Erasing the Shadow of Fear

DEUTERONOMY 7:12–11:25

By Burton L. Visotzky

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
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My honored senior colleague, Rabbi Myer Kripke of Omaha, Neb., writes to me regarding Numbers 27:1, where the daughters of Tzelophechad (Zelophehad) are mentioned. He wonders whether there is any midrash on the name Tzelophechad, which he divides into two parts, as though it were shorthand combining two words into one.

This is an old method of doing midrash, graced with the Greek name notarikon, for the notarikos or shorthand writer of the Hellenistic world. The rabbis simply adapted the Greek method when reading the Bible and often divided biblical words in order to squeeze new meanings from them. Since the Bible had divine authority, it could be read quite unlike any other work. Kripke’s query, then, seemed to be this: Is there a source in rabbinic literature that divides the word Tzelophechad into two so that it yields tzel and pachad? The word tzel means “shadow,” while pachad is the Hebrew term for “fear.” One might then wonder whether the daughters of Tzelophechad lived under “the shadow of fear.” This would be a natural enough reading given that those women feared that they would be unable to inherit their father’s portion of the Holy Land because they had no brother to provide a male line of inheritance. Yet when Moses inquired of God, he was informed that when there is no son, the daughters may inherit. It is as if the daughters of Tzelophechad struck an early blow for feminism and, by stepping forward, assured their share of inheritance with God’s blessing. No shadow of fear for those righteous women.

Because he knows his Bible well, Kripke actually asked a second, subtler question. He wrote: Could this be interpreted with pachad as a reference to God, as in Genesis 31:53, when “Jacob swore by the Fear (pachad) of his father Isaac”? Most medieval and modern commentaries take this phrase, “Fear of his father Isaac” to refer to God. They explain (in Midrash Lekach Tov) that ever since the Binding (Genesis 22), Isaac feared God, hence God was called “the Fear of Isaac.”

What Kripke suggests is a beautiful piece of midrash. The daughters of Tzelophechad placed themselves under God’s shadow — under the wings of the Shekhinah, as it were. There, in the shade of God’s beneficence, they found their justice and were awarded their father’s portion of land as their inheritance, even though they were not male. But, after a fair bit of research, I have been unable to locate any midrash that mentions the play on words Kripke suggested.

So this is a new midrash, as I infer it from our teacher Kripke: The daughters of Tzelophechad might have lived under the shadow of fear of injustice, but through their faith in God and their willingness to submit to God’s judgment, they were rewarded for their faith. By learning to dwell in the Shadow of God, who is also called the Fear of Isaac, they too have a portion in the Land.

Our Torah reading this week, Ekev, balances these two readings against each other. If we obey God, the Torah portion teaches, we shall be amply rewarded and the land will be a “land of milk and honey.” If we do not hearken to God, we will suffer. As Deuteronomy 8:1 tells it, “Observe all of the commandments which I command you today, that you live and dwell and inherit the land which I swore to your ancestors.”

Toward the end of the Torah reading for this week, in Deuteronomy 11:16-17, is a passage that became the third paragraph of the Sh’ma and that links our observance of God’s commands to reward, and our disobedience to punishment: “Beware lest your hearts be deceived and you stray… for then you will quickly perish from the good land which God gives you.” The theology is stark and immediate — if you are good, it will rain and there will be crops; if you are bad, there will be famine.

The final lines of the Torah reading carry through the theology with this reassurance: “If you truly keep God’s commandments… God your Lord will place fear of you (pachdechem) and dread of you upon all of the land that you walk upon.” With Rabbi Kripke’s midrash, we can understand this to mean that when one of us follows the desires of God, then God will dwell among all of us.

Burton L. Visotzky teaches at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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