Light from the Sidra

Pinchas ['Phineas'] 10th July 2015. 24th Tammuz 5775

Torah: Numbers 25:10-30:1. Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Father and daughters

I once spent from seven in the evening until five the next morning in debate with an Orthodox Jewish man. To be willing to spend ten hours defending his faith in the middle of a working week was an indication of the sincerity of his beliefs but as dawn began to break over London, I asked if he knew he was going to go to heaven. ‘Of course I’ll go to heaven,’ he said fiercely. ‘How do you know?’ I asked. ‘Because I am a Jew! It is written in the Torah, “All Israel has a place in the world to come.”’ The ‘Torah’ he was referring to was not the written Torah but the Pirke Avot – ‘The Sayings of the Fathers’ – found in The Mishnah.

All Israel had a place in the Promised Land too but not every Jew made it. Due to disobedience, discontentment and rebellion, not all Israel made it from Egypt to Canaan. In Numbers 27 the five daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses to demand an inheritance in the land. When interpreting HASHEM’s precepts the Israelites, it seems, swung between total disobedience and rigid hyper-literalism. If, as was claimed by my Orthodox Jewish friend on that evening so many years ago, Moses received from God an exhaustive oral explanation of the written Torah on Mount Sinai, why did he have to ask God for wisdom to apply the inheritance laws in the case of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah?

These women, all of them under the age of forty because they are part of the generation born in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, were facing a future of destitution. All the promises of inheritance in the Promised Land were couched in terms of fathers and sons. Zelophehad had only daughters and it appears he had died before being able to arrange marriages for them. They needed security for after they crossed the Jordan. As things stood, if the commands of HASHEM were taken at face value the five women faced a disenfranchised future. What does the incident of these five sisters have to say to the Jewish people today?

First, the girls believed the promise of God. For six days out of seven of their lives, these young women woke up to the sight of the ground coloured white with manna. After the manna had been gathered, as far as the eye could see they were surrounded by a rocky wasteland and lived under a mercilessly hot desert sun. Was it possible that a land existed that was not rocky and brown? And, if so, what did a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ look like? To describe such a land to the daughters of Zelophehad would be much the same as explaining a rainbow to a person who had never been able to see. But the girls believed the word of HASHEM. If they hadn’t believed they would have had no inheritance. All Israel might have a place in the world to come but unless individual Jews actually believe in the world to come they’ll have no place in it.

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah not only believed in the Promised Land, they wanted an inheritance in it. The second lesson these girls teach us, therefore, is that unless we believe in the world to come we’ll have no part in it. I’ve met religious Jewish people who scrupulously prepare for Shabbat and for the festivals, who plan their summer holidays months in advance but who say they never think about whether they will have a place in the world to come.

The third lesson from Numbers 27 is that the daughters of Zelophehad asked for an inheritance in the Promised Land. It would have been so easy for them to assume that all would be well or that something would turn up. But Zelophehad’s daughters took the word of HASHEM seriously. If HASHEM said he was taking Israel to a land flowing with milk and honey, then he was taking Israel to a land flowing with milk and honey (whatever that might mean). They wanted a place in that land so they asked for an inheritance in it.
The British public was aghast when it learned exactly 33 years ago that a 33-year-old unemployed decorator called Michael Fagan had entered Buckingham Palace in the early hours of 9th July 1982. According to the papers, he helped himself to the Queen’s Cheddar and crackers and half a bottle of wine before wandering into the monarch’s bedroom. According to Michael Fagan's mother, ‘He thinks so much of the Queen. I can imagine him just wanting to simply talk and say hello and discuss his problems.’ Instead, her son was given opportunity to tell his problems to the judge. I’m reasonably confident that none of my readers is planning to make an unannounced nocturnal call on Her Majesty but I also know that some may well imagine that after they shuffle off this mortal coil they’ll be able to stroll unannounced into the palace of the King of kings where they’ll set up home for eternity.

The final lesson to learn from Zelophehad’s daughters is that if we want a place in the world to come we must not only believe in the inheritance, want an inheritance and ask for an inheritance but also to ask the right person for an inheritance. For Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, the right person to approach to solve the inheritance dilemma was Moses, the mediator of the covenant between HASHEM and Israel. To be certain of an inheritance in the eternal world to come, however, an eternal mediator infinitely greater than Moses is required.

Only the Messiah, the mediator of the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34, is capable of granting us a place in the world to come. Until their dilemma was solved Zelophehad’s daughters were excluded from the Promised Land on the grounds of their gender; you and I are excluded from God’s kingdom on the grounds of our moral failure.

The New Testament letter to Messianic believers in the Turkish city of Colosse says that believers in Messiah have been made fit to be partakers of ‘the portion in the light assigned to those who belong to God.’ Just as Israel was redeemed from the power of pharaoh and removed to Canaan, we need to be ‘delivered… out of the power of darkness, and removed into the Kingdom of [Messiah].

The four most important question you can ever ask yourself are: Is there a world to come? Do I have a place in the world to come? Have I asked for a place in the world to come? Have I asked right person for a place in the world to come? Our eternal welfare depends on whether or not we can sincerely answer Yes to them all. If you’ve not done it already, do it right now!

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