The Complexity of Human Rights
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The Parsha in a Nutshell

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)

The book of Bamidbar comes to a close that is very strange indeed. Earlier, in Pinchas,we read of how the five daughters of Tzelophchad came to Moshe with a claim based on justice and human rights. Their father had died without sons. Inheritance – in this case, of a share in the land – passes through the male line, but here there was no male line. Surely their father was entitled to his share, and they were his only heirs. By rights that share should come to them.

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Moshe asked God directly, and He ruled in favour of the women. And now, right at the end of Bamidbar, the Torah reports on an event that arose directly from this case. Leaders of Tzelophchad’s tribe, Menashe, son of Yosef, came and made the following complaint. If the land were to pass to Tzelophchad’s daughters and they married men from another tribe, the land would eventually pass to their husbands, and thus to their husband’s tribes. Thus land that had initially been granted to the tribe of Menashe might be lost to it in perpetuity.

Again, Moshe took the case to God, who offered a simple solution. The daughters of Tzelophchad were entitled to the land, but so too was the tribe. Therefore, if they wish to take possession of the land, they must marry men from within their own tribe. That way both claims could be honoured.

Why are these two episodes separated in the text? Why does Bamidbar end on this seemingly anticlimactic note? And does it have any relevance today?

Bamidbar is a book is about individuals. It begins with a census, less to tell us the actual number of Israelites but rather to convey the idea that when God orders a census He is telling the people that they each count. The book also focuses on the psychology of individuals. We read of Moshe’s despair, of Aharon and Miriam’s criticism of him, of the spies who lacked the courage to come back with a positive report, and Korach who challenged Moshe’s leadership. We read of Yehoshua and Calev, Eldad and Medad, Datan and Aviram, Zimri and Pinchas, Balak and Bilam, and others.

That is the context of the claim of Tzelophchad’s daughters. They were claiming their rights as individuals. Justly so. But society is not built on individuals alone. Hence the insistence throughout Bamidbar on the central role of the tribes as the organising principle of Jewish life. The Israelites were numbered tribe by tribe. The Torah sets out their precise encampment around the Mishkanand the order in which they were to journey. In Naso, the Torah repeats the gifts of each tribe at the inauguration of the Mishkan, despite the fact that they each gave exactly the same.

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The existence of something like tribes is fundamental to a free society. We each have a series of identities, based partly on family background, partly on occupation, partly on locality and community. These “mediating structures,” larger than the individual but smaller than the state, are where we develop our complex, vivid, face-to-face interactions and identities. They are the domain of family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues, and they make up what is collectively known as civil society. A strong civil society is essential to freedom. That is why, alongside individual rights, a society must make space for group identities. Despite its enormous emphasis on the value of the individual, Judaism also insists on the value of the systems that preserve and protect our identities as members of groups that make them up. We have rights as individuals but identities only as members of tribes. Honouring both is delicate, difficult, and necessary. Bamidbar ends by showing us how.

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  1. Which group identities do you have?
  2. Why is it important to affiliate with groups and tribes?
  3. Is it hard to respect the rights of both the individual and the group in society? Why?   

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A Story for Shabbat

A Community that Cares

by Joanna Benarroch

In this week’s Covenant & Conversation Rabbi Sacks highlights the importance of being part of the wider community. He beautifully articulates the essence of community in his book, From Optimism to Hope: “Community is society with a human face – the place where we know we’re not alone.”  

During the early phase of the Coronavirus pandemic, we asked Rabbi Sacks if he would be prepared to go online and speak to communities and individuals from around the globe who were in need of chizzuk, encouragement and support. Rabbi Sacks graciously offered to connect with them through social media, Zoom and Facebook Live. With Pesach approaching, many people were confronted with the reality of celebrating the Seder alone without their families. Rabbi Sacks willingly dedicated his time and efforts to uplifting spirits and bring warmth and care into people’s lives, making sure they knew they weren’t alone but were part of a big, connected family – a community – who genuinely cared.  

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Rabbi Sacks embraced technology as a means to reach out and share Torah and wisdom. We were asking a lot of him – he and Elaine were isolating at home, and I had to connect remotely to his computer to enable him to join the Zoom sessions. You might have even seen him starting a live video on mute, speaking on his phone, making sure everything was running smoothly!  

As Rabbi Sacks expressed in his book Celebrating Life, “Community is the human expression of Divine love. It is where I am valued simply for who I am, how I live and what I give to others. It is the place where they know my name.” In a world that can often feel fragmented and disconnected, Rabbi Sacks reminded us that true fulfilment and a sense of belonging can be found within the embrace of a caring and supportive community.

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The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.

Joanna Benarroch is Global CEO of The Rabbi Sacks Legacy. She worked closely with Rabbi Sacks for 24 years.

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A Closer Look

Joanna Benarroch now reflects on some of the deeper lessons she learnt from Rabbi Sacks.

What is your favourite quote from Rabbi Sacks and why?

Unsurprisingly, I have several favourite quotes from Rabbi Sacks, but the one that is on my mind daily is “Thank before you think”. It comes from Modeh Ani, and the idea is to thank Hashem every single morning, before we even get out of bed.

I think this encapsulates Rabbi Sacks’ outlook on life. He was always appreciative of what others were doing and made that appreciation known. His opening remarks when addressing a community were to first and foremost thank the local Rabbi. This made the Rabbi walk tall, and reminded the community how lucky they were. Rabbi Sacks taught me how important it was to thank my family, thank my team and those we interact with in our day-to-day lives. Don’t take anyone for granted and make those thanks and appreciation known. Don’t leave the words unsaid.  

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What was your main takeaway from this week’s essay?

This week’s essay talks about empowering individuals alongside the importance of being part of a community and I was reminded how Rabbi Sacks really lived by his words. He was the catalyst for change in our community. His focus was looking twenty to thirty years in the future, and putting things in place to ensure the community would be thriving in the years ahead. He placed great emphasis on community and created an environment that inspired others to grow and develop. He wanted communities to be welcoming and uplifting. He believed in them and encouraged them. 

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Torah Trivia

Question: Can you think of four occasions where Moshe has to check halachah with Hashem?

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).

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Educational Companion

Torah Trivia: this week's answer

The four instances are:

  1. The mekalel – “the blasphemer” (Vayikra 24:10)
  2. The Pesach Sheini (Bamidbar 9:1)
  3. The Mekoshesh – the woodchopper who broke Shabbat (Bamidbar 15:32)
  4. The laws of inheritance, as raised by the daughters of Tzelophchad (Bamidbar 36:1)

There was a fifth instance where Moshe was unsure of the halachic way to act, in the case of Zimri and Kozbi, but in that case Pinchas stepped forward and acted.

Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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