We live in a time of profound problems. Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, structural flaws in our society from racism, to sexism, to structural inequalities in health care, education, housing and employment all can feel overwhelming. Further, the forces of inertia, both economic and political, make these problems seem unsolvable. What can any one of us do to make a positive difference in our society or the world?
This week’s Torah portion provides us with a way to look at the world without despair. The daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses with the request that they become the inheritors of his land because he died without sons and in ancient Israel the son inherited his father’s property. (Numbers 27:3) In this reading they can be seen as feminists arguing for the same rights as men.
This reading is accurate, but there is another. In the next verse, the daughters say, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Number 27:4) In this reading the Daughters of Zelophehad are making their request so that their father’s name does not die out. They want to keep his memory alive and inheriting his land is their means for doing so. In this sense, they are a link in a chain of transmission of Jewish memory and values.
Commenting on this verse, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg (America, current) writes, “Tasks and goals unfinished in my lifetime may well be completed by those who come after me in the chain of life, especially if I have communicated the vision of tikkun olam and the importance of living for ourselves, but also beyond ourselves, for the realization of this covenant. Assuring the chain of life goes on—and with it the vision and promise of the covenant—is the validation of starting programs and living for goals that transcend me. ‘It is not incumbent on you to complete the task’ (Mishnah Avot 2:16). But if you grasp the larger purpose and ultimate goal of tikkun olam, then you will not feel free to desist from beginning the upgrade, the process of repair.”
In other words, the way we tackle big problems is by doing what we can, and modeling for others. Each of us takes up the task during our lifetime and hopefully teaches it to our children – whether biological, adopted, or mentored – and in this way we work, across generations, to make the world better.
~Rabbi Dean Kertesz