The 'Three Weeks' and the Parasha

Parashat Pinchas invariably falls during the Three Weeks of mourning for our lost Land and destroyed Holy Temple.

Daniel Pinner ,

Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Of the various episodes which Parashat Pinchas records in its 168 verses, the incident with the daughters of Tzlof’chad (Zelophehad) appears to be central (Numbers 27:1-11).

Tzlof’chad, of the Tribe of Menashe, had no sons and five daughters. The five sisters reminded Moshe that their father had died in the desert, “and he was not among the congregation who had conspired against Hashem in Korach’s congregation, rather he died because of his own sin, and he had no sons” (v. 3).

The five sisters argued that they should therefore inherit their family’s land-inheritance in the Land of Israel.

Moshe, uncertain of how to decide, “brought their legal claim before Hashem” (v. 4), and Hashem Himself endorsed their claim: “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: The daughters of Tzlof’chad speak correctly!” (vs. 6-7).

Who was Tzlof’chad?

The Midrash (Sifrei Numbers, Shelach Lecha 113) records two different opinions.

According to Rabbi Akiva, he was the Jew who had gathered sticks on Shabbat and was executed for it (Numbers 15:32-36).

Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira categorically rejects this view: “In the future time to come,” he says, “anyone who says that Tzlof’chad was the stick-gatherer will have to justify himself in judgement! As if He Who spoke and created the world protected his identity, and you expose him! Rather, he was one of those who came to Israel ”.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira were close colleagues and friends, both had a deep and abiding and passionate love for the Land of Israel, and both were pursued by the Roman occupation authorities for fighting for Jewish independence in Israel.

Rabbi Akiva was caught by the Romans and tortured to death for teaching Torah against Roman law (Berachot 61b).

Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira, who was born in Rome and lived in Israel, survived by escaping from Israel. He left Israel together with Rabbi Matiya ben Heresh, Rabbi Hanina ben Achi, and Rabbi Yehoshua.

When they reached the border of Israel they parted ways: Rabbi Matiya went to Rome and founded a yeshivah there, while Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yehudah went to Babylon. At the border, about to leave the Land of Israel, their eyes filled with tears and they rent their clothes in mourning (Sifrei Deuteronomy 80).

Maybe Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira differed in their views of who could have bequeathed such a passionate love of the Land of Israel to his daughters. Since Tzlof’chad “was not among the congregation who had conspired against Hashem in Korach’s congregation”, but was nevertheless a sinner who had “died for his own sin”, Rabbi Akiva saw him as the wood-gatherer, the man who desecrated Shabbat immediately after the sin of the spies.

Maybe Rabbi Akiva reckoned: Since the wood-gatherer had obviously kept Shabbat every week since the Torah had been given more than a year previously, his fall was a result of his despair at ever reaching the Land of Israel. In this case, even though he desecrated Shabbat, he bequeathed his love of the Land to his daughters.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira disagreed. Had Tzlof’chad really committed so grievous a sin the Torah would not have hidden it. Rather, he was among those who had such a passionate, unquenchable love for the Land of Israel that they were determined to go up to Israel, even after G-d forbade them.

Their love for the Land cost them their lives – “for love is as powerful as death” (Song of Songs 8:6) – but at least they proved their love for the good Land (albeit too late). Even though G-d Himself had forbidden them to ascend to Israel, they loved it, and “great waters cannot extinguish the love” (ibid. v. 7) and “there is no water other than Torah” (Bava Kamma 17a, Avodah Zarah 5b, Kohelet Rabbah 11:1, and countless other places).

Even the Torah – G-d’s explicit command not to go up to the Land of Israel – could not extinguish their love for the Land of Israel. And this was the passionate, inexorable love for the Land of Israel that Tzlof’chad bequeathed to his daughters.

Tzlof’chad was the grandson of Gilead (Numbers 27:1), whose allotted portion was in Trans-Jordan (the Tribe of Menashe had been allocated two portions of land, one west of the River Jordan and the other east of it, the region currently occupied by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan); hence we would have expected Tzlof’chad’s daughters to inherit their portion in Gilead, in trans-Jordanian Israel.

However their portion was in Menashe’s territory west of the River Jordan (Joshua 17:3-6). Such was their love for the Land of Israel that they insisted on inheriting in the Land of Israel “proper”, so to speak, and not settling for the second-best.

The Torah introduces this episode with the words, “The daughters of Tzlof’chad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Menashe, of the family of Menashe son of Joseph, approached…and they stood before Moshe and before Elazar the Kohen and before the Tribal leaders and the entire congregation” (Numbers 27:1-2).

The Midrash infers their uncompromising love for the Land of Israel from this wording:

“‘The daughters of Tzlof’chad…approached’ – when the daughters of Tzlof’chad heard that the Land was being divided up among the Tribes, for the men but not the women, they all gathered together to take advice…

“By [referring to their father as] ‘son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Menashe, of the family of Menashe son of Joseph’, the Torah tells us that just as Joseph loved the Land of Israel, so too his descendants equally loved the Land of Israel” (Sifrei Numbers, Pinchas 133).

Rashi (commentary to Numbers 27:1) paraphrases this Midrash and amplifies it:

“Why does the Torah say ‘of the family of Menashe son of Joseph’? After all, it already said ‘son of Menashe’! – To teach you that Joseph loved the Land, as it says ‘And you will bring my bones up from here with you’ (Exodus 13:19), and his daughters loved the Land, as it says ‘Give us an inheritance’ (Numbers 27:4)”.

