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Light from the Sidra

Pinchas (‘Phinehas’). 30th July 2016. 24th Tammuz 5776.

Torah: Numbers 25:10–30:1(29:40)*. Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1–2:3

Five feisty feminists full of faith

If, as some believe, an Oral Torah had been delivered to Moses at Sinai there would have been no need for the incident recorded in Numbers 27. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha and Tirzah, the five daughters of Zelophehad, seem to me to be examples of biblical feminism. The Israelites were virtually on the border of the Promised Land and the five sisters were in danger of becoming homeless vagabonds. The generation that left Egypt was dead and their father Zelophehad was dead but not for being part of Korah’s rebellion against Moses. Zelophehad had left no sons and all the promises of land inheritance in Canaan had been addressed to the male heads of families, so his daughters were in a tight spot. As things stood, they were faced with the very real possibility of being homeless. What were they to do? They had to ask Moses, who had to inquire of HASHEM.

Each chapter of Pirke Avot opens with, ‘All Israel have a portion in the world to come’ before going on to expound the ethics of the Fathers but in Numbers 27, the concerns of the daughters of Zelophehad are focussed on a portion in this world and, as such, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha and Tirzah have much to teach us about attaining the world to come. Canaan to them was a land to come and the principles by which these five women obtained a portion in that world provide an infallible guide to those of us who long for a heavenly inheritance.

First of all, the sisters believed there was an inheritance to come. We don’t know their precise ages but as they had been born in the wilderness, they were all under the age of forty. All their lives, for six mornings out of every seven, when they woke and went outside their tents the ground was white with manna. After the manna had been collected the Sinai desert looked like a lunar landscape with only the odd acacia tree to break the monotonous topography. The people of Israel had been promised a land flowing with milk and honey; a green, fertile land with all manner of trees and plants. For people born in that environment, imagining a green and pleasant land would be as difficult as a man born blind imagining a rainbow. But in spite of never having seen green pastures, vines, and fruit trees, the five sisters believed there was a world to come on the other side of the Jordan and they wanted a portion in it. No atheists or agnostics will attain heaven; if we are to gain the world to come we must believe in it.

Secondly, the daughters of Zelophehad wanted a portion in the earthly world to come. I was once on a train to Portsmouth, minding my own business, when a man across the carriage asked what I was reading. I held up my book. ‘Ah, theology,’ he said and then began to tell me that he attended Winchester Cathedral every Sunday morning and how much he enjoyed the music and the worship. He was very religious, he told me. So if, God forbid, we were involved in a fatal crash and found ourselves in the next world, I asked, was he certain of being welcomed into heaven? He admitted that although he attended church regularly, he had no certainty that he could stand before God without fear of condemnation. ‘Would he like to know how you can be sure of heaven?’ I asked. Anyone arriving in the carriage at that precise moment and seeing the Winchester Cathedral fan’s face might have thought I’d just proposed removing his brain with a pail of blunt scissors. There was panic in his eyes and it was clear he no longer wanted to talk to me, so I went back to my book. If the daughters of Zelophehad had been like my travelling companion, they would have ended up homeless in the Promised Land.

The third lesson we can learn from Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha and Tirzah is that if we want to be certain of a portion in the world to come, we must ask. Had the sisters not taken action; had they simply hoped something would turn up, they would have remained without a portion in Canaan. The biggest mistake anyone can make in this life is to imagine that we all have a place in the world to come (unless, of course, they happen to be Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Pol Pot).

Just think back (if you can) to 9th July 1982, when Her Majesty the Queen woke in the early hours of the morning to find a stranger in her bedroom. The stranger was Michael Fagan, to all intents and purposes one of Her Majesty’s biggest and most loyal fans. It was, apparently, not Mr Fagan’s only nocturnal call at Buckingham Palace. On a previous visit he had apparently wandered round the palace, viewed the royal portraits, rested on the throne, helped himself to cheddar cheese and crackers and drunk a half bottle of white wine before taking his leave. On his subsequent and final visit, Fagan was escorted from the palace to spend the next six months in a mental institution.

From what the police were able to discern, Michael Fagan had no evil intentions and his mother explained that her son thought a great deal of the Queen. ‘I can imagine him just wanting to simply talk and say hello and discuss his problems’, she told the press, For most of us, the idea that we could simply walk (or, as Michael Fagan did, climb) into Buckingham Palace and make ourselves at home is something that – barring a bout of temporary insanity – would never occur to us. Why, then, do so many of us imagine that after we shuffle off this mortal coil we will wander uninvited into Gan Eden and set up home there without so much as a by-your-leave?

The last principle for inheriting the world to come is that Zelophehad’s daughters, went to the only person who could solve their dilemma; God’s appointed mediator Moses. If we hope to have a portion in the true world to come, it will take someone greater than Moses to make it possible. Moses was God’s mediator but he was appointed to deal with earthly issues only. Eternal issues, such as a place in the world to come are beyond the remit of rabbi, pastor, priest, guru or imam.

A couple of decades before the destruction of the second temple, a rabbi named Shaul wrote a letter to a congregation of Jews and Gentiles in the Turkish town of Colossae who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. At the start of the letter Shaul gives thanks to HASHEM that through the death of the Son of God, God had delivered them from the power of the Satan and qualified them to become ‘partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light’.

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha and Tirzah were women of faith. They believed the promises of God and were feisty enough to confront Moses to deal with their dilemma. Their faith was rewarded. In the light of their faith and their action, we must ask ourselves four questions: Do I believe in the world to come? Do I really want a portion in the world to come? Have I asked for a portion in the world to come? Have I asked the right Person?


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