As the book of Numbers/Bemidbar comes to an end, the Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan, ready to begin their conquest of Canaan. Moses knows he will die before they cross the river, so he is handing down rules that will only apply after the people settle the new land and switch to a different economy. Instead of being nomads, most of the Israelites will become farmers or ranchers in Canaan. Wealth will be measured in land rather than herds.
Last week I wrote about God’s directions in the Torah portion Pinchas on how to divide up Canaan into hereditary properties—after the Canaanites have been driven off their land. (See Pinchas: Fairness). First Moses takes a census of men aged 20 and older. Every man counted in that census will get a tract of land in Canaan for his household. His land will be in the district of his clan, and his clan’s district will be in the territory allocated to his tribe.
Women, of course, do not count. Ancient Israelite society was patriarchal, and women were dependents. Apart from their personal effects, women’s possessions were nominal. In a marriage contract, any property that a woman’s father assigned to her was passed directly to her husband. If her husband died or divorced her, “her” possessions became the property of her sons. Women did not inherit, and if they were given land, they did not control it. They belonged to the clan and tribe of whichever man supported them, and only men could be leaders in a clan.
Yet in the Torah portion Pinchas, five women take a bold and independent action. The daughters of Tzelofchad come to Moses and the assembly of all-male leaders at the very entrance of the Tent of Meeting. They ask for the property that would have gone to their father, if he had lived long enough to be counted in Moses’ census.
Why should the name of our father be removed from his family because he had no son? Give us property amidst the brothers of our father. (Numbers/Bemidbar 27:4)
The women are careful to ask for property not for their own sake, but in order to perpetuate their father’s name. Moses checks with God, who replies:
Rightly the daughters of Tzelofchad speak; you shall certainly give them possession of a hereditary property amidst the brothers of their father, and you shall make the property of their father pass over to them. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a man dies and has no son, then you shall make his property pass over to his daughters. (Numbers 27:7-8)
God’s answer promotes women from chattels to second-class citizens who can inherit land—but only if their father dies without sons. This solution rescues women who would otherwise be dependent on the goodwill of distant male relatives. The Torah never praises independence, but it does praise compassion for the unfortunate, and a woman without a father, husband, brother, or son to support her is considered unfortunate. A side-effect of the new law was that a daughter who inherited and remained unmarried would have a financial independence no other women possessed. But the Torah assumes all women marry and have sons.
This assumption raises an issue about the daughters of Tzelofchad in this week’s double Torah portion, at the end of Masey (“Journeys”). The heads of other clans in the Gilad branch of the tribe of Menasheh come to Moses and say:
God commanded my lord to give the land, by lot, as hereditary property for the children of Israel; and my lord was commanded by God to give the property of Tzelofchad, our brother, to his daughters. But if they become wives to any of the sons of the [other] tribes of the children of Israel, then their property will be removed from the property of our fathers, and it will be added onto the property of the tribe that they will belong to; so it will be removed from our allotted property. (Numbers 36:2-3)
In other words, if a daughter who inherited land married a man from another tribe, then she and her land would automatically become her husband’s property—and therefore the property of her husband’s tribe. These men identify strongly with their own tribe, Menasheh, and with the Gilad branch of the tribe. Any reduction in the amount of land under the control of the Gilad clans of Menasheh seems like a personal loss to them.
Moses approves of their sentiment. He does not stop to check with God this time, but he answers the men in God’s name.
This is the word that God commanded for the daughters of Tzelofchad, saying: They may become wives to whoever is good in their eyes; yet only within the clan of the tribe of their father they shall become wives. And landed property shall not go around for the children of Israel from tribe to tribe, for each man shall daveik to the landed property of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter coming into possession of landed property from the tribes of the children of Israel, she shall become a wife to someone from the clan of the tribe of her father, so that each of the children of Israel shall possess the landed property of his fathers. (Numbers 36:6-7)
daveik = cling to, stick to, be attached to; catch up with
The idea of clinging to your ancestral land is so important that Moses repeats it.
The property will not go around from one tribe to another tribe, because each man shall daveik to his hereditary property in the tribes of the children of Israel. (Numbers 36:9)
The Hebrew Bible uses the verb daveik when physical things stick to each other, and when one person pursues and overtakes another. But daveik is also used when one person is devoted to another, and when it sets out the ideal that the Israelites should cling to God with loyal devotion. The only time the Bible uses a form of daveik to indicate a person’s attachment to land is in Numbers 36:7 and 36:9, translated above. But land here is not just real estate; it is the expression of family lineage and tribal loyalty.
Conquering Canaan could, theoretically, be an opportunity for the tribes of Israel to unite and become truly one people (as the thirteen colonies became the United States of America). However, the Torah tells men to cling to the property they inherit from their fathers, and to the territory of their tribe. My theory is that instead of viewing tribal loyalty as a threat to national loyalty, the way many nations do today, the Torah views tribal loyalty as good practice for for national loyalty. The more you cling to one thing, the more you become able to cling to something else.
Most of all, Moses repeats that everyone must love God. But does practicing passionate attachment to another person, to a tribe, or to a country, make it easier to love God?
I grew up in an atheist household in 20th-century America. I have always valued independence more than loyalty. I love my husband and my son, and give them my passionate allegiance. But I have never been interested in loyalty to my ancestry, or hometown, or school, or state, or country. I have grown fond of several of the houses and yards where I have lived, but I still move and sell the property to strangers. Maybe I have not practiced attachment enough, and that is why I find it hard to become attached to God.
In the Torah, many of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness also find it hard to cling devoutly to God. The first generation of the exodus from Egypt frequently complains about the food and expresses a desire to abandon God and return to Egypt. When Moabites invite the second generation to worship Baal-Peor, most of the men quickly abandon any loyalty to their own god. (See my earlier post, Balak: Carnal Appetites.) No wonder Moses encourages them to practice passionate loyalty, if only to their families and tribes!
If you have not practiced a lot of clinging, is there any other way to develop a love for God? In Chassidic Judaism of the last two centuries, a key aspiration is deveikut, attachment or clinging to God. The Chassidic masters recommended developing deveikut through personal prayer, meditation, and intention (though it also helps to learn from a wise rabbi).
But first a modern, independent person without a religious upbringing must decide whether deveikut is even desirable. And that includes figuring out what it is that we are calling “God”.
I wonder if my life would be easier if I had inherited my religion and my god. On the other hand, a good life is not necessarily easy.