A man named Tzlafchad died in the wilderness with no male heirs, leaving his family’s assets and prospective plot in Israel in limbo. His daughters pointed out this legal grey area to Moshe:
לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן תְּנָה לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ – 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. (27:4)
Rashi explains that this was not an emotional request, rather, a halachic one. If they would not inherit him, then their mother ought to perform yibum – levirate marriage, passing on the assets in this way. If they were considered progeny enough to avoid yibum, they ought to be progeny enough to inherit the plot in Israel. If they had had a brother, they would not have made a claim.
This seems very straightforward – what was so intelligent about this?
R’ Yehoshua Hartman explains that they demonstrated their understanding of property’s place in life, and the function of inheritance.
The conventional wisdom is that when someone dies, assets are transferred. It is a default process – assets cannot lie unclaimed. This is misguided.
What they understood was that all property is simply tools God grants a person to accomplish what they are meant to. The tools assigned are specific to an individual. Ownership means the use of an article to further the users goals. The Gemara notes that the righteous are meticulous with their possessions – for this reason.
When someone dies, the re-allocation of assets is only to perpetuate the name of the deceased, which lives on their property. The people who continue their legacy inherit, usually their children.
The daughters said if they weren’t continuations of their father’s legacy with regard to inheritance, then they ought not to be a continuation to absolve their mother of yibum. They understood that the function of both is the same – to continue the legacy of a father.
The association was so piercingly accurate, that Hashem told Moshe that they had intuited an unknown law. This displayed their intelligence.
This is very different to how society values possessions today. People are measured by the size of their driveway and its contents, as though that is the measure of a man, and not their character. This episode clearly articulates that property is given to people as tools. All “stuff” is value neutral. A million dollars says nothing about you. What you do with it says everything.
After assuaging God’s wrath and ending the plague, Pinchas is hailed:
פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי – Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Ahron HaKohen, has turned My anger away from the children of Israel with his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. (25:11)
Rashi notes that his ancestry is traced to his grandfather, which is unusual. People were and are normally identified as their father’s son. This is an exception as people mocked him taking action against Zimri, saying his mother’s father, Yisro, had been a pagan idol worshipper; so the Torah identifies him as being of good stock.
R’ Yonasan Eibshutz wonders what there was to mock. After the fact, the plague stopped and he was hailed as a hero, but even before taking action, no doubt any lucid person would identify that Zimri was liable to the death penalty. So why mock him?
R’ Eibshutz answers that they accepted that Zimri was guilty, but did not kill him themselves because they believed a simple person had to do it; they held themselves too great to carry out the execution. Their mockery was that the idolator’s offspring could!
The Torah identifies his heritage to Ahron – he actually was great. Their reasoning was simply an excuse. When circumstances call for action, someone has to stand up and be counted.
The opening of Yirmiyahu perfectly illustrates this:
וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ ה’ הִנֵּה לֹא-יָדַעְתִּי דַּבֵּר כִּי-נַעַר אָנֹכִי. וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֵלַי אַל-תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי כִּי עַל-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁלָחֲךָ תֵּלֵךְ וְאֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוְּךָ תְּדַבֵּר – I said, “Alas, God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am just a kid!” And the Lord said to me; “Do not say to me Me “I am just a kid,” because wherever I send you, you will go, and whatever I command you, you will say”. (1:6-7)
R Nosson Vachtvogel remarked how many great people fell by the wayside by not internalizing אַל-תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי. The Gemara teaches that every individual must walk through life believing that the entire universe was created exclusively for their sake.
There is a time and place for everything; there is a time to be humble and keep your opinion to yourself; but there may be a time to stand up and change the world. It’s as simple as recognizing an issue, and being ready to something about it.