Thursday, July 5, 2007

Men are from Egypt, Women are from Israel

If you can remember back to the beginning of the book of Bamidbar, our story began with a census. Now it’s forty years later and the Jews stand on the banks of the Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land. Here G-d orders another census. The numbers haven’t changed much and this count might seem insignificant, but it serves to make a depressing point:

Among those [counted now] there was not one man [who was previously] counted by Moshe and Aaron the priest when they took a census of the Jews in the Sinai Desert. This was because G-d had decreed to them, “They shall die in the desert.” Not a single man survived, with the exception of Calev the son of Yefunah and Yehoshuah the son of Nun.

Bamidbar 26:64-65

The terrible sins of the Golden Calf and the episode of the spies doomed the generation of the Exodus to death in the desert. This explains why the nation had not grown. The privilege of entry into the Promised Land would be reserved for the next generation, the children.

Rashi notes the stress on “men” in the verses above. “Not one man [who was previously] counted by Moshe and Aaron the priest…” “Not a single man survived.” What about the women?

The women were not included in the decree [that resulted from the sin] of the spies, for they loved the land [of Israel]. The men said, “Let’s appoint a [new] leader and return to Egypt” (Bamidbar 14:4), but the women said, “Give us a piece of property!” (27:4).

Rashi ad loc.

The sin of the spies was perpetrated solely by men! The truth is, this surprising fact is evident from the language of the sin itself. Here is the recorded reaction of the Jews when they heard the spies’ defeatist report:

That night, the people wept… “We wish we had died in Egypt! We should have died in this desert! Why is G-d bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives! It would be best to go back to Egypt…”

Bamidbar 14:1-3

Obviously it is men who are speaking here and not women. Only men would worry about “wives” being taken captive.

While the primary sin was a lack of faith in G-d’s ability to defeat the enemy, there is another point here. The men are apparently only concerned about their own lives and the lives of their wives and children. This is understandable; they love life and they love their families. But what about Israel? Is their no love for Israel? Should they not also bemoan the loss of the Promised Land? Does the homeland of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov mean nothing to them? The eternal divine promise, the dream of the Exodus, the great national aspiration to build a Jewish state in the Holy Land goes up in smoke and no one says a word?! This is a tragedy all its own. Had the Jews only mourned the perceived loss of Israel, or even just expressed some upsetness, their fate would surely have been different.

The depressing census of our parsha, which revealed that the men had all died out because they betrayed Israel, is followed by the inspiring story of the daughters of Tzelafchad – women whose love for Israel was strong and proud.

The daughters of Tzelafchad came forward [with a petition]. [Tzelafchad was] the son of Chefer, [who was the] son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Menashe, of the family of Yosef’s son Menashe…
“Our father died in the desert… Why should our father’s name be disadvantaged in his family merely because he did not have a son? Give us a piece of property along with our father’s brothers.”

Bamidbar 27:1,3-4

These women have confidence in an ultimate Jewish victory in Israel, and their confidence has its source in faith in G-d and a love for the Promised Land.

Rashi notes the stress here on linage. Why does the Torah need to trace these women back to Yosef? Rashi’s answer is that their love for Israel came to them from their great zeide.

Why does the verse say “of the family of Yosef’s son Menashe”? It already told us [that Machir was] “son of Menashe.” The point is this: Yosef loved Israel, as we can see [from his last will] “You will bring up my bones from here” (Bereishit 50:25) and his granddaughters loved Israel [as we can see from their request] “Give us a piece of property.” This teaches you that everyone [in this line back to Yosef] was righteous.

Rashi ad loc.

In other words, Yosef’s love for Israel was faithfully passed down from one righteous generation to the next, through the painful exile of Egypt, until it expressed itself centuries later in the daughters of Tzelafchad – even though neither they nor their fathers had ever seen the place! With the right education, love for Israel can survive the Diaspora.

Again, it is women whose love for Israel shines through. This love protected them from the sin of the spies, but we should remember that women did not participate in the Sin of the Golden Calf either (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 45). Women are the unsung heroes of the Desert Generation.

What are we to make of all this? Is the Torah telling us something about women? Are women special? I don’t think so. All we are being told here is that they didn’t sin. There is nothing special about women who don’t sin; there is something wrong with men who do. The Torah is saying something to Jewish men. It would seem that innate gender differences are at the root of these observable discrepancies in behavior.

Without stereotyping, we should be aware of certain common tendencies. It is a masculine characteristic to be aggressive and reckless. “Boys will be boys.” And it is a feminine characteristic to be patient, sentimental and concerned about relationships and love. These are generalities, but that doesn’t make the reality any less real.

When it comes to our relationship with Israel, it wouldn’t hurt Jewish men to be a little more feminine.


  1. Those who descend from the saintly Rabbi Reines, the founder of the Mizrachi movement, as you do, show that today as well this idea has been "faithfully passed down from one righteous generation to the next."

    A gutten Shabbos!

  2. Reena asked: if women didn't sin....(ie gold calf, sin of the spies) why do we have to fast?

    Good question! I guess we're all in this together.

  3. Rabbi,

    The Rashi comment you quote is interesting in light of the fact that the tribe of Manashe had a quite of few members who did not want to live on the western side of the Jordon. I suppose this makes it important for Rashi to point out that there were elements in the tribe who were able to go to the other extreme and show great love for the land.

    It is also interesting to think about how for Menashe, Kana'an was not a homeland from birth, as he was born in Egypt. In addition, if as the tradition states, he was born from a line which went back to Dinah, the only explicitly reported daughter of Jacob, he would be a member of a family which never had a share in the land because she was not the head of a tribe. It is no wonder we see both extremes in his descendants - great desire for the land and disinterest in it.