Parshat Pinchas: Miriam as an Example of a Successful Educator

Miriam as an Example of a Successful Educator

Zion Rosner is a teacher at the Oriya High School for Girls

Zion Rosner

The summer vacation is finally upon us, during which time most schoolchildren are not in any formal educational setting; however, they do make up their own daily schedule, which is largely characterized by the habits they have acquired during the course of the year.  Naturally, they have to face numerous dilemmas, for example, when and if to get up to daven (pray); whether to incorporate volunteering activities into their day; to what extent they should invest in other people, and how often they should be setting aside time for the study of Torah. 

The school vacation comes after a long period of routine study, during which the students were used to having a clear schedule in a fixed learning setting, where everything was pre-planned for them.  The vacation, on the other hand, allows us a peek into whether the educational and learning process in which teachers and students were engaged throughout the year has actually proven to be successful. 

In this week’s portion we learn just how important education is. 

In the portion of Pinchas we are exposed to an exceptional request – one which exemplifies a yearning, and expresses the connection with God and the love for Him.  In fact, what we read about is not only extraordinary, but illustrates the exact opposite of what we read of the Israelites in the previous portion: complaints, objections and the sinful event with which the portion ends. 

In this week’s portion we hear of the daughters of Tzelophehad, who approach Moshe with a surprising request: they want to receive their own portion in the Land. 

“Then drew near the daughters of Tzelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilad, the son of Machir, the son of Menashe, of the families of Menashe the son of Yosef; and these are the names of his daughters: Machlah, Noah, and Choglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.  And they stood before Moshe, and before Ele’azar the kohen, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying: Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korach, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons.  Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us an inheritance among the brethren of our father.”

Their father had died leaving five daughters and no sons.  They also state that their father died because of a sin he had committed, and our Sages tell us that he was the man who had gathered wood on the Sabbath and did so out of love for God and a desire to strengthen the People of Israel.  The Tosefot says as follows:

“It is written in the Midrash that his intent was to glorify God’s name.  The People of Israel said in their hearts – ‘Since it has been decreed that we will not enter the Land because of the Sin of the Spies, we are no longer obligated to fulfill the mitzvot’.  What did he do?  He stood up and desecrated the Shabbat so that he would be put to death and all would see.  And his daughters did not marry until the fortieth year as can be proven from the verses” (Baba Batra 119:2, on the words afilu ketana). 

This explanation clarifies why they chose to point out the fact that their father had sinned, but was not part of Korach’s congregation, whose aim was to create divisions; rather, his sin was committed to reconnect the People of Israel to God.  The daughters of Tzelophehad, it appears, are a ‘second generation of people who love God and love the People’.  This particular episode expresses yet another love: their love for the Land.  And love for the Land also embodies faith in God. 

The daughters of Tzelophehad come forward and demand to get an inheritance in the land.  This comes at a time when the Israelites are drawing closer to the Land of Israel and the issue of inheritance and land plots becomes very relevant.  The five daughters are suddenly concerned that their father will have no continuity, no plot of land belonging to his lineage in the Land of Israel. 

Their request does not only stem from a concern that they will have no place of their own in the Land, but from an unequivocal love for the Land of Israel and a strong desire to preserve their family’s inheritance which belongs to them by right.  They are entitled to land of their own, because had their father been among the living – he would have received an inheritance.  They want to ensure this inheritance does not dissipate, so that they have a piece of land to which they will be connected and, in turn, feel connected to the People of Israel and to God Himself.  By right, and not out of pity for them.  Interestingly, their request expresses the complete opposite of what the spies conveyed in their words – which was a loathing of the land. 

The daughters of Tzelophehad embody a significant theme, expounded upon more than once by the exegetes: how the women of the desert compare with the men of that same generation. 

