about his sojourn when he left Canaan is because those days were indeed “ra’im / bitter,” or literally evil. They were days of calamity. He was on the run for his life from his brother, he was oppressed by his uncle, he was swindled for being lovesick, and he wrestled with his nature and with the divine through an angel as well. But that doesn’t seem to be what he is talking about.

Many midrashim that bring clarity to this text actually point us back to the start of Parshat Vayeishev, which just recently passed. There we see another contrast between Yaakov and his forefathers:

“Yaakov dwelt in the land |

of his father’s sojournings, |

in the land of Canaan.” |

וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ

מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו

בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן :

Genesis 37:1

In this light we see things very different. Instead of Yaakov being the wander, we see him as the settled one. He’s made his yeshuv, his settlement. But it is his fathers that were the sojourners, they were the wanderers. As we see when it comes to the life of Avraham and even Isaac, they traveled around in their tents. They owned land, but they were not settled men. They could not be settled men because they were gerim – they were strangers, they were outsiders, they were migrants. Unlike Yaakov, they were not recognized as born there as citizens on the land and were always contended with as foreigners in the eyes of the Canaanites. This always kept them on the move. In contrast Yaakov just returned to the land that was previously settled by them and dwelt there, and lived out a pretty sedentary life until he is brought down to Egypt in this week’s parsha. He ran early on in his life, but in the end he live consecutively in one place more than his forefathers had.

And that seems to be what Yaakov is getting at. Abraham and Isaac roamed the valleys and plains of Canaan. They ran the wild, wide-open habitation they made for themselves all the days of their lives.

Yaakov returned home to Canaan find himself dwelling to maintain a legacy settlement home. And though he was in one place and physically at rest, his mind and heart was never at rest.

By and large our midrashim and the commentary of our sages point out the fact that Yaakov’s years were indeed bitter because of the loss of his son Yosef. Add to that the untimely loss of his beloved wife, Rachel Imenu. Compound that with the callous and treacherous ways of his sons, as also displayed in acts like their massacre of Shechem. He returned home to settle, but little did he rest because of his worries. Though he dwelt securely in the land for many years, his days were consumed with worry that made them pass fast and furiously.

When I consider all this, I don’t see Yaakov bitter that he didn’t get to live a full cowboy-like existence that his forefathers did, as much I see a man who was exhausted from the burden of property and maintaining that established legacy he fought so hard to win. I believe what is going on Yaakov is that when he considers his life he doesn’t see any of the pioneering and grand goals his fathers had. His forefathers established new settlements, built their many wells to secure the future of that land. They had the thrill of being the founder and inventor, and not so much the burden of being the boss. He seems almost envious of their freedom. Likewise it can be seem that for all the things that Yaakov did accomplished, he never achieved the things his forefathers did.

Now when Yaakov is called to recount his years, looking back “his days” seem quite few and his life profoundly bitter. And this is how Yaakov answers the Pharaoh who seems to be humoring him, right before Yaakov blesses him and leaves.

As I look at these word of Yaakov I also begin to see another truth revealed to me when I look at the words, “velo hisigu et-yemei shnei chaiei avotai / and still I have not reached the days of the lives of my fathers.” We have to remember one of the reasons that Yaakov and his sons are there to begin with, because there is a famine in their land. All the settlements and accomplishments of his forefathers were abandoned and he was forced to take sanctuary again in foreign land.

What I believe Yaakov is saying here is that he did not achieve (hisigu) in his lifetime what his forefathers did in leaving something better behind for his children. His fathers acquired much, they build upon the foundation of the previous generation, and had an impressive inheritance to leave behind. In contrast Yaakov was leaving his children in financial ruin, abandoning their family home and they were now receiving foreign aid. He didn’t appear to be leaving his children off better than his fathers left him.

In conclusion, we have often talked about the topic yeridah ha-dorot – the decent of generations, that as generations go by men seem to grow smaller. The men of the old days, they just can’t happen in our day. They just don’t make men the way they used to. (see Parshashiot of Lech Lecha and Vayeira 2012, Parshat Vayeira 2013)

We have even seen this attitude mirrored in our culture in more recent years by people like Tom Brokaw, dubbing our seniors that lived through The Great Depression and World War II “The Greatest Generation.” Likewise we see all the documentaries and books glowingly praising their public works and social justice accomplishments, ones that sadly lack today even though we have the know-how. We are puny men in their shadow, the trope goes.

Sure there is a level of this reflected in Yaakov’s statement, however I believe it is the position of destitution that irks him the most. Yaakov is happy to be reunited with his son Yosef here, but bitter to be doing so as a refugee.

So what lesson can people who have a full life ahead of us learn from this reflection of Yaaakov? What kind of things should we consider to make sure we don’t look back with bitter regret? Here are some suggestions:

First off, that we should try to live our lives so that we do not look back regretful of many years of running from and wrestling with one’s self-identity. Much of Yaakov’s personal suffering was due to that. Have you made peace with yourself?

