Thursday, 14 Jul 2011

Written by Rabbi Aaron Goldstein

More than a month ago, we read the following verse from Be-Har: “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23).

With this verse comes a wonderfully idealistic solution to the limitations of human behaviour. The Jubilee year is an idealistic tool for maintaining order. Strife and discord might be expected to result from the mingling of peoples. It is best to understand the land as being God’s, so that each tribe sticks to its portion and any discussion of boundaries is adjudicated by God’s edict. Yet problems arise as the efficacy of such a ruling is challenged by personal experience.

The verse assumes that only males can inherit consistent with the patrilineal descent of the clans of the time. The case brought in our sidrah by the daughters of Zelophehad – who had no sons – that their father’s name would be lost and the family loses their rights to the tribal lands, raises such a challenge. Their case is answered in this sidra but then qualified in Numbers 36. As Rabbi Pamela Wax, eloquently explains in her contribution to this sidrah in The Women’s Torah Commentary, the Torah provides the foundation for discriminatory inheritance laws that the Rabbis seize upon, almost without exception, to make even more stringent.

Naturally, most of commentary to this sidrah is upon inheritance, and of course this is the plain meaning of the biblical narrative. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirtzah, provided a voice of courage, insight and protest in a new generation that arose, but then that voice was dulled by halakhah so that the echo through the generations has been faint, almost inaudible. Thankfully, women both secular and religious have amplified the echo of these five women in Jewish and secular society. So that women’s rights, not just those of inheritance, are linked to their names.

However, I am also interested by the object of the inheritance, the land and the benefit to humanity and to God of maintaining clear borders. Firstly we must note that the tribal system of inheritance was not a recipe for success. Depending on one’s point of view, one might blame the conflicts in the land to result from the system or more usually, to departure from the Torah’s instructions. I am not convinced. My experience of segregation, be it in countries, in towns and cities or in streets, is not healthy. It allows for narratives to emerge with little challenge about the people over the bridge, on the other side of the field or on ‘that’ street. It creates ‘no-go’ areas through which someone from ‘the other side’ cannot safely traverse. It allows for lazy minds to dominate and myths to be magnified.

In our country, in Israel and in most others that I can think of, it is the intermingling of peoples that allows women to realize their shared joys, fears and concerns, that allows children to form lasting relationships based on their simple understanding of the other’s difference and of their commonality, and that allows men to understand why a ‘cricket test’ is a crass measure of identity.

Although history shows horrendous times when peoples intermingled amongst others have been isolated for persecution, the strength of an idea of difference to be fanned into a destructive fire, there are also many times of creativity, progression and goodwill. The benefits of bringing together peoples with different approaches to life, cultures and ways of thinking are not a trifle. My class at Leo Baeck College contained four Brits (one originally from the US and one from Israel), a Canadian and a German. Nearly every year group contains a variety of nationalities and cultures. The richness derived is one of the assets of Leo Baeck College.

This year as I read this parashah, I applaud the protest of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirtzah but not the schema that saw land and therefore people living in segregation, which troubles me greatly.

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
July 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.