What can we do to transmit a love of the Land of Israel to the next generation? Sefer Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers), by concluding with the case of Tzelofhad’s five daughters, touches on this very issue. These women (Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milca and Tirza) moved all the way up the judicial and political appellate ladder until they stood before Moses himself.

By insisting on their rights of inheritance, so that Tzelofhad would also have a portion in the future eternity of Israel through his descendants’ working and living in the Land of Israel, they won the case for female rights to inheritance, causing an entire addendum to be added to the previous inheritance laws of the Torah!

Who was this man, Tzelofhad, father of such special women, and how did he instill in them such a strong love for the Land of Israel? The Talmud [Shabbat 96b-97a] records a fascinating dispute that offers insights with far-reaching implications relating to transmitting that love.

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles:  8:04 p.m.
Torah: Num. 30:2-36:13
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-3:4; 4:1-2
Havdalah: 9:08 p.m.

According to Rabbi Akiva, “the one who gathered wood [on Shabbat and was stoned to death as a punishment] was Tzelofhad, as it is written, ‘and the People of Israel were in the desert and they found a man gathering wood,’ and later it is written, ‘our father died in the desert.’ Just as the second case refers to Tzelofhad, so, too, does the first.”

The Talmud also provides a different interpretation by Rabbi Yehuda ben-Beteyra, who even takes Rabbi Akiva to task for his commentary: “Akiva, whether or not you are correct in your identification [of Tzelofhad], you will eventually be punished. If it is as you say, then if the Torah saw fit to hide [Tzelofhad’s identification], why did you reveal it? And if you are mistaken, how dare you cast aspersions on such a righteous person? … Rather, from where did Tzelofhad come? From the group of brazen climbers (ma’apilim) atop the mountain [who defiantly attempted to conquer Israel without God in their midst and without the Holy Ark” [Num. 14:40–45].

From the perspective of this Talmudic discussion, we can glean much about Tzelofhad. Rabbi Yehuda ben-Beteyra sees Tzelofhad as one of the ma’apilim, the non-religious Zionists who storm the ramparts of Canaan with neither God nor the Torah in their midst, but nevertheless with a strong love for the Land and the peoplehood of Israel.

They may have failed at their attempt in the desert, but it was apparently their passionate love for Zion that produced these five special daughters, who learned their love for the land from their father, Tzelofhad. The daughters added to that an indomitable faith in God and in the equitability of His Torah. In contrast, why did Rabbi Akiva identify Tzelofhad as the gatherer of wood, a Sabbath desecrator who was condemned to death?

I believe that Rabbi Akiva is emphasizing a crucial foundational principle of Judaism: we are both a nation as well as a religion, with each of these critical compartments worthy of a Divine covenant. The Torah [Genesis 15] records the national covenant with Abraham, “between the pieces,” in which God guarantees Abraham progeny and a homeland; and then the religious covenant at Sinai, binding God with the Jewish people [Ex. 19 and 24].

Even though Tzelofhad, in desecrating Shabbat, may have “lapsed” in terms of his religious obligations, this does not detract from his status as a member of Klal Yisrael, the historic Jewish nation. “Any Jew, even though he sins, remains a Jew,” teach our Talmudic sages [Sanhedrin 44a].

And remember that the daughters’ claim was that “the name of their father not be diminished” [Num. 27:4] by an inability to bequeath his portion of the Land of Israel because he lacked male heirs. Certainly there were some “sages” at the time who may well have told the five sisters that they were not entitled to any land, to any parcel of the Israel patrimony, if their father had been a transgressor of the law.

Perhaps Rabbi Akiva specifically identifies Tzelofhad as the culpable wood-gatherer in order to stress that even though a Jew may tragically cut himself off from the religious covenant, he still remains an inextricable member of the national covenant, the historic nation of Israel. And although Tzelofhad’s five brilliant and righteous daughters re-established a profound relationship with the Hebraic laws and traditions, they undoubtedly received much of their Zionistic fervor for the land from their father. Therefore, his share in the land was indisputable, and deserved to be bequeathed to his daughters.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.