Massei: Even within the Torah itself lawmaking is always in progress

In this week’s reading, Massei (מַסְעֵי — Hebrew for “journeys”, Moses reviews the forty years of Israelite journeys through the desert. The Torah discusses the boundaries of Israel, its division amongst the tribes, the cities which the Levites would receive, and the cities of refuge. God makes a precise distinction between murder and manslaughter.

At the end of Massei, the last portion of B’midbar, we meet again the daughters of Zelophehad who brought about important legislation in Parashat Pinchas. Whereas their earlier request (Numbers 27.5-7) to inherit from their father was approved by God when first they stepped forward to ask, this time their male relatives appeal the earlier decision, noting that „if they [the daughters of Zelophehad] marry persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion . . .; thus our allotted portion will be diminished“ (36:3). Moses is not seen speaking to God this time. He himself is making an amendement to the law of God, requiring women who inherit ancestral land to marry into a clan of their father’s tribe (36:6), which limits the women’s choice of spouses and keeps the property within the tribe.

Their story, included in Torah in such detail, speaks to the importance of their desire and the ability to change norms and expectations, as well as Moses willingness to bend when persuasive needs and desires of others arise. That Moses allows, even aids, in changing his earlier rulings and God’s previous instructions, adds to the long list of what we can learn from him (and from God) about law, leadership, and life.

Amendments made in the laws, emphasize the need for lawmakers and decision makers to look at the rights of all, and not just the issues brought by „lobbyists“. The most effective and enduring changes are those that create justice for all.

There seems little doubt that by joining together and speaking out, Mahlah, Noah, Tirzah, Hoglah and Milcah brought change that otherwise would not have occurred. Also, these episodes demonstrate how an idea may require fine-tuning even after it becomes law. All through the Book of Numbers, we have seen examples of how Torah sets the stage for processes of change, showing us that even within the Torah itself lawmaking is always in progress, requiring flexibility to change as issues arise and society evolves.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik
Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Shabbat Shalom

Torah reading: Parashat Massei, Num 33.1-36.13
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4–28; 4:1–2. (This week’s haftarah is the second of a series of three “haftarot of affliction.”)

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