Rabbi David Walk
As we approach the end of the book of Numbers, it's time to count the Jews again. As Rashi points out at the beginning of this volume, God counts the Jews often because we are so beloved to our Maker. Of course, there are practical reasons for the census. We have to know how many soldiers we can muster in the impending war against the seven Canaanate nations. But I appreciate Rashi's approach, because I love to count and recount Rivka and my grandchildren. I know this flies in the face of prevailing customs amongst many observant Jews, who feel this creates an ayin hara, an indefinite danger based upon the evil eye. But I can't help but follow the example of God as explained by Rashi, and celebrate our 27 (and counting) grandchildren. But there's another fascinating repetition this week from the beginning of Numbers. We have a successful complaint to God.
There are many ways to categorize the book of Numbers. We could call it the book of census, of course. I assume that's why we call it Numbers, although there are many other numbers in the book. On the other hand, we could call it the book of travels, or the Desert Time, as in Bamidbar. But a strong case could be made to call this the Book of Complaints. The whole book could be described as A Fine Jewish Whine! It all starts in chapter 11 (a bankrupt chapter if there ever was one), which begins with the words: Now the people became like those who complain and grumble about their hardships (Numbers 11:1). The kvetching is connected, apparently, to the travelling which began again after almost a year camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. As I happen to be travelling a lot this summer, I understand how demanding it can be. However, the complaining just goes on and on. We have additional complaints about the food, the move to Israel, Moshe's leadership, Aharon's priesthood and, finally, the punishment meted out to the community of complainers.
But when cataloging the complaints, a fascinating fact emerges. The first and last complaints of the book receive favorable response from God. Back in chapter 9, a group of people approach Moshe and say: We are unclean because of contact with someone's corpse; why must we be kept from bringing the offering for God at the time designated for the people of Israel? (9:7). This special offering is the Paschal Lamb, and they feel nationally deprived on this first anniversary of the exodus. In this week's Torah reading we have the last complaint of this book, made by the daughters of Zelophchad. They explained their predicament in the following way: Our father died in the desert, but he was not in the assembly that banded together against the Lord in Korah's assembly, but he died for his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father's name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father's brothers (27:3-4).
These two episodes have two major items in common. First, the language is similar. Both grievances begin with the word tikrav or come close. The purpose of the objection was to come closer to God and the nation. They approach Moshe respectfully. Also, in their statement they use the term tigra or diminish. Their case is based on the principle of equality. If they are denied, they would be less connected to the Jewish people. Secondly, they both win. But because their complaint isn't about them, their victory isn't expressed personally. In the case of those who missed the Passover offering, it states: Any person who becomes unclean from contact with the dead, or is on a distant journey, whether among you or in future generations, he shall make a Passover sacrifice for the Lord. In the second month, on the fourteenth day (9:10-11). Concerning the daughters of Zelofchad, it says: If any man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter (27:8). This is crucial, these grievances aren't whiny or personal. They are about equality within the Law.
But there's something special about the daughters of Zelofchad. They are identified: Machlah, Chaglah, Tirtzah, Milkah and Noa. The virtue of their case is equaled by their personal merit. And just to make sure that no one misunderstands and believes that the listing of their names is coincidental or accidental, the names are repeated in the last chapter of Numbers. And the Bible triples down on this by again listing them in the book of Joshua (17-3), when the tribal portions are distributed. Their merit continued in history, because archeological studies have found five towns (not in Long Island) carried their names north of Shechem in the 4th century BCE. They even get honorable mention in literature as five daughters are the issue in Fiddler on the Roof, and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The Torah testifies to their great merit by using a phrase usually reserved for Moshe and Aharon, kein asu or 'and so they did'. Our book of Numbers ends its issues of tribes, portions and complaints by praising the daughters of Zelofchad. They must deserve the credit.
So, and I hope my family isn't reading this, it's okay to complain, if it's done correctly. Based on the two terms, tikrav and tigra, great complaints have two attributes: respect and justice. When the grievance is respectfully presented and the object of the protest is fairness, then it is a worthy issue, deserving attention. But whining and bickering, just don't deserve serious consideration. So, if you're thinking, 'Is he done yet!' Knock it off!