TO SPEAK OR NOT TO SPEAK
Rabbi David Walk
Wow, there have been so many times when I've opened my mouth and just wanted to take those words back, but I couldn't because my foot was blocking the opening. Just thinking about some of those occurrences makes me blush. And I'm not the only one who has experienced this mortification. Just think about some of our politicians. I know that we all would rather not think of that bunch, but they can be poster children for avoiding loose lips. Take Andrea Leadsom's example. She had a real chance to become England's next Prime Minister until she said, on camera, 'I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.' All the denials in the world and all the claims of biased reporting couldn't put that comment to rest, when you're running against a woman who couldn't have children. Good bye, Andrea, from the world of political power; welcome, Andrea, to the world of historical footnotes. And even though for a certain American candidate, that might not even be the gaffe of the day, we can still learn from this incident how we should be thinking before speaking. Or, better yet, thinking more and talking less. And this is extremely important, because speech is a major issue in this week's Torah reading and throughout the entire book of Numbers.
There are those who say that the Hebrew name for this book of the Torah is a pun. We call this volume Bamidbar, which we translate: In the Desert (better would be Wilderness). However, we could pronounce those Hebrew letters: bimidaber or 'concerning talking'. In other words this is a book in which talking is very important. A lot of the talking is very negative, like the complaining (multiple instances), Miriam's lashon hara, the negative report of the spies, and the rebellious tirades of Korach, Datan and Aviram. By the way, the complaining covers about half a dozen incidents, and one is just worse than the next. We also have occasions when characters demand that others stop talking, like Calev with the spies, Yehoshua with Eldad and Meidad, and God with Miriam. Talking is a big deal in our text and in our faith. Jewish Law demands that we recite or declare certain things (Shema, Kiddush and the Pesach Seder), and in Jewish thought humans are described as the beings who talk, as opposed to walk (animals are holech), grow (vegetation is tzomeach) or just lay there (inanimate stuff is domem).
So, what is unique about the talking in our parsha? God tells Moshe: Zelophehad's daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father's brothers, and you shall transfer their father's inheritance to them (Numbers 27:7). The Hebrew word for 'justly' is ken. Now, we know that word in Modern Hebrew as 'yes', but here it could mean right, justified, legitimate, valid or correct. God is saying that this was an appropriate use of our human power of speech.
My daughter, Rachel, has begun writing a weekly Torah article in Hebrew for women (I'm very proud!), and last week she quoted from her high school head master, Harav Avraham Hacohen Baharan, Z"L. He was a master educator, and one of his major points of emphasis was the dignity of the student. He pushed strongly the concept that words create realities, and that the young women should never say anything derogatory to each other. His suggestion was that in moments of anger they should use neutral terms in addressing each other. So, you could walk around their campus and hear upset students exclaiming, 'Why you spoon!' or 'You're such a pencil!' It was weird but effective. I think that the daughters of Zelophehad did the daughters of Rav Baharan one better.
They approached Moshe with a very specific claim. Many characters in Bamidbar had claims and complaints, but here's the difference: These women framed their specific request in a positive way. Here's their petition: You know that our father died in the desert. But it was for something he did wrong, not for joining with Korah in rebelling against the Lord. Our father left no sons to carry on his family name. But why should his name die out for that reason? Give us some land like the rest of his relatives in our clan, so our father's name can live on (Numbers 27:3-4). Their plea was a call for justice on behalf of their beloved father, not a selfish, self serving demand. In Jewish tradition we often say that prayers framed as a request for others are more readily accepted than requests for ourselves. We Jewish parents and educators are trying to engender attitudes which are generous and gracious rather than the 'me, me, me' way of behaving which sadly seems to be prevalent in our society.
The story of B'not Zelophehod is seminal to the episodes in the Book of Numbers. Towards the beginning of our volume, there were petitioners asking for redress over the fact that they couldn't bring the Paschal Lamb because they were ritually impure. They were granted Pesach Sheni, basically a make-up for those who failed the first time round. Then our book is filled with negative examples of speeches and complaints. Until we encounter the daughters of Zelophehad. Here we are given a tutorial in how to frame a petition. We have one last instance of a request in our volume: the tribes of Gad and Asher want the land of the trans-Jordan. They had to ask twice, because they had to learn how to express their position. And they learned from Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.
This episode is informative and inspiring. We must learn how to present our requests. All too often we behave with an attitude of entitlement. We use the word 'please' as an aggressive challenge rather than a polite supplication. The daughters of Zelophehad planned carefully how to voice their legitimate claim. May we be inspired to emulate their example.