Thursday, 13 Jul 2017

Written by Peter Luijendijk

“Therefore, say, “I hereby give him My covenant of peace”
Numbers 25:12


This week’s Parashah is all about “doing the right thing” and to stand up for beliefs that symbolise that. It is not to say that doing the right thing is the same as doing something that is easy. Quite often doing what is right is a difficult endeavour, but rewarding none the less.


In our parashah it is Pinchas who stands up against an “offense” and by doing so saves the Israelites from further punishment by God. As a reward God makes a covenant of peace with him “It shall be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of kehunah, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel.”[1]


Further on in our Parashah we learn about a person called Zelophehad. We know very little about Zelophehad. The only thing that we know is that he was from the tribe of Manasseh, that he died without sons, that he had 5 daughters and his name. It seems that his name contains two words: 1) Tsel (shadow) and 2) Pachad (fear), Zel-Phehad, would then read as Shadow of Fear. Why he was called like that we don’t know, but often we find that Biblical protagonists are burdened with a name that reflects their qualities or early life experience. For instance Moses/ Moshe (taken out of the water), and Miriam (bitter water), Joshua (saviour) etc. Their names embody their profession or their assumed roles. So this footnote in biblical history might go back to a larger story that would shed a light on his origin. As for now, this is what we have. Having passed away with no sons, no male heir, his five daughters are petitioning Moses to give their fathers’ inheritance to them by stressing that their father had no share in the sins committed by Korach and his supporters. Zelophehad did the right thing, and even though he passed away without an heir – he should be rewarded for this good deed, even if that would mean posthumously. The words that his daughters use are quite strong:


“Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers. “[2]


Amongst many other things, like justice, like the heavy emotions emanating from just this one sentence, is the importance that names have in Judaism. Names have a divine quality of life; there is a little bit of us attached in our names. It therefore is no surprise that Biblical narratives are told by people having names that define their roles in these narratives. God listens to his 5 daughters and therefore Moses grants them their inheritance. And together with the inheritance, the name Zelophehad will be remembered for eternity – since his name is forever attached to the tradition of Levirate marriage.[3]


This week I am asked to lead a Bar Mitzvah service of a boy not having gone through the conventional route of Jewish education. For one reason or the other, his family couldn’t find a Jewish community that suited their spiritual and personal values and beliefs. But he expressed a desire to become Bar Mitzvah. I have been teaching this boy the last year and he has expressed a particular desire to choose his Judaism. In his own words he said “When a Jewish person turns 13, it is when he/ she chooses if they would like to take on Jewish values as their way of life.” For him, this is what it means to do “the right thing”, despite what others might say or dictate.


When we consider the recent policies by the Nethanyahu government to take away the liberties previously granted to progressive Jews and progressive Judaism, we really ought to consider what the right response would be. What is the “right thing”? Are we comfortable with the idea that progressive Jews can no longer pray as progressive Jews at the Wailing Wall? Are we okay that we are, as progressive Jews, forced to be dictated by Orthodox Judaism how to live a fulfilled Jewish life?

It is difficult to figure out what is the right thing to do. But Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah (Zelophehad’s daughters) knew what was the right thing. Despite the fact that they lived in a male dominated society, even though they had no chance of getting what they thought would be fair – they stood up and pleaded for what they believed was right. And they were right! Similarly I believe, strongly, that what progressive Judaism stands for is right. I believe that Leo Baeck College is a true rabbinic seminary educating real rabbis. When I went to see my seven friends being ordained as progressive rabbis on July 2nd, I saw seven rabbis – real rabbis. We should not be apologetic about being progressive we should be proud to express our Jewish beliefs. Or to conclude in the words of my Bar Mitzvah student.


We should all “choose if [we] would like to take on Jewish values as [our] way of life.” And be proud of it. The only thing we can do right now, is to be visible, vocal and active in our communities. We should all support proud institutions who are willing and acting as progressive Jewish voices. I am proud to be a Leo Baeck student rabbi, and I am more than happy AND willing to have a discussion about it with anyone and everyone concerning what that means to me.



Peter Luijendijk


[1] Numbers 25:13.

[2] Numbers 27: 4.

[3] Sifrei Pinchas 13.

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