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Woman Warrior: The Daughters of Tzelafchad

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Woman warrior

Not much is known about the lives of Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah. But at a defining moment in the history of Israel, these five sisters, daughters of Tzelafchad the son of Chefer, profoundly influenced the Jew’s approach to the world in which he lives.

Tzelafchad was of the generation born in Egyptian slavery, liberated by the Exodus, and granted the Land of Canaan as Israel’s eternal heritage. Although that generation did not merit to take possession of the land themselves, when their children crossed the Jordan River to conquer it they did so as their fathers’ heirs. Each family received its share in the land in accordance with its apportionment among the 600,000 members of the generation of the Exodus.

Tzelafchad had five daughters but no sons. The laws of inheritance as they were initially given in the Torah, which recognized only male heirs, made no provision for his share to be claimed by his descendants. Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah refused to reconcile themselves to this, and approached Moses with the petition: “Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family, because he has no son? Grant us an estate amongst [the heirs of] our father’s brothers.”[1]

Moses presented their argument to G-d, who responded: “The daughters of Tzelafchad speak rightly. Give … their father’s estate to them.”[2] G-d then instructed Moses to include the following clause in the Torah’s laws of inheritance: If a man dies and he has no son, you shall pass his estate on to his daughter.[3]

Two Generations

On the individual level, each of us faces these two tasks throughout our lives: the endeavor to liberate and actualize our soul’s spiritual potential, and the challenge to make our material life and environment a holy and G-dly place. We each must struggle to make the transition from a childhood and youth devoted to self-development and self perfection to a life of productive involvement with the outside world.
The Exodus and the conquest of the Land-the two events which framed the 40 years in which we were forged as a people-represent the two primary endeavors of life. “Going out of Egypt” represents the liberation of the soul from all that confines and inhibits[4] its true self and will; “conquering and settling the Land of Canaan” represents the conquest of the material world and its development as a “home for G-d”-as an environment receptive to and expressive of the goodness and perfection of its Creator.

The generation of the Exodus succeeded in the first endeavor but failed in the second. They extricated themselves from the pagan culture and slave mentality in which they were immersed, refining their souls to the point of worthiness to receive the Truth of Truths directly from G-d at Sinai. But they spurned the task of “conquering and settling the land,” loath to abandon their spiritual hermitage in the desert in order to grapple with the materiality of the world and labor to transform “The Land of Canaan” into “The Holy Land.” So it was decreed that they would live out their lives in the desert, leaving it to their children to settle the land in their stead.

On the individual level, each of us faces these two tasks throughout our lives: the endeavor to liberate and actualize our soul’s spiritual potential, and the challenge to make our material life and environment a holy and G-dly place. We each must struggle to make the transition from a childhood and youth devoted to self-development and self perfection to a life of productive involvement with the outside world.

A Different Conquest

But people are different from one another. In the words of the Talmud, “Just as their faces are different, so are their characters different.”[5] There are bold characters and meek characters, aggressive natures and passive dispositions. There are those of us who revel in a challenge, and those who are all but devoid of the warrior instinct and the zeal for confrontation.

Not all conquests are achieved by overpowering one’s adversary. At times, receptiveness and empathy are far more effective in overcoming the hostility of the “enemy” and transforming its very nature.
Therein lies the deeper significance of the laws of inheritance as commanded by G-d in response to the petition by the daughters of Tzelafchad. “If a man … has no son” – if a person ascertains in his or her self a lack of “male” aggressiveness and combativeness  -he might deduce from this that he has no role to play in the “conquest of the land.” Such a person might be inclined to devote all his energies to the refinement of his inner self, and leave the task of sanctifying an unholy world to those with “sons.”

Says the Torah: conquering and settling the land is not an exclusively male endeavor. Each of Israel’s souls has a “portion in the land” – a corner of the material world it is empowered to possess, civilize and sanctify. Indeed, this is a task which often calls for aggressiveness and confrontation; but there is also a “feminine” way to transform the materiality of our lives into a “Holy Land.”

“If a man … has no son, you shall pass his estate on to his daughter.” The very fact that a person is by nature disinclined toward the aggressiveness of the “male warrior” indicates that he has been granted the capacity to transform his surroundings via his “daughter” – by employing the passive, compassionate, non-confrontational side of his soul.

This is the law of life revealed by the daughters of Tzelafchad: Not all conquests are achieved by overpowering one’s adversary. At times, receptiveness and empathy are far more effective in overcoming the hostility of the “enemy” and transforming its very nature. The absence of a “male heir” in the soul may in fact indicate the presence of a “feminine” self no less capable of claiming the soul’s portion in the world and transforming it into a “home for G-d.”

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Tammuz 13, 5715 (July 3, 1955) and on other occasions.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

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[1] Numbers 27:4.

[2] Ibid. v. 7.

[3] Ibid. v. 8.

[4] Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for “Egypt,” means “confines” and “limitations.”

[5] Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 10.

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2 Responses to “Woman Warrior: The Daughters of Tzelafchad”

  1. Toba (Cohn) Woodruff

    I am going through a bit of a bump in the road right now with health and employment. I have not read the entire story, as a matter of fact knew nothing about it before today. I think I had a divine appointment where God put this little 2 year old in my path only to hear briefly how she got her name. This inspired me to read your interpretation of the story I need courage,& strength, and think that God wants me to read this to learn about others. so, thank you.

  2. Marissa

    This was a great article! Im Christian, but was looking for understanding on what conquering the land of Canaan represents in my world of work, as I look to hear from G-d re: what Hes telling me to conquer. That you added the feminine aspect of how we conquer was eye-opening to me (not new, but I just didnt tie it in with Joshua 6 before), and makes so much more sense in line with who I am.

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