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Pinchas-The actions of people must be judged in context

The actions of people must always be judged in their context.   The Torah says in Bereshit  6:9, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.” At first, it seems that God chose Noah for his righteousness per se . However, delving deeper into the meaning of this pasuk (verse) gives us two different evaluations of his righteousness.


According to the Midrash Tanhuma, the meaning of “in his age” is “righteous in his age, but not in others…If someone places a silver coin among copper coins, the silver appears attractive. So Noah appeared righteous in the age of the flood.” This interpretation would indicate that Noah was merely a righteous person in the context of the corrupt society in which he lived.


However, the Midrash continues with another interpretation of what the pasuk means: “Others interpret the verse to Noah’s credit How so? It may be compared to a jar of balsam placed in a grave and it gave off a goodly fragrance. Had it been in the house how much more so! … How much more righteous would Noah have been, had he lived in a righteous generation!” This aspect of the Midrash indicates that Noah was a righteous man in an unrighteousness generation despite his evil surroundings. Had Noah been in a righteous environment, how much greater he would have been.  Actions are judged not just in themselves, but also in their context. The times, the surroundings, the circumstances, all affect the evaluation that we make of a person’s deeds.  This fact leads to two different interpretations of the Rabbis concerning the righteousness of Noah 

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas, includes the case of the daughters of

Zelophehad, who are Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noah. When their father dies, the five of them requested an inheritance in the land of Israel and brought their case before Moses to see if in spite of the fact that they don’t have brothers, that they should be able to inherit their father’s land. Up until this point,  it was thought that only men could inherit when others died. Moses, not sure of what to do, brings their case before God. God sides with Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noah and says that they should be able to inherit.


In examining the most extraordinary story of the daughters of Zelophehad who, it behooves us to look at the extraneous circumstance surrounding the request.   They approached Moshe for a portion of the Land at a time when the prevailing mood was widespread criticism of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and the community was demanding a longing for a return to “the wonderful life of Egypt”.  In Zelophehad’s daughters’  request to Moshe, they were in fact swimming against the against the prevailing current which was to renounce their right to Israel and to march back to Egypt, rather than press forward to the Promised Land.


R. Nathan said: “Women’s tenacity is stronger than men’s. The men of Israel [being willing to give up the Land] said: ‘Let us make a captain and let us return to Egypt’ (Numbers 14:4). But Israel’s women insisted: ‘Give unto us a possession’, “To teach you at what hour they stood before Moses, [it was] at the hour when the Israelites were saying, ‘Let us make a captain’ (Numbers14:4). Moses said to them: ‘Are not the Israelites asking to return to Egypt and you [feminine form] are seeking an inheritance in the land?’ They said to him: ‘We know that in the end all Israel will hold the land. And it is said: “It is time for the Eternal to work, they have made void Your Law.'” (Psalm 119:126). Don’t read it thus, rather: They have ‘broken your Law,’ now it is time (for us) to ‘act for the Eternal'” ( Yalkut Shimoni ).



The Midrash explains — consider the times. When everyone was yelling “Let’s go back to Egypt, this is not going to work, this is no good…” Moshe was taken aback by the request of these women. Their interest in and desire for the Land was totally out of step with the “issues of the day”.  They were determined. They said “We don’t care what everyone else is saying now, we know that the Land of Israel is where the future of the Israelites lies.” At a time when others are nullifying the Torah, that is the time to stand up and be counted.


Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, daughters of Zelophehad were like Jeremiah, who purchased land in Anatot even though Jerusalem’s destruction was imminent, as a way of showing his faith in the future (Jeremiah 32:9). His action was testimony to his belief that “houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jeremiah 32:15).


Similarly the daughters of Zelophehad, by coming to Moses with their plea for an inheritance, showed their faith in the fulfillment of God’s promise, “I will bring you into the land” (Exodus 6:8).


The Midrash here comments: “There are times when an individual can take the reward of an entire generation. Noah stood up against his generation (for 120 years) and took the reward that was destined for them; Avraham stood up to his generation and merited taking the reward of that whole generation; Lot stood up to the people of Sodom and took the reward that was destined for all of them.”  The Midrash concludes that the daughters of Zelophehad too, took the reward of their entire generation. because they stood in the face of the prevailing mood of their times and their community. For this reason the daughters are compared to Noah, Abraham, and Lot, who preserved righteousness in an impious generation or place. This Midrash relates to our lives today. Just as Noah, Abraham, and Lot prevailed in corrupt societies, so, too, can we prevail, and be the righteous people in our age. This righteousness can be displayed when even a mundane activity is heroic, given the atmosphere and climate.  In their plea for inheritance the daughters of Zelophehad have been compared by the Medrash with Avraham Avinu!

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