Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. —Lawrence Kohlberg, American psychologist known for his theory on the stages of moral development
The concept of individualism tempered by participation in the collective whole has been challenged this past year, as the emphasis on individuals and their rights seems to have skyrocketed. The problem is that individualism apart from participation in the collective whole leads to chaos. For example, see the closing verse of the book of Judges (21:25): “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” But when individual uniqueness and rights are tempered in relationship to the collective whole, orderliness and harmony abound.
This week’s Torah portion exemplifies Kohlberg’s statement, as it demonstrates the intertwining of the rights, actions, and situations of individuals with the needs of the collective whole. Our parasha concludes the Book of Numbers, which records the final segments of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the land of Canaan. It ends with the children of Israel standing on the banks of the Jordan River in Moab, ready to cross into the Promised Land. The forty-two places Israel encamped during their forty-year period of wandering in the wilderness are recorded in Numbers 33:1–49. This itinerary points out that the Jewish people were on a real, historical, flesh-and-blood journey and also reveals things about B’nei Israel’s spiritual journey, about their relationship with Adonai and the calling they would embody once in the Promised Land. Hashem planned and directed Israel’s every move. He declared his mercies and compassion, as well as his great love for his chosen people, throughout the adventure. During the journey, Hashem taught Israel to love and fear him and to trust and appreciate the security, love, and care he provides. The itinerary demonstrates Hashem’s love and care for the community as a whole.
In last week’s parasha, Pinchas, we saw Hashem’s love, care, and justice for individuals through the story of Zelophehad’s daughters (Num 27:1–7). This week’s parasha picks up the saga of Zelophehad’s daughters in the final verses of both the parasha and the Book of Numbers (36:1–13). When read together, the two parts of the daughters’ story illustrate the importance of individuals being an active part of a collective whole, meaning a tribe, people-group, or society.
In part one, Zelophehad’s daughters approached Moses and the leaders of the children of Israel requesting the right to inherit their deceased father’s land allotment, since there were no sons (Num 27:1–7). The sisters requested their rights as individuals, not as a group. They were individuals who needed to be treated according to their uniqueness and particularities, including their extraordinary situation; no previously-given legislation or precedent existed upon which to base a decision. So Moses, as was his pattern, took the matter to Hashem, who recognized the justice of the sisters’ cause and granted their request. This incident demonstrates the importance of Hashem’s love and care for individuals and that each person’s unique identity, rights, and situations are particular to them.
Part two of the story tempers the rights of the individual with that of the collective whole. The leaders of Zelophehad’s clan approached Moses and the leaders of the children of Israel, just as the daughters had done. The clan leadership objected to the daughter’s inheritance of their father’s land. The leaders rightly claimed that if the daughters were to marry outside of the tribe of Manasseh, the land would automatically pass to the husband’s tribe, thereby depriving the tribe of Manasseh of its land inheritance. Here again there was no legislation or precedent upon which to judge the request. Moses took the request to Hashem, who recognized the justice of the leaders’ request. As a result, Moses decreed that Zelophehad’s daughters must marry within the tribe of Manasseh, which is exactly what the young women did; they married their first cousins, their father’s nephews. The complete story of Zelophehad’s daughters, part 1 and part 2, teaches us the importance of balancing our individual uniqueness, situations, and rights with the larger collective whole.
The importance of balancing individual uniqueness and rights with the good of the collective whole is also seen in the request by Reuben and Gad to settle in the conquered territory on the east-side of the Jordan River (Num 32:1–38). Initially Moses emphatically rejected their request, but after subsequent discussion a compromise was reached. Moses conceded to the request of the two tribes with the stipulation that they would cross the Jordan River and battle alongside the children of Israel until every tribe was settled in the land of inheritance. The tribes of Gad and Reuben initially spoke from their individuality as a tribe, without regard for B’nei Israel as a whole. They were looking out for themselves; their highest priority was their wealth and prosperity, and their own comfort and future. These two tribes only consented to help all of the children of Israel settle in the land after their negotiations with Moses and their acceptance of his stipulations. The tribes of Gad and Reuben received their individual requests, in essence establishing their individual rights. At the same time, these individual requests were tempered by the demand for the two tribes to fight alongside all of Israel until the entire community was settled in the land of Canaan. Three clans from the tribe of Manasseh also settled on the east side of the Jordan River. However, they never requested this privilege, nor were they given any stipulations as were the tribes of Gad and Reuven. First, it seems that the land allotted to the tribe of Manasseh on the east side of the Jordan falls within the territorial boundaries of the children of Israel as outlined in Numbers chapter 34, so it was already designated as part of their inheritance. Second, the other half of the tribe of Manasseh settled in the Land of Canaan, choosing to join the collective whole of Israel, whereas Gad and Reuben did not.
We are currently in the three weeks of repentance before Tisha B’Av. Let us use this time to reflect on how our individual uniqueness can be tempered in light of our participation in the People of God, our communities, society, and countries. Remember Peter’s exhortation, “you like living stones are being built together into a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:5).
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek! Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened!
Illustration from https://www.fruitfullyliving.com/.