Secondly, we need to also set great goals. We need to set our mark in the way that the generations before us did. We need to be original and ground breaking. We need to demand better than we had in our previous generation, not satisfied to just inherit what our parents built. We need to ask ourselves, are you better off than your parents were?

And lastly, are you leaving your children better off than your parents left you? I’m not just asking are you leaving an inheritance to your children. What I’m asking is, are you leaving your children in a better position that you were? It’s more than just considering if you are leaving your children anything more than a legacy of debt. Are your children and grandchildren poised for a better future? Have you left them a society that is more civil than the one before? Better yet, have you left them a country that has more opportunities and economic promise than you inherited?

If we can’t say yes to these things, maybe need to do something before we look back with regret instead of nostalgia.


Parshat Pinchas (2012)


Parshat Pinchas (2012)
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

The Cost of Leadership: Having to take it up with your Higher Authority

Confused JudgeWhat is the cost of leadership? What type of price does someone need to pay in order to be in charge. It goes without saying that most people would not mind being a person of greater importance. Being ambitious is a good thing. Most people wouldn’t mind being the boss, with all the benefits and privileges that comes with leadership. “Being in Charge” is really attractive to most people. People always seem to think that it means that you have no one to answer to, until you find yourself being “The Decider.”

That’s not to say that everyone is ambitious for power. As we learn Moses was more humble than any man on the face of the earth (see Numbers 12:3). In fact he showed great resistance to taking on leadership (see Exodus 4:10-17). But it becomes apparent to us as we go on through the exodus story that Moses does actually grow into his job. In time he would take responsibility for the governance of Israel and hearing all the cases of the Israelites.

But as we learned along the way, this was not the ideal. Moses was challenged by his father-in-law Yitro to delegate responsibility because he could not do it all himself. (see Parshat Yitro, and Parshat Shoftim) Thus the cases were heard by tribal leaders and elders who served as judges. But if something was too hard for them to figure out it was to be brought to Moses. (see Deut. 1:17)

Here in this parsha we see one of these situations arise, where a case was appealed to Moses as an ultimate authority to rule on a subject. Starting with Numbers chapter 27 we see that five daughters of Tzel’ofechad, of the Tribe of Menasheh, descendant of Yoseph haTzadik (Joseph the Righteous), brought a case to be settled. Up until now the camps and corresponding land allotments are being given according to one’s paternal lineage; from father to son exclusively.

Among the few exceptions that were not accounted for out of all the families that were recorded in the census at the beginning of this book were the families of those who perished with Korach and his rebellion, therefore there were no living heirs. The other exception was the allotment to Yehoshuah and Kelev (Joshua and Caleb, the spies) who were given their choicest lands as a reward for their upstandingness instead of by lot (see Numbers 26:55; with Rashi; and corresponding references to Judges 1:20 and Joshua 19:49-51).

We find out that these five daughters who brought their case to Moses were the only living descendants of their father. Though their father had perished in the desert, his death was unique from the others in that he had not be in rebellion. His daughters stood before Moses and all the authorities and made their case that their father died of some sort of private sin, but it was not for incitement or rebellion. We don’t know why exactly, but our sages suggest everything for violating Shabbat or approaching Sinai when it was unsafe to do so, and therefore he died. The fact that their father was not a rebel was obvious from the fact that they were alive, whereas rebels and their kin had all previously perished (see Parshat Korach).

These women contended the only reason they were being excluded from the land allotments was because their father died without having any sons. Furthermore, they contended his error had nothing to do with them. Even yet, his sin to some could be considered a transgression based on ignorance which caused him to die in an untimely manner. Their father might have had his faults for which he paid ultimately for, but that didn’t warrant that his name should be forgotten and his descendants treated like they didn’t exist.

There was no remedy for them. An examples would have been the leverite marriage; someone closely related could have married them to help them keep their property. But no one stepped up to the call here, and this wasn’t their fault. Therefore they demanded a remedy. (Numbers 27:1-4).

The parsha (at the end of the third aliyah reading) reads as follows:

“And Moses brought their case

before Hashem.”

| Vayakrev Moshe et-mishpatan

| lifnei Hashem

Numbers 27:5

Rashi makes the most ingesting commentary regarding this verse:

So Moses brought their case:

The law eluded him,

and here he was paying

for crowning himself [with authority]

by saying:

‘and the case that is too difficult for you,

bring to me’ (Deut. 1:17)”

ויקרב משה את משפטן: |

נתעלמה הלכה ממנו |

וכאן נפרע |

על שנטל עטרה |

לומר: |

והדבר אשר יקשה מכם |

תקריבון אלי |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

Surely other people had died in such careless ways as the father of these women, but the uniqueness of the situation was that there was no other living male in this case to help them. And even more unique, is all of these women were very wise and bold enough to adequately make their case before Moses and the elders. It had been appealed all the way to him to settle.