On three different occasions at least, when the Israelite males engaged in sin, the fact that the women did not sin is highlighted: in the Sin of the Calf; the Sin of the Spies and the Sin of Korach and his congregations.  Bamidbar Rabbah (21) says as follows:

“In that generation, the women would restore that which the men had broken.  For example, when Aharon tells the people ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives’ – the women refused and protested against their husbands.  As is written: ‘And all the people broke off their golden rings’ – but the women did not take part in the making of the calf.  Similarly, the spies spoke evil of the land saying ‘we are not able to go up’, and were therefore punished.  But the women were not of like mind, and did not accept their words…”. The midrash ends off by saying “… for this reason this portion comes in close proximity to the deaths of the generation of the desert – while the men of this generation broke down fences, the women were engaged in mending the fences.”

And Rashi adds (Bamidbar 26, 64): 

“However, the decree of the spies did not apply to the women because the latter loved the Land.  The men said: “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt’, while the women said: ‘Give us an inheritance’.  This is why the portion of the daughters of Tzelophehad is mentioned here.”  It follows then, that had women been sent out to spy the land, the Sin of the Spies would never have transpired!

From Rashi’s words one can understand that the generation of the desert did indeed die out over forty years of wanderings, but, in actual fact, only the men died.  The women, even those who took part in the Exodus from Egypt and saw the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea with their own eyes and stood at Mt. Sinai – entered the Land!

If so, the real question is – why is there such a discrepancy between the genders?  How could it be that the men and the women of one and the same nation are so different, so much so that the male population of this specific generation is wiped out entirely, while the women population remains alive?  It seems that the daughters of Tzelophehad did not only exemplify an individual story; rather, they represented all the women of their times.

Sivan Rahav Meir mentions the words of HaRav Neria Z”L, which illuminate this matter beautifully.  HaRav Neria, an illustrious educator, looked at our portion and thought, there is more to this story than meets the eye.  True enough, the daughters of Tzelophehad probably learned the value of love for the Land and for God at home.  However, as previously mentioned, they were not the only ones.  In fact, as individuals they actually reflect on the whole.  They represent the women of their times.  If so, what caused the women to develop such a yearning for the Land, while the men of the same generation display such a fear of entering it?  The answer in a nutshell: it all boils down to education!  The women probably had a teacher who managed to ingrain in them a passionate love for the Land of Israel.  How did the teacher achieve this?

“Miriam was more successful an educator than both her brothers, Moshe ‘ish Ha’Elohim’, ‘the man of God’ and Aharon ‘kedosh Hashem‘, who was sanctified unto the Lord.  These two lofty brothers were unable to elevate the masses to the desired spiritual level, while their sister, Miriam, was able to achieve this.  How did this happen?  The secret to successful education lies in the interpersonal relationship between teacher and students.  We are witness to Miriam’s hands-on relationship with the other women when she joins them in song and in dance.  It was probably not the only time either, and happened at every festive tribal or family event.  The Torah doesn’t divulge details regarding everyday routine in the desert, but the example of Miriam most probably attests to the general state of affairs: Miriam forged close ties with the women she taught and led, and this relationship had a lasting effect.  That which Moshe and Aharon did not merit, Miriam did!”

HaRav Neria says that true impact is achieved through education.  A close interpersonal relationship between teacher and student is essential.  It does not suffice to talk from a distance, even if the words are important and truthful.  HaRav Neria draws our attention to the fact that the daughters of Tzelophehad, who represent the entire generation of women, are also the disciples of Miriam and as such, translated into action all they had learned from her.  When it comes to education, the true wisdom is how to turn the learning experience into something that is done together out of love.  If the teacher shows s/he loves learning, the students will learn to love it as well.

In light of the above, when the summer break begins, leaving us in a state of high anxiety for our students and the void they are sure to experience for lack of routine, we must remember the following: the more we work throughout the year on instilling good values in our students, and constantly expressing our love for them and for what we teach them, and letting them feel we are connected  – the greater are the chances that we will see the fruits of our labor during the school break, and throughout the students’ lives, for that matter.

We must remember that real education bears fruit; real educators leave an impact also after the school year ends. This is our aspiration.  This is what we work for all year long.  The more we invest during the year, the clearer will be the reflection of this work during the vacation, and mirror the road we have paved so painstakingly and with so much patience during the course of the year. 

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