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Parashat Mas’ei

July 31, 2008

By Dr. Ora Horn Prouser

Parashat Mas’ei
concludes the Book of Bemidbar, bringing together elements of the desert period, and drawing various parts to their logical conclusions. It traces the travels and encampments of the Israelites throughout the whole period of wandering. It then looks forward, setting boundaries and borders for Israel once they enter the land, and appointing leaders to oversee that land division. There is then a focus on the cities of refuge, which is a major element in structuring society based on justice and fairness. This is all very fitting as all that stands between the Israelites and their entry into the land is Moses’ concluding speech in Deuteronomy.

All of this would work beautifully, but, this is not how Parashat Mas’ei ends. The last section of the parashah brings back the case of the daughters of Zelophehad. Earlier in the Book of Numbers, the daughters of Zelophehad came before Moses, complaining that their father died, leaving no sons. They claimed that they should be able to inherit their father’s land so that it would not pass out of their family due merely to the lack of male heirs. Moses consulted with God, who confirmed that the women were justified in their case. The law was then revised, establishing that if a man dies with no sons, his daughters are entitled to inherit his land.

This case is revisited here, with the leaders of the tribe approaching Moses, complaining that given the revised law, if the women were to marry outside the tribe, that land will be lost to the tribe. Again, after consulting with God, Moses confirms that the tribal leaders are correct, and decrees that women who inherit their fathers’ land need to marry within the tribe in order to protect the integrity of the tribal land.

Many have wondered why this case appears here, in this ultimate position in Bemidbar, and various theories have been proposed. For example, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Elizabeth Goldstein explain that Exodus begins with five women who save Moses, (the two midwives, Moses’ mother, Moses’ sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter), and that Bemidbar ends with the five daughters of Zelophehad. These two groups of women bracket the Israelite experience in Egypt and in the desert. Masha Turner has claimed that this is a fitting ending as it shows the need for the interaction between humans and God in determining legal decisions.

While each of these theories adds a dimension to the understanding of the text, I would like to add one more possibility. The entire desert experience can be seen from an educational viewpoint. From the time of God’s revelation to Moses in the beginning of Exodus, God has been teaching the Israelites how to grow into a Chosen and Covenanted People. God has led them to experience formal frontal learning, as when commandments, laws, and cultic practices are directly stated and “taught” to the Israelites. In these situations they are meant to listen, absorb the material, and act accordingly. In addition to these formal moments, God uses informal educational models as well to help the Israelites to grow and develop. Their experiences, including the use of manna, the availability and scarcity of water and how to deal with those situations, all led to the Israelites learning how to understand their relationship with God, and how to be a people. They needed to learn how to negotiate their rights and responsibilities as individuals, their communal identity as tribes and as a people, and their covenantal relationship with God.

It is in this context that the daughters of Zelophehad narrative comes through as a critical text. This small scenario deals with a very deep issue in a beautiful and effective manner. The conflicting needs of the individuals – Zelophehad’s daughters, the community – the tribe, with God overseeing, are settled peacefully, and to everyone’s satisfaction. It is as if this is the test to see if the Israelites learned how to negotiate these competing demands during their desert period. They have learned that if you only look at the needs of the community, you end up with troubles like Moses had when he spent all of his time adjudicating the people’s needs. This was so difficult that he required his father-in-law Yitro to tell him that he must set up organizational systems because he could not deal with the needs of the people alone. They learned that if you only look at the needs of the individual, you end up with disasters like the rebellion of Korach. And, if you only look at the needs of God, then you end up with murderous zealots like Pinehas. It is only through the careful, sensitive, interaction between individuals, with an appreciation for community, and with deference to God that a people can grow in understanding, in strength, and in commitment to something bigger than themselves.

This, then, is a most fitting ending to the desert experience. It points to the growth of a people, and, points the way for us to grow as respectful, thoughtful, and growing communities and individuals. The daughters of Zelophehad narrative is a model of the success to which the Book of Bemidbar invites its readers to aspire.


Dr. Ora Horn Prouser is Executive Vice President and Academic Dean.