Keep in mind this wasn’t the first case of inheritance rights that was being brought to him to settle, we saw the case of the half-Egyptian Israelite earlier where he did appeal, but his claim was rejected and it resulted in a great crisis in their midst. The half-Egyptian flew off the handle and so it went no further, because he was so mad he cursed G-d and then died. (see Parshat Emor) These women also strongly presented their claim, yet they honorably made their case and so it stood to demanded a response.

So here arises this case. This time even more complicated, not a son, but daughters. And their claim seemed valid. It could not be so easily dismissed. So what does Moses do in response? He decides to bring the issue before G-d.

There are a few things we lead from Rashi’s commentary. The first is that this was something that Moses had not considered before. He didn’t think of mentioning such a situation in his previous instructions, only recognizing the rights of male-to-male relative inheritance. He didn’t possess an answer to remedy this situation. Moses was stumped.

Now it is true that Mosheh Rabbeninu – Moses our Teacher – as the author of our tradition, was the teacher par-excellence who understood Torah more so that any other person. But here it is admitted that something eluded him. This is not surprising to us Jews. Moses is not an oracle or avatar, he was a mere man who was limited in ability and understanding just like any individual. This is not so surprising for me to see this revealed in these scriptures

What is amazing to me is that Moses actually admits that this issues is beyond his compressions. He does what few people of high authority do; after struggling with the issue he admits that he doesn’t know the answer and he does not do anything until he consults G-d on it. This is yet another sign of his great humility.

Yet there is something more that amazes me still about Rashi’s commentary. He states that Moses “nefshar,” meaning that here he was paying the price. What was he paying the price for? For taking the “crown” of authority. He had previously said that if there was any issue that was too hard for the people then it should be brought to him, and here he was being called on to follow through.

And herein comes our lesson about authority and leadership. Everyone wants to be the king of the hill. It looks so easy to wear the crown. By “crown” we are being symbolic. But here in the biblical age it is quite literal. For the most part authority laid in the hands of monarchs. Even in Israel’s case, at this point in history they are without a monarchy and nobility, but the honored people of their tribes are still refereed to a princes. (see Numbers 1:16; Parshat BeMidbar) That is how much respect they commanded. But above them all was Moses, the final authority. We was the Commander-in-Chief; as they say, it appears that the buck stopped here.

Want to see the cost of leadership? Sometimes it’ written all over the faces of those in charge.

For a moment I would like us to consider our own leaders today, my friend. For a moment let us just consider our politicians and government officials. One of the most remarkable observations most of us have about leadership, being in a modern world where we are accustomed to seeing our leaders regularly, is how quickly they age when they get to the top off the ladder. The media loves to discuss how quickly we age our Presidents. The responsibility is so weighing upon them that is clearly evident to us that the burden they shoulder wears on them to the point that its prematurely ages them in dramatic ways. Being the boss isn’t as cozy and easy as it seems. They are people who we turn to in order to provide solutions to us for the really hard decisions. Such responsibility takes its mental and physical toll. This is the cost of leadership.

Let us consider the case again for a second, and try to understand what make it so perplexing to Moses. These daughters of Tzel’ofechad are not just being difficult women. They aren’t there to just nag him. Their problem is very pressing. The nation is going to ascend into the Land and they are going to be left homeless unless a situation is found for them. Moses’ instructions regarding inheritance seemed clear and easy enough to understand, there was very little ambiguity regarding it, but it did not address their needs. It was unthinkable that they should be left without remedy. Upon hearing their case and considering the real injustice in this matter if left unsettled, Moses appeals to G-d to give him the answer that is escaping him.

Again I want us to remember the situation of the half-Egyptian (in Parshat Emor). A remedy was not found for this man thus it led to blasphemy of the Name of G-d, and subsequently the man’s death. It appears to me that in light of this situation, when once again called to rule on an issue of inheritance, especially on an issue that was sorely neglected from his policy, Moses not only felt like he had to hear out their issue but he also seemed to feel the urgency of having to find a real answer. Their livelihood depended on it. He would not allow the children of Israel to stand back aloof once again; unbending, unresolved; and leaving these women in ruin.

Now despite all Moses’ wisdom this issue was beyond his ability to decide on his own. We should also keep in mind that this is a dramatic switch in inheritance rights in an age where women are ordinarily given no regard at all. Any change in policy would be a big deal, with huge societal consequence. In Moses’ humility he does not think himself wise enough to decide alone, and thus brings it to G-d to decide.

Of course we learn that G-d responds to Moses’ petition on this matter. G-d says that in this case “Ken benot Tzel’ofechad dovrot / the daughters of Tzel’ofechad spoke correctly,” and thus G-d commanded the transfer their father’s property to them (v.7). Our tradition says that it is said intensely and with great “evrah,” or anger or wrath on the part of G-d for the situation of these women. (Rashi on v.7)

Hashem therefore instructed that from then on any daughter of Israel may inherit their father’s property. Practically what this means is any woman who has no left her father’s household may retain it as her own property in his passing as inheritor. However, it is not to be transferred to another clan, say if she were to remarry. It was already the case that land and tribal holdings remain in the tribe, not to transfer forever to another; this law previously understood to apply to mere sales. Now in around about way it’s extending this law even to this situation, while allowing provision for a maiden to maintain her home and lifestyle should she not marry into another family. If this were to happen, then the father’s male relatives would inherit the property and keep it in trust for the tribe. Likewise, if a man was without any daughters as well as sons, then it would follow the regular method and likewise go to the nearest male relative. (v.8-11) Thus a legal remedy was found.

