Not much is known about the lives of Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah, the five sisters we encounter in this week’s Torah portion. But at a defining moment in the history of Israel, these five sisters, daughters of Tzelafchad the son of Chefer, profoundly influenced the Jew's approach to the world in which he lives.
Here is the story in brief:
Tzelafchad was of the generation born in Egyptian slavery, liberated by the Exodus, and granted the Land of Canaan as Israel's heritage. Although that generation did not take possession of the land themselves, when their children crossed the Jordan River to conquer it they did so as their fathers' heirs. Each family received its share in the land in accordance with its apportionment among the 600,000 members of the generation of the Exodus.
Tzelafchad had five daughters but no sons. The laws of inheritance as they were initially given in the Torah, which recognized only male heirs, made no provision for his share to be claimed by his descendants. Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah refused to reconcile themselves to this, and approached Moses with the petition: "Why should our father's name be eliminated from his family, because he has no son? Grant us an estate amongst [the heirs of] our father's brothers (1)."
Moses presented their argument to G-d, who responded: "The daughters of Tzelafchad speak rightly. Give ... their father's estate to them (2)." G-d then instructed Moses to include the following clause in the Torah's laws of inheritance: If a man dies and he has no son, you shall pass his estate on to his daughter (3).
This story seems profoundly enigmatic. If G-d ultimately agrees that daughters ought to have inheritance rights just as sons, why did the Torah not submit so originally? And furthermore, if sisters share equal rights with their brothers, why do they receive their father’s estate only of there are no sons? The feminist spirit should be taken all the way!
The Exodus and the conquest of the Land -- the two events which framed the 40 years in which we were forged as a people -- represent the two primary endeavors of life. "Going out of Egypt" represents the liberation of the soul from all that confines and inhibits its true self and will (4); "conquering and settling the Land of Canaan" represents the conquest of the material world and its development as a "home for G-d" -- as an environment receptive to and expressive of the goodness and perfection of its Creator. The first represents the ability of a soul to liberate itself from the shackles of materialism and selfishness; the latter represents the objective to return to the physical and sanctify it.
The generation of the Exodus succeeded in the first endeavor but failed in the second. They extricated themselves to a certain degree from the pagan culture and slave mentality in which they were immersed, refining their souls to the point of worthiness to receive the Truth of Truths directly from G-d at Sinai. But they spurned the task of "conquering and settling the land," loath to abandon their spiritual hermitage in the desert in order to grapple with the materiality of the world and labor to transform "The Land of Canaan" into "The Holy Land." So it was decreed that they would live out their lives in the desert, leaving it to their children to settle the land in their stead.
On the individual level, each of us faces these two tasks throughout our lives: the endeavor to liberate and actualize our soul's spiritual potential, and the challenge to make our material life and environment a holy and G-dly place. The first is the journey from the physical to the spiritual; the second is the journey back from the spiritual to the physical.
A Different Conquest
But people are different from one another. In the words of the Talmud, "Just as their faces are different, so are their characters different (6)." There are bold characters and meek characters, aggressive natures and passive dispositions. There are those of us who revel in a challenge, and those who are all but devoid of the warrior instinct and the zeal for confrontation.
Therein lies the deeper significance of the laws of inheritance as commanded by G-d in response to the petition by the daughters of Tzelafchad. "If a man... has no son" -- if a person ascertains in his or her self a lack of "male" aggressiveness and combativeness -- he might deduce from this that he has no role to play in the "conquest of the land."
Such a person might be inclined to devote all his energies to the refinement of his inner self, and leave the task of sanctifying an unholy world to those with "sons," to the aggressive combative type.
Says the Torah: conquering and settling the land is not an exclusively male endeavor. Each of Israel's souls has a "portion in the land" -- a corner of the material world it is empowered to possess, civilize and sanctify. Indeed, this is a task which often calls for aggressiveness and confrontation; but there is also a "feminine" way to transform the materiality of our lives into a "Holy Land."
"If a man... has no son, you shall pass his estate on to his daughter." The very fact that a person is by nature disinclined toward the aggressiveness of the "male warrior" indicates that he has been granted the capacity to transform his surroundings via his "daughter" -- by employing the compassionate, sensitive and non-confrontational side of his soul.
This is the law of life revealed by the daughters of Tzelafchad: Not all conquests are achieved by overpowering one's adversary. At times, receptiveness and empathy are far more effective in overcoming the hostility of the "enemy" and transforming its very nature. The absence of a "male heir" in the soul may in fact indicate the presence of a "feminine" self no less capable of claiming the soul's portion in the world and transforming it into a "home for G-d."
(This essay is based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe's talks on Tammuz 13, 5715 (July 3, 1955) and on other occasions.)
1) Numbers 27:4.
2) Ibid. v. 7.
3) Ibid. v. 8.
4) Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for "Egypt," means "confines" and "limitations" (see Freedom, WIR, vol. IX, no. 17).
5) Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 10. Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.