Joseph so loved the Land of Israel that he was distraught at being buried permanently in Egypt, so he enjoined the people that when their time would come to return home, they would disinter him and bring his remains with them to be buried in Israel. And indeed, the Book of Joshua concludes by recording that the Children of Israel obeyed his charge, burying Joseph in Shechem (Joshua 24:32), the main city of the Tribe of Ephraim (20:20-21).

Immediately after the episode of the daughters of Tzlof’chad, G-d himself adds the riposte:

“Hashem said to Moshe: Ascend this Mount Avarim, and see the Land which I have given to the Children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered unto your people” (Numbers 27:12-13).

Moshe would not achieve what Tzlof’chad’s daughters would achieve: he would not enter the Land of Israel, would not have any share or inheritance in it.

Nevertheless, Moshe had but one request at this juncture:

“May Hashem, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out in front of them and who will come in front of them, who will lead them out and will bring them in; so that the Congregation of Hashem will not be as a sheep-flock without a shepherd” (vs. 16-17).

This was Moshe’s concern: that Israel have leader who will know how to lead, and more specifically a leader who will know how to lead them into the Land of Israel:

“…a man… who will lead them out and will bring them in; so that the Congregation of Hashem will not be as a sheep-flock without a shepherd” means “...who will lead them out from the grasp of their enemies, and will bring them in to the Land of Israel; so that the Congregation of Hashem will not be without Sages, so they will not wander around among the nations as a sheep-flock wanders around without a shepherd” (Targum Yonatan).

Or as Rashi expounds, “‘…and who will bring them in’ – that You will not do to him [this leader] what You do to me, that I will not bring them in to the Land”.

Joshua was that leader – Joshua who, thirty-eight-and-a-half years earlier, had been one of the two spies who had stood steadfast against the ten evil spies, and together with Caleb had pleaded with the nation to follow them into Israel.

This is the prime demand of any Jewish national leader: one who will lead the nation fearlessly into the Land of Israel; one who will lead the nation in conquering the Land. All of the Land – from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan at the very least.

A leader who will fearlessly annex the entire Land of Israel, without pleading for permission from other nations, even if those nations be allies. A leader who will recognise that G-d Himself has promised this Land to us, and commanded us to live in it and to inherit it.

It is no coincidence that ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), e.Parashat Pinchas invariably falls during the Three Weeks of mourning for our lost Land and destroyed Holy Temple.

What happened during The Three Weeks

It is especially during this mournful time of the year that we need this message to be reinforced.

Last Thursday, the 17th of Tammuz, commemorated the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. by Babylon and in 70 C.E. by Rome.

(Actually the Babylonian siege began on 9th Tammuz, and this was the date of the fast until after the Second Temple was destroyed, the fast of the 9th of Tammuz was moved to the 17th, commemorating both historical events on the same day.)

The Jewish revolt against Roman occupation had begun in 66, and was initially successful, Jewish nationalist guerrilla forces defeating Roman soldiers in sporadic conflicts, eventually liberating all Jerusalem (remarkably similar to the early years of the Maccabean Revolt some two-and-a-third centuries earlier).

Four years on, Jerusalem was surrounded and besieged by four Roman legions – the Fifth, Twelfth, and Fifteenth to the west, and the Tenth on the Mount of Olives to the east. These legions were commanded by Titus (who nine years later would become Emperor of Rome) and his lieutenant, the renegade Jew Tiberius Julius Alexander.

Jerusalem was defended primarily by the Kanna’im (the Zealots), commanded by Yochanan ben Levi from Gush Halav (the last town in the Galilee to hold out against the Romans), Shimon bar Giora, and Elazar ben Shimon (not to be confused with the Tanna Elazar bar Shimon, the son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

All three of these Jewish leaders had already achieved impressive local victories against the Roman legions in different sectors in Israel, and all had proven themselves worthy and inspiring and able leaders. They all indisputably loved the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, they had demonstrated that they were willing to give their very lives for the Land.

But tragically, they all vied for leadership in besieged Jerusalem, each of them demanding ultimate command of the Jewish forces.

It was this lack of unified leadership, arguably more than any other single factor, which led the Jewish forces into defeat, destruction, and disaster for the generations.

Even so, Titus probably could not have defeated the Jewish forces without the help of two Jewish renegades and traitors, Tiberius Julius Alexander and Josephus Flavius, who knew Jerusalem, its defences, and the Jewish forces’ dispositions thoroughly.

Roman forces began closing in on Jerusalem, breaching the recently-built Third (outer) Wall about five weeks after Pesach, and the Second Wall a week later.

When they attacked the First (innermost) Wall and the Antonia Fortress (on the north-west corner of the Temple Mount) on 28th Iyyar 3830 (70 C.E.), Jewish forces repulsed the attack, successfully defending the heart of Jerusalem.

(It is intriguing that this last successful defence of Jerusalem occurred on the same date that Israel would liberate Jerusalem from Jordanian occupation in the Six Day War 1,897 years later.)

Titus regrouped his legions, built a siege wall, and launched a renewed attack some seven weeks later, breaching the First Wall and capturing the Antonia Fortress on the 17th of Tammuz.

And after three weeks of vicious, bloody fighting and desperate and heroic defence by Jewish forces, Titus’ Roman legions captured the rest of Jerusalem and destroyed the Holy Temple on the 9th of Av.

As then, so today. As long as we are united, as long as we are determined and steadfast in our faith, and as long as we have worthy leaders, no nation can withstand us. It is only dissent and wavering within our own ranks that can destroy us.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher and an electrician by profession; a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.