As we consider this weeks parsha, and we consider all the responsibilities and positions of authority in which we may find ourselves accountable for, I would hope that we would come away taking to heart the example of Moses. When people turn to us for help we should do everything that we can to provide the assistance and guidance they need. We should not just ignore their problem, thinking ourselves so smart and so important that we should not be questioned and further appealed to when our answers don’t seem to fit so nicely. We should not just harshly hold on to what we think we already know about something, but hear a person out regarding their situation. And if we do, we might find that we have don’t really have all the answers after all. The situation might not be as cut-and-dry as we expect.

We need to listen and really consider things. How could Moses have taken this issue to G-d if he hadn’t first listen enough to comprehend their concerns and adequately present their case to Hashem?

And the greatest lesson of all is that we should not just rely on our own understanding and impulses regarding something. We should take it to G-d, and continue to seek His guidance and understanding until we do understand and find a solution. This is not just a good idea. This is the cost of leadership. The weight of this crown his heavy; the cost of it is very great. If listening to people intently and giving heavy reflection was necessary for Moses, how much more is it necessary for us simpletons?

Something To Think About:

In the Jewish tradition we refer to the Torah as “Zot haTorah asher sam Mosheh lifnei bnei Yisrael; al-pi Hashem b’yad Mosheh / This is the Torah that was set before the children of Israel; upon the command of Hashem, by the hand of Moses.” This is said during the Hagbah – the lifting of the Torah for all to witness; in Ashkenazi tradition this is after the reading; it is composed of two verses, Deuteronomy 4:44 and Numbers 9:23; in the Sephardi tradition this is said before the reading, though interchanging the latter verse with Deuteronomy 33:4 instead, continuing with the words “Torah tzivah lanu Mosheh morasha kehilat Yaakov / the Torah which Moses commanded us, as a heritage for the congregation of Yaakov”. Traditionally people understand this as meaning that the Torah was written by Moses.

Whether or not Moses physically wrote the Torah in our tradition is something we almost consider irrelevant. We recognize that almost all of our tradition was mostly oral at one point. When we say “b’yad” (Heb. “by the hand of”) we don’t always necessarily mean that a person physically wrote something out themselves, but that it was “handed down” from them. Some of our tradition was written, some of it was oral for a great deal of our history. But either way we consider it coming from Moses because he had a hand in the decision-making and demonstration of these truths.

If we return to the commentary of Rashi we have a very interesting statement being made regarding our original verse we discussed in Numbers 27:5. The continuing commentary reads as follows:

“Another interpretation is

it was proper that this affair

be written down by the hand of Moses

but the daughters of Tzel’ofechad won [their case]

and so it was written in by them.”

דבר אחר |

ראויה היתה פרשה זו |

להכתב על ידי משה, |

אלא שזכו בנות צלפחד |

ונכתבה על ידן: |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

What do we mean by this? There is something unusual about the verse. It does look quite out-of-place because it actually refers to Moses in the third-person; “and Moses brought their case…” How can this be if this is “written” by Moses. This seems like another interesting fluke akin to when the scriptures say Moses is the humblest of men; would Moses really speak of himself in this manner? I don’t know. But to me it’s still irrelevant to debate if Moses was the physical scribe.

However this question is kind of interesting to contemplate, because if we say that this phrase means Moses wrote out the Torah himself, are we saying here in this verse that these five Israelite daughters wrote this passage into the Torah themselves “al yadin / by their own hand?” Most likely not, but it doesn’t matter if they did or didn’t anyhow. The truth is had they not raised this issue before Moses and the elders to bring before G-d it would have never been documented in the Torah at all. Their veracity and wisdom regarding this matter makes it as good as if it was written by them, because without their insight this would have never have been mentioned and resolved at all. Through these five women a whole new insight into Torah was handed down for the benefit of all Israel. They “wrote” a new chapter in Jewish history.

Related Articles:


Parshat Emor (2012)


Leviticus 21 -24

Converts: Equals, or does our tradition give special treatment?

Sometimes the Torah gives us a simple commandment, and then other times it gives us the Law by telling us a story. This week we are going to look at one of these situations where the Torah lays out statutes but with a deep story surrounding it to shed light on the motivation of this form of law. Since the beginning the Torah has been presenting us with unusual case-law that we must consider; it is not just apparent in Rabbinic literature. Here in this parsha is one of the great windows into this tendency demonstrated in the Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) itself. It calls us to not just look in generalities, but look deeply into the issues of each person. To try to be concise I don’t want to give us too much lead info, we should just jump right into the text, as the points we should be exploring become apparent along the way:

| Vayetze ben

| ishah Isre’elit

| vehu ben-ish Mitzri

| betoch benei Yisra’el

| vayinatzu bamachaneh

| ben ha’Isre’elit

| ve’ish ha’Isre’eli.

