“There are things you know about, and things you don’t, the known and the unknown, and in between are the doors…” – Ray Manzarek
One of my favorite elements of Midrash and commentary is when the tradition seeks to name the unnamed. There are many places in Tanakh where an incredibly significant vignette or incident transpires and the major players are not actually named!
The beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shelaḥ, is a list of names – the names of the twelve men Moshe sends to scout the land. However, in the Haftarah associated with this week’s parsha we read of the two spies which Yehoshua sends to scout out Jericho. Unlike the explicitly named men in our Torah portion, the names of the spies in Jericho are left unmentioned! Leave it to our Sages of Blessed Memory who inform us that the two spies in Jericho are none other than Kalev (one of the spies enlisted by Moshe in our Torah portion who does not succumb to fear and is thereby saved from the plague which kills ten of the spies – the other spy saved in our Torah portion was Yehoshua himself) and Pinḥas… Pinḥas the Priest, the son of Elazar who is the son of Aharon… He’s going to be very important in our Torah reading in a few weeks… What is he doing in the land if everyone who left Mitzrayim is destined to die in the wilderness except for Yehoshua and Kalev? Well, that’s a topic for a different week. This week we are asking about the names of the unnamed. Back to our topic at hand and back to our Torah portion:
Toward the end of this week’s Torah portion there is another unnamed individual who plays a major role:
In the Talmud (Shabbat 96b) Rabbi Akiva reports the tradition that the gatherer was one by the name of Tzelaf’had. If that name rings a bell it is because he is mentioned later in the Book of Numbers when the laws of inheritance are given and a case is brought before Moshe by five women who stake claim to their father’s property. Those four women are: Maḥlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirtzah. But we only receive their names after an extensive genealogical record of their ancestory, when they are referred to as: “The daughters of Tzelaf’had, son of Heifer, son of Gil’ad, son of Makhir, son of Menashe, son of Yosef.” (Num. 27:1). Why does the Torah provide such an extensive documentation of his lineage? Rashi informs us of the tradition of the Sages that when a person’s extensive ancestry is given and it draws back to a positive influence, then the person themselves are likewise righteous. So why is the Torah so insistent that Tzelaf’had was righteous if, according to Rabbi Akiva, he is the first one executed for violating Shabbat? The key is in understanding the words of his daughters.They say: “Our father died in the wilderness…he died of his own mis-step,” (Num 27:3). Now this would be insignificant were it not for one of the key elements of the verse concerning the stick gatherer. The Torah tells us here that “the Children of Yisrael were in the wilderness,” and this is a superfluous statement – do we not already know they are in the wilderness? This actually brings up another element that we do not have space or time for in this discussion – but one hint here in the verse from our Torah portion is that the chronology is non-linear, this event actually took place on the second Shabbat after leaving Mitzryaim, but that’s another story… Back to the matter at hand.
Why would the verse specify they were in the wilderness if it is obviously known they were in the wilderness? The Zohar asks the same question not about our verse in this week’s Torah portion, but about the statement of the daughters of Tzelaf’had! The Zohar queries: Did not the whole generation die in the wilderness? It goes on to state that when the daughters say, “he died of his own mis-step,” that it is a reference to his willingly gathering sticks on Shabbat.
Why is it so important to understand that he did so willingly and knowingly? After he is found gathering sticks, people seize him and take him to Moshe for punishment, but Moshe does not know the punishment so he inquires of God. On that verse Targum Yonatan (2nd century Aramaic translation) renders it as:
When the Children of Yisrael were living in the wilderness the decree of Shabbat was known to them but the punishment for Shabbat was not known to them. A man from the House of Yosef arose and said to himself: I will go and collect wood on the day of Shabbat…
Targum Yonatan seems to be saying that he collected wood in order to inform them just how serious the matter of Shabbat should be taken. Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev brings a teaching which says: “The gatherer acted for the sake of heaven!”
What follows the incident of the stick gatherer? The commandment to wear tzitzit “to see it and to remember all of the commandments…”
And while we are on the topic of names… What does Tzelaf’had mean anyways? Tzel, Shadow; Pahad, Fear. But if you remember back to Rosh Hashanah of this past year I said then: “Pahad Yitzhak is not about submission to fear, it is about submission to service to elevating discernment and love in the world so the coming year is judged to be one in which we do not succumb to fear because we submit to service. Rosh Hashanah belongs to Yitzhak, Rosh Hashanah is our moment to find our own Gevurah, our own Divine Strength, to be a part of building a year in which we have the tools necessary to confront our immediate terrors and our long term anxieties”
The stick-gatherer did not act to instill fear, rather to be a source of discernment and love in the world so future generations would be so blessed to remember the power and magnitude of establishing sacred time.