D’var Torah Mattot-Masei
14th July 2018
Numbers 36, 1-13
You’ll have noticed when the Torah was elevated that we’ve now reached the end of D’varim - the book of Numbers. The gap of a few lines between one book and the next is a dead giveaway.
So, what’s this double parasha all about? It’s pretty packed, and talks about transitions – something we’re experiencing in Sinai as well as elsewhere in our lives. In Mattot-Masei there are changes in living arrangements, in laws, in the ways society was working, and in leadership. There’s an approach to the end of the long journeys and wanderings. There are wars, and laws regarding spoils of war and purification of warriors; there are discussions and negotiations. The whole of the forty year journey from the Exodus to the incipient entry to the Promised Land is reviewed – a reminder of where we came from and how, and of the destination – the importance of our history.
These final few verses revisit the tale of the daughters of Zelophehad first described in last week’s parasha, Pinchas, and the consequent change in the law which meant that they, and other women, could inherit land if their fathers had no sons.
I find it fascinating that the daughters are all mentioned by name; they weren’t anonymised, but were clearly individuals in their own right: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Might the meanings of their names be significant? I wondered, as I studied the parasha. Could they represent different aspects of humanity, much like the four children of the seder, or the symbolism of the four parts of the lulav & etrog? Unfortunately for that thought, the nearest I could come to the meanings of the names (movement, fat or infirmity, queen, pleasing, and dancing) doesn’t seem to support that thesis, so maybe they were names chosen at random. It reminds me of pupils of mine whose names were chosen purely because the parents liked the sounds. They didn’t even consider what they meant. I won’t elaborate on a rather startling combination of first name and surname! However, all five of the daughters’ names do appear as names of towns or regions in Israelite territory in Biblical texts, and the names Noa and Hoglah have been found on ostraca, ancient clay fragments.
So we come to members of the tribe approaching Moses with worries that if the sisters were allowed to marry outside the tribe, the tribal lands would not only be fragmented but would be owned by other tribes. These issues of who should inherit land, with local as well as world-wide land disputes, has, of course, echoes down the centuries.
It’s so easy to forget when reading this parasha (and others, of course) that the laws are being made in preparation for the land being settled. The people are still unsettled and adjusting to the coming changes. The laws are clear, almost in words of one syllable, easy for anyone to understand – there is no legalese. There is no room for future dispute or argument. Was this a relatively early example of case law? Yes, women could inherit. Yes, this was the law from God. The hitch, of course, lay in who they were allowed to marry. Unlike the men, they weren’t allowed free choice. In order to preserve the boundaries of the tribal lands, the ruling was made that the five could marry who they wanted as long as it was someone from a clan of their particular tribe. It so happens that they chose to marry (or were chosen by), their cousins - it’s not clear which.
So: rights and responsibilities; laws, justice, developing societies. Clear and firm foundations for future development. It’s all here. It’s all just as relevant today.