“And there came out a son

of an Israelite woman

and who was a son of an Egyptian man

in the midst of the Children of Israel

and they quarreled together,

the son of the Israelite [woman]

and the Israelite man.”

Leviticus 24:10-11

As we start this section of our parsha we are told that a man went out into the camp of Israel, but we don’t know why. We are also told that he quarreled with an Israelite man, and it doesn’t specifically tell us who or for what reason. But it does seem to tell us a lot about the person that is going to be at the center of this story, though he is not mentioned by name. This man is a son of an Israelite woman, but also the son of an Egyptian man. From what we see presented to us by the text, he is a half-breed; it sounds harsh to say so, but this is what is explicitly being laid out for us here. More precisely, this is the mentality of the age in which he lived.

Fighting in the Camp: believe it or not, fighting and resorting to calling someone a Sheigitz is one of the oldest acts in the book!

The only reason it might not be apparent to us to read it this way is because at this current point in history Jewish descent is assigned by maternal lineage. If you mother is Jewish, you are Jewish. Your either Jewish, or your not.

We know that the seeds of this mindset goes back all the way to the days of the prophet Ezra and the foundations of the Knesset haGedolah – or the Sanheidren – when the pious men of Israel were told to not keep foreign wives, but to send them and children born from them away. (see Ezra 10:10-11) Of course, that is if they did not convert; this is always the case, in our religion just like the other great religions. Relations with ordinarily forbidden foreigners was always biblically permitted after a conversion, sealed by a sacrament of marriage, this is the case with Ruth and with the soldier who takes a wife in field of battle, (see Parshat Ki-Teitzeh) etc. This is true in all cases except for the Levitical priests, who are required to keep a higher level of purity and discretion in marriage. (see Leviticus 21:13-15)

In the days of Ezra during the restoration of Jerusalem and the building of the Second Temple (5th century BCE), out of 30,000 people returning from exile about a little over a 100 men are listed as intermarried; about ¼ of these were priests and Levites, they are called out. The reason should be apparent. They are tasked with rebuilding their Jewish society from the ground up. This list seems to be a truncated record, containing men in authority and of reputation. Again we look and see parallels to the story of Ruth; upon returning to the homeland of Israel the foreign wives that were dedicated stayed for the long-haul, those would weren’t on board were to return to their kin and the leisurely society they came from. But dedication to and identification with the cause of Israel had to be at the forefront of one’s identity and purpose in order to remain. The mother being the primary person to raise and influence the child would naturally impart her ways and sentiments to her children, and needed to be of the Jewish mindset and values in order to propagate that in their society. Judaism was defined by someone’s professed and active practice.

This issue came to a head during the Roman occupation, when women were often raped and paternity became difficult to be certain of; the mother once again would be looked to as central source of imparting Jewish identity. However, this time in a more literal way. Whereas it was difficult to be certain of paternity, maternity was almost always known. Jewish identity thus became firmly understood as passing maternally. Ones Judaism is defines by who one is born from. And so is the law from the 2nd century CE to this very day.

The Ramban, the Sephardic scholar and celebrated biblical commentator, in his mystical style would express this vein of thought in this way:

“[An Isrelite woman]

is a Mikveh of purity for the nations

preparing them to be just like her.”

[אשה הישראלית היא] |

…מקוה טהרה לאומות |

להכשיר את ולדה להיות כמוה|

Ramban (Nachmanides),

Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, Bonastruc ça (de) Porta (Barcelona), 13th Century

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish. One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish. One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

A Israelite women is like a ritual bath – a mikveh, a purifying fountain, cleansing the nations and through her making them pure. But we can also read it another way, that she is a source of hope (קוה), that from her springs forth hope (מקוה). In the days of Ezra she was the fountain of hope that offers the water of life, which is Torah (Bava Kama 82a), to those in her care and thus raising them up in her likeness. But by the time of the second Roman occupation and in the shadows of the destruction of the second Temple, in the disrepair of religion as a whole the Rabbinic sages had to take this very literal; the waters of her womb becomes a pool of purification, the most some could pass of their Jewish likeness was their physical traits so that came to suffice for legal purposes. We have taken a long detour, going through material that most of us know very well. But it is important to keep this in mind the distinction and the evolution of this concept of Hebrew identification in order for us to ask the questions that we need to about this story.

