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Changes in the law

Parshat Matot/Masei

Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

Our double portion is the end of the book of Numbers.  The children of Israel are poised to enter the Promised Land.  Preparations are being made on the steppes of Moab to cross over and begin a new phase-occupying and settling the land and building a home for the Israelite nation.  Last week the daughters of Zelophechad made history by changing the way the land was apportioned and inherited. When a male member of the tribe had no male heirs their portion of the land could now be passed on to his daughters.  This was the ruling by God and created a new precedent for the Twelve Tribes. 

But in this week’s portion the practical application of the law creates a new problem.  The heads of the tribe of Manaseh come to Moses and the chieftains and the heads of the Israelites. They worry about their holdings being reduced if the five daughters of Zelophechad marry outside of their tribe.  One of the unique parts of God’s ruling in their favor was that the daughters had the right not only to inherit from their father but to pass on that inheritance to their descendants.  The tribal holdings of land were in perpetuity.  The tribal leaders don’t object to the women having the claim and the stake hold but worry that if they marry outside the tribe then that portion of Manasseh’s land holding could be diminished.

Thus we have a dilemma—the practical application of the Divine judgment! The text tells us that Moses speaking for God renders a decision. We don’t know if Moses actually takes the case before God-but tradition wants us to assume that.  It might be Moses trying to make sense of it all on his own. 

But the daughters were restricted in who they could marry.  They had to marry within the tribe so that the land holdings could be preserved for the tribe of Manasseh.  This was important because one has to remember that they are not yet in the land.  This anticipates their holdings and so at the time of the division of the land, keeping the boundaries intact took on a greater importance.

The Rabbis of the Talmud were clear that this was a practical application of the law that only applied in that generation—keeping the possibility that women might inherit from their son-less fathers!

And so before us we see evolving law.  It is not static but adaptive.  And this is important for all of us who are liberal Jews! We know and see that things change with the times and change in the practical applications of daily life.  And this should bring us comfort to find that even Moses in the wilderness understood that Jewish law must grow and change.  Even as we understand it today!