May 28, 2024
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Parallels and Contrasts for the Future

Something does not seem right about the order of topics in parshas Masei. First, it is odd that the discussion of Tzelafchad’s daughters appears at the end of the parsha and not earlier. While examining this question, other questions concerning the organization of the parsha appear.

Parshas Masei begins by listing all 42 locations where Bnei Yisrael—under the leadership of Moshe and Ahron—camped in the wilderness during the 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt. (30:1-4). At this stage, we should ask why the reference to both Moshe and Ahron? Another question: Why does the Torah point out that the Egyptians were busy burying their dead as Bnei Israel were leaving Egypt? The Torah, then, mentions Ahron’s death and the beginning of the land’s conquest. At this juncture, the land’s borders are set out as are the names of those tribal leaders who will assist in apportioning the land. This would be the opportune place to bring up the concerns the leaders of Menashe had about Tzelafchad’s daughters marrying out of the tribe.

They were concerned that if these women married out of the tribe, then at yovel (the jubilee year), the tribe would lose a portion of their land. This is because the land Tzelafchad’s daughters received would pass by inheritance to their offspring who will be of the different tribe, as tribal status passes the father and not the mother. The Torah, however, does not raise this concern until the parasha’s end. Instead, we have a discussion of the cities the Levites will receive. Some of these cities will be cities of refuge (ערי המקלט). This leads to a discussion of the laws and procedures concerning such cities. Only, thereafter, do we hear concerns about Tzlovchad’s daughters.

So, why this organization of topics or references? 1) The mention of Moshe and Ahron; 2) the mention that the Egyptians were burying their dead; 3) the listing of the 42 encampments; 4) the death of Ahron; 5) the identification of the land’s borders and the leaders who will help apportion the land; 6) the 42 Levite cities and laws of the city of refuge; 7) the concerns of heads of the tribe of Menashe about Tzelafchad’s daughters. Upon examination, it appears that these topics are arranged to highlight contrasts and parallels. (1 and 7, 2 and 7, 3 and 6, 4 and 5.)

The first and seventh topics—the mention of Moshe and Ahron and the concerns of heads of the tribe of Menashe about Tzelafchad’s daughters—reflect two different focuses of leadership. Moshe and Ahron led the people to spiritual prosperity. Moshe represents rabbinic leadership and prophecy, the Sanhedrin; and Ahron, of course, represents the kehunah, the priesthood. In contrast, the heads of the tribe of Menashe were concerned with material prosperity.

The reference to the Egyptians burying their dead and Tzelafchad’s daughters (2 and 7) form another contrast. Egyptian culture was fixated on the dead and idolatry. The Egyptian failure to recognize Hashem led to the death of their firstborn sons. Similarly, Egyptian death rituals led to the sequestering vast amounts of wealth in tombs for their dead elite. This wealth could have been used for the living. The Egyptians were focused on the past to the detriment of those living in the present. Tzelafchad lacked a son, but his daughters wanted to perpetuate his memory through ownership of land that would yield produce for the living. Tzelafchad’s daughters focused on the future, while the Egyptians focused on the dead and the dead past.

The third and sixth topics are not contrasts, but parallels. There were 42 encampments in the wilderness and 42 Levitical cities. At each stop, Hashem protected Bnei Israel and they enjoyed the divine presence. According to the Gemara in Makkot 10a, the 42 Levite cities also functioned as cities of refuge. The six designated cities of refuge were given to the Levites and they were required to accept anyone who appeared there, who claimed to have killed inadvertently.

Although the other 42 Levitical cities also provided sanctuary, there were prerequisites for protections and individuals who fled there were required to pay rent while they dwelt there. In all these 48 cities, the Levites were engaged in Torah study and teaching. It was hoped that this would provide a spiritual uplift to the unintentional killer. Just as at each stop in the wilderness Hashem protected us and elevated us spiritually; so also, in each Levitical city, were people protected and spiritually elevated.

The death of Ahron and the identification of the land’s borders, and the leaders who will help apportion the land, are the final parallel. When Aharon died, the clouds of glory departed. Those clouds served as borders of the camp and protected Bnei Yisrael physically, while Ahron helped to protect them spiritually. Now, as the people entered the land of Israel, their borders would not be defined by fluid clouds, but definite geographic realities. Now, it would be up to the leaders of tribes to provide spiritual guidance and spiritual protection for those in their charge.

Recognizing the Torah created in the parsha parallels and contrasts as an educational device does not, however, address our original question. Why does the discussion of Tzelafchad’s daughters appear at the end of the parsha?

The placement of this topic at the end of the parsha—while the beginning of the parsha lists where Bnei Yisrael encamped after leaving Egypt—creates a “bookend structure.” The beginning of the parsha looks to the past. In contrast, the elders of the tribe of Menashe are concerned with the future. Through this arrangement, we are being taught that we cannot properly plan for the future, unless we remain cognizant of our past. Additionally, the original request of the daughters’ of Tzelafchad is, itself, rooted in the past, while looking to the future. Those righteous women stated clearly that they were concerned that their father’s name would not be erased in the years to come, by having him denied an allotment of land simply because he did not have sons. They were concerned that the future generations recall the past and preserve the past while developing the future.

It makes sense that Masei is almost always read on the Shabbos of Mevarchim Av as we enter the most intense period of mourning. If we are to bring about a brighter future for ourselves and our children, if we are to see the restoration of the temple in Yerushalayim, we must be cognizant of the lengthy path that brought about the destruction. We must be cognizant of our failures during the intervening eons that prevented rebuilding the “house” where Hashem will dwell within our midst.

May Israel, Jerusalem and Zion quickly be restored.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a Board member and officer of several orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this devar Torah are solely his own.

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