Let us step back to the story for a moment, not ignoring the traditional interpretation of rabbis such as the Ramban. But we need to look at the situation in the context of that age and stage of development we are making mention of. According to law prescribed by the Torah, one is not a legitimate Hebrew if his father is not a Hebrew. Notice that the man is a son of a Israelite woman, whose father is an Egyptian man. His otherness is not just displayed by us ignoring current halachic development and assumption. Notice the way the text of our parsha speaks about the man’s adversary as “ish ha-Israeli / the Israelite man;” whereas he is just designated the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man. If he was reckoned as an Israelite, the text could have called him an Israelite man as well but it does not.

| Vayikov

| ben ha’ishah ha’Isre’elit

| et-hashem vayekalel

| vayavi’u oto el-Moshe

| veshem imo

| Shlomit bat-Divri

| lemateh-Dan.

“And [He] blasphemed,

the son of the Israelite woman,

cursing [the Name of] Hashem (יהוה).

And they brought him to Moses.

The name of his mother was

Shlomit daughter of Divri

of the Tribe of Dan.”

Leviticus 24:10-11

Our text continues with the Israelite and the son of the Israelite woman arguing in the camp. And in the midst of this quarreling this son of the Egyptian man blasphemes, and then pronounces the Name Havayah – the ineffable, Four-Letter Name of G-d, Hashem. In response the people bring him to Moses to be tried for his crime.

Again we aren’t explicitly told why he was striving with a man within the camp. We also need to remember that we are not even sure why he is in the midst of the camp at all. What we do know is that his mother is of the Tribe of Dan.

As we have studies many times before, the authority of adjudicating law was given to each tribe. Each tribe dwelt together, each family and clan together among their own. When someone did wrong, it fell upon the elders of that tribe to sentence judgment. But in issues that were outside of themselves, or too hard for them to handle, they brought them to Moses to hear and give sentence. (see Parshat Yitro) This man’s case was not just brought to Moses because his crime was one of capital punishment, they had authority and the sole duty to act in such cases which lay within jurisdiction of their tribe. (see Parshat Pinchas)

And herein lays the problem. It appears this son of the Egyptian man begins to cause trouble within the camp, as he is no longer dwelling with his mother’s clan and in her tent. As soon as he becomes troublesome he is disavowed, and he is brought before Moses for his sentence to be handed down. Is it because he is being disavowed as a Hebrew? No, not necessarily. But he is not considered a member of the Tribe of Dan, which his mother was a member of. To understand we turn to the Sifra, the rabbinic account of Leviticus:

There came out a son

of an Israelite woman

from where did he come out?

From Moses’ court,

for he had sought to pitch his tent

in the camp of Dan.

He said to them,

I am [the son] of the Tribe of Dan.

They said to him:

Scripture says:

Each man shall pitch under his banner,

according to his father’s household

granted among the children of Israel.”

(Numbers 2:2).

So court was held

and it rendered the judgment of Moses,

and he came out

having been found against.

And he stood there and cursed.

Among the Israelites

which teaches us

that he had converted.”

“ויצא בן אשה |

ישראלית” – |

מנין יצא? |

מבית דינו של משה, |

שבא ליטע אהלו |

בתוך מחנה דן. |

אמר להם: |

מבנות דן אני. |

אמרו לו: |

הכתוב אומר: |

“איש על דגלו |

באתת לבית אבתם |

יחנו בני ישראל” |

(במדבר ב, ב). |

נכנס לבית |

דינו של משה, |

ויצא |

מחוייב, |

ועמד וגידף… |

“בתוך בני ישראל” – |

מלמד |

שנתגייר. |

Sifra, Emor siman14; cited by Rashi in Lev. 24:10

Again we don’t know why the man is amidst the camp, not camped with his mothers clan. It has been speculated based on her name Shlomit bat Devri (שְׁלֹמִית בַּת-דִּבְרִי) that she was a busybody, that she liked to wander around talking (Heb. Daber, דבר) to people too much, greeting everyone “shalom / hello” (שלום) (thus being called Shlomit, in the feminine). Apparently he had the same tendency to wander instead of keeping himself occupied with family matters. His father, we don’t know who he was. Some say his father was a Egyptian soldier that raped his mother because she was always out and about mingling with people, and thus easily victimized.

Others say his Egyptian father was a ger – a convert, a stranger – just like he was; that all people who were not yet identified as Israelites who had left with the Israelites from Egypt had converted at the giving of Torah earlier on in this story.

Either way, be it him or his father as a convert, the outcome is the same. Even if his father was a convert, the Egyptian father does not have any inheritance to give his son anyhow. When a stranger – a convert – comes to settle among the children of Israel we are told that they are not to be oppressed. Though Israelites must dwell within whatever tribal lands they were born into, the convert is allowed to dwell anywhere among the tribes. (see Exodus 23:9) Even though he is to be permitted to dwell among them, and might be a resident with a tribe and clan, he does not have the right of inheritance.

Consider this for a second, next week the parsha will discuss the year of Yovel (see Parshat Behar; see Leviticus 25, Numbers 27) – the year of Jubilee commemorated every 50 years – which is observed with the cancellation of debts and return of sold land to the ancestral grant holders. The tribal holdings were not to be given away nor sold forever (also reiterated in Ezekiel 46:16-18) If you consider it, the only people left with nothing were the convert and the people without legal standing (a bastard, a eunuch, a woman, etc). He was not to be cast out, but he was not entitled to a portion of the tribal holdings.

Lets say the Egyptian father had converted and dwelt with his wife in the camp of the Tribe of Dan, this Egyptian man would be able to dwell among Israel as an Israelite and enjoy the benefits of his wife’s inheritance, but he was not a member of the Tribe of Dan in order to pass on inheritance. Likewise his son was not in a position to receive any. Furthermore if we just take a simple reading, and assume that the man is relying merely on his maternal lineage and not a convert at all (dismissing the opinion of the Sifra); such a claim is still not valid. And even yet if he had converted and was merely relying on his maternal lineage to reinforce his claim; his claim is still invalid, because as a convert one is considered like a reborn person, they sever all former tribal and ancestral claims and stand on their own as an independent citizen of Israel. The Ramban would hold a mixed view, that he was Hebrew by birth through his mother but that he forfeited any tribal rights anyhow by converting and becoming a citizen of Israel in his own right. It is no ones fault or merit in this case, it is just a fact of law; with the Egyptian man’s son is found in the wrong.

The reason this story is so complicated is because this episode might be comprised of more than just a single incident, especially considering it escalates to a capital punishment case so quickly; we know that forewarning is required to be give in such instance. We also have many other good rabbinic sources to tell us that it’s even a lot more complicated than this. The questionable son was not the only one in the wrong, his Israelite adversary was also quick to quarrel along with him; he was being instigated. (Kli Yakar) But here in the Sifra, the case is distilled down and becomes one incident. His struggle is merely for tribal identity only (logically this is the main issue in this story anyhow). The elders drag him before Moses, who does not rule in his favor, he exits the preceding, he is instigated again by the gloating of his adversary, and thus the son of the Egyptian man begins to blaspheme and curse the Divine Name.

Consequently this man is hauled back before Moses, and he is sentenced to death. And overlooking all of this, many people walk away with a feeling of equality being demonstrated by the Torah herein. Why? Because the equality that he didn’t seem to get in life, he got in judgment. The Torah continues:

“And to the Children of Israel

you shall speak, saying:

A man, any man that curses his G-d

shall bear his own sin.

And he that blasphemes the Name Havayah

he shall surely be put to death;

all the congregation shall stone him

the convert, like the native-born

when he blasphemes the Name he shall die.”

| Ve’el-benei Yisra’el

| tedaber lemor

| ish ish ki-yekalel Elohav

| venasa chet’o.

| Venokev shem-Hashem

| mot yumat ragom

| yirgemu-vo kol-ha’edah

| kager ka’ezrach

| benokvo-shem yumat.

Leviticus 24:15-16

A few verses later it is summarized with a single verse we all like to quote:

“There shall be one manner of law for you,

it shall be so for the stranger (convert) and the native-born

I am Hashem your G-d.”

| Mishpat echad yihyeh lachem

| kager ka’ezrach yihyeh ki

| ani Hashem Eloheichem.

Leviticus 24:22

I have to admit the first two verses quoted immediate above from our parsha are not the most comforting, but they are very telling about the status of the sentenced man. He wasn’t being punishes out of retaliation for him blaspheming someone else’s G-d, he was punished for cursing his own G-d. It doesn’t matter if one is a proselyte or native-born, the law is to be the same. Blasphemy is punishable by death. We are not permitted to treat the stranger any different from the native. The Torah does not serve for the benefit of the home-born over the immigrant, the immigrant is not to be made an example out of more than the native-born.

But that is not the feeling that most of us get when we walk away from this story. Most of us, especially in light of the rabbinic insights, feel like the native-born Israelite is a person in power and the man of a complicated origin is the one quickly deprived of due justice; hastily brought before a definitive court for humiliation. Though the convert might be in the wrong, and presumptuous in his claim, he is nonetheless provoked in an astonishing way that leaves us walking away from this story feeling less that satisfied with a fable of equality.

Why so astonishing? Because our Torah does not just demand equality for citizens. In the end Moses had to adjudicate true law in the sentencing of the man for his crimes, sure. But the truth was that it should have never gotten to that point. No matter what the man’s faults were, he should have had a place among the congregation of Israel. True, he did not have a right to demand nor was he entitled. But in the end the folly of this story is apparent, this man was given no place among Israel. He had come along and struggled with Israel through the desert, he had converted and given up any claim or right he had to Egyptian identity (as if they would take him back anyhow). But now when he became troublesome the identity that cost him so much and alienated him from the rest of the world now seemed worthless to him in actuality; if not the entire source of his pain. Add to that the appearance of favoritism for the native son’s case over the convert, this perception added insult to injury even if it was not true. Even though he was yet a blood relative, it meant nothing. How could he not blaspheme this religion and the Name of the G-d who he was being oppressed in the name of?

For this reason our tradition actually expresses to us that we should not just seek equality with the stranger and convert in our midst. We need to act on a higher level of maturity with them. That we not even appear to be holding a sense of oppression and prejudice towards them. Again let’s go back to our other key text, a central maxim of Judaism concerning converts and immigrants:

“You shall not oppress the stranger (convert)

for you know how it feels to be a stranger

since you were strangers in Egypt.”

וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם |

יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר |

כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: |

Exodus 23:9

It seems pretty clear-cut, but our master Rashi makes sure that we explicitly get the point by providing us the following commentary on this verse:

Do not oppress the stranger (convert):

In many places we are warned by the Torah

that the stranger (convert)

might turn around and return to his

evil ways:

|

The feelings of a stranger:

how hard it is when he is oppressed.”

וגר לא תלחץ: |

בהרבה מקומות הזהירה תורה |

על הגר |

מפני שסורו |

רע: |

|

את נפש הגר: |

כמה קשה לו כשלוחצים אותו: |

Rashi on Exodus 23:9, 11th Century

Interestingly many people who are critical and suspicious of converts and immigrants, they love to quote the first part of this Rashi. They warn that converts should be taken on suspiciously because even on their best day your end up with someone that is likely to return to his old habits anyhow. Cynical, yes. And completely out of step with the actual tone of this commentary. We need to continue on and read the second part of this Rashi that tells us that we need to consider the feelings of the convert, and that we need to relate with his experience of feelings of oppression and alienation. And with this in mind the tone changes, Rashi’s statement reads more as a warning to us Jews to not mistreat the stranger, because we can understand about people making it hard for us. And if we make it too hard for such a person, they will surely resort to the most unrefined of their former ways.

Herein the Torah actually does not call for just equality, but responsiveness. It asks us to step back and consider the background and personal story of the individual. We should understand the stranger already has a lot to contend with, and quite possibly a lot of baggage. We should not make it harder for them.

And even more so, we need to consider that in choosing to be among the congregation of Israel the convert is left with no other home. This is their home. And to the extent that we can, we should try to help make a caring Israel for their home. It doesn’t matter if we are personally offended by the person and their background. Based on this very text from Exodus most of our poskim adhere to the opinion that even if an Egyptian turns to Israel to become a convert, especially because of their people’s experience and suffering through the biblical plagues and their being host (even if not very good ones) to Israel, we are required to allow them to convert; we are not permitted to turn them away. The Torah calls us to make a home, even for the people that make us the most uncomfortable. Through empathy we should consider the situation of another and temper our patience to their unrefinement, not looking for nor provoking a reason for someone to stumble. Not waiting for a reason to disavow them.

As this story of Judaism progresses through the Tanach, it is not going to remain silent on the issue of the plight of the convert and immigrant. It will look forward to a prophetic day when Israel is no longer caught in tribal and ethnic feudalism. To a day when boarders are replaced with allotment of land according to the tribes once again, presumably in the messianic age. The prophets give us a vision and calls us to strive to bring a better day, and a better way, described like this:

“And you shall divide this land for you

according to the Tribes of Israel.

|

“And it shall be

that you shall allot the inheritance

for you and also for the strangers (converts)

that reside with you,

who shall bear children among you,

and they shall be like the native-born

among the Children of Israel

and they shall have an inheritance with you

among the Tribes of Israel.

|

“And it shall be that

in whatever tribe that the stranger dwells among

there he shall receive an inheritance;

declares Hashem, the Sovereign.”

חִלַּקְתֶּם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לָכֶם– |

לְשִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. |

|

וְהָיָה, |

תַּפִּלוּ אוֹתָהּ בְּנַחֲלָה, |

לָכֶם וּלְהַגֵּרִים |

הַגָּרִים בְּתוֹכְכֶם, |

אֲשֶׁר-הוֹלִדוּ בָנִים בְּתוֹכְכֶם; |

וְהָיוּ לָכֶם, כְּאֶזְרָח |

בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל– |

אִתְּכֶם יִפְּלוּ בְנַחֲלָה, |

בְּתוֹךְ שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. |

|

וְהָיָה בַשֵּׁבֶט, |

אֲשֶׁר-גָּר הַגֵּר אִתּוֹ– |

שָׁם תִּתְּנוּ נַחֲלָתוֹ, |

נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה. |

Ezekiel 47:21-23

The Torah does not just call us to equality. It does not call for equity even. But it does call us to support those among us, make a place for them and to care for them even if they don’t “deserve” it. No matter how “strange,” no matter how difficult they are; native-born or not.

Something to Consider:

Often times in religions when they don’t like someone or they are embarrassed of another’s actions the first thing is to deny they are real member. You’ve heard it before “he isn’t a real Christian,” or “yeah, but they aren’t real Muslims anyhow.” Do you think we as Jews are often guilty of that? Do find yourself ready to disavow people that you might disagree with or dislike?


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