This was my Dvar Torah on Parashat Pinchas from July 3, 2021.
ותקרבנה בנות צלפחד -- Vatikravna Bnot Tzelophechad, they came up close, the daughters of Tzelophechad son of Chefer son of Gilad son of Machir son of Menashe of the families of Menashe son of Yaakov, and these are the names of his daughters: Machlah, Noah, Choglah and Milkah and Tirtzah. Va’ta’amodna, and they stood in front of Moshe and in front of Elazar and in front of the tribal leaders and in front of the community at the entrace of the tent of meeting, and said...
ותקרבנה, ותעמדנה Vatikravna va’ta’amodna -- it’s important that they came up close and that they stood together, and it’s important to know their names and their back story even though the Torah is leave them and focus on a specific issue. I want to explore ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna v’ta’amodna, they came up close and they stood.
A few weeks ago, Marsha Feder and I spent an hour at the Bronstein Apartments, which is public housing a few blocks west of Main Street in Nashua. This is in the middle of my city and I drive there all the time now that there’s the Broad Street Parkway. I should say, I drive past there; I can’t really say I drive through there. Bronstein is on my way to my daughter’s middle school and it’s along my shortcut to the Court Street Theater or anywhere downtown south of the Riverwalk Cafe. But in thirteen years I don’t think I had ever walked the neighborhood there until now.
ותקרבנה vatikravna-- they came up close. The reason we were there, with Aron DiBacco of the Granite State Organizing Project, is because the Bronstein Apartments are going to be replaced with even more affordable apartments on the same site. About 50 are there now and about 200 will be there. 200 is more than 50, so that part is great.
If you work a few blocks away from Bronstein at City Hall, 200 affordable apartments is more than 50, and that’s great. I imagine that’s how it looks at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in DC, and it’s easy to see it that way if you are informed enough to read the local newspaper, or even attend a meeting of the Board of Aldermen or the Nashua Housing Authority.
But for the 48 families living there now, the project with the good numbers also means uprooting and dispersing a community. Disrupting patterns of getting kids to school, and relationships of helping each other out. Separating people from others you’ve gotten to know in a city or a country that for some is still new to you, who you can communicate with maybe if you don’t speak English well yet. It means finding a place to live, yes with assistance from the authorities which is being provided -- but it’s not easy to find a place in Nashua that’s right for a large multigenerational family, for instance.
So we went to talk to people up close, ותקרבנה vatikravna, to find out if people are getting what they need from the government. You can’t do this just by letter, or e-mail; it really requires one-to-one contact, up close, and even why would would I assume that someone would see me, a stranger, and open if I knock on the door? But going there and knocking is better than not doing that at all.
I won’t speak for Marsha, but in addition to talking to people, and for the most part being reassured by what I heard, I also saw a lot more by being up close. I met a mother of young kids, who said sure the city has helped them find a new place, but the prospect of packing and relocating the kids is daunting, and she was grateful someone heard that, even though none of us can do anything about it. Or perhaps we can; maybe the Interfaith Council should be there to help pack or schlep of keep the kids entertained on moving days. I don’t know.
I saw what the green area between buildings looks like, how bare it seems. It’s hard to put my finger on the difference between a nice patch of grass and one that’s not so inviting, but it’s there. There’s little flavor to Bronstein as it exists now; it doesn’t look like a place that’s home-y but I didn’t ask so who am I to say. One hour doesn’t really make for getting up close. You think of downtown Nashua as a place people walk around and walk through, but there are little physical suggestions like the black fence along Central Street that don’t exactly say walk through here if you don’t live here, on your way to the Allegro Dance Studio or the Crossway Church. Bronstein is just a few blocks from the river, but you really don’t feel like that walking through there on their way to the riverfront paths.
Somebody has to get up close and stand there, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, for a lot more time. You can’t make good policy if no one does that; you miss a lot of the picture that makes not just affordable housing but an affordable community. You end up saying 200 units is more than 50 full stop, and you don’t take account of the fact that living is neighborhood and relationships and culture, and those things have value. They have concrete civic value, public health value, economic value. You can’t just count on those values being maintained when the community is scattered for a time, and bouncing back when they return. Those values have to be integrated into the numeric equation of 50 becoming 200. To improve that policy, to make an increase on more than a numeric dimension at the same time, requires getting up close.
I have to find a way to get up close more, because for almost three years I’ve been working with other local clergy on affordable housing and even we have been largely about numbers -- adding 2,000 more units over a decade that a typical working person could live in without paying more than 30% of their income, and developing a city capital fund to spark more building on the order of five million dollars. I’ve been at a lot of meetings, some of them a few blocks from Bronstein, but none of them right there.
The part of our parasha with the five daughters of Tzelophechad is about an economic problem, related to land ownership and inheritance, a structural problem of discrimination against women. So Machlah, Tirtzah, Milkah, Choglah, and Noah come close and stand in front, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, and they present their story. Moshe had just right then learned about the distribution of property among families in the new land and the laws of inheritance. As a result of this up-close advocacy at that moment, Moshe went to God and God told Moshe to adjust the law because the five daughters had spoken honesty and correctly -- כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלׇפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ -- give them what they are asking. The midrash imagines that God says to Moshe: the law was not ready to be completed until they came up close to you and you saw up close what was missing.
The work of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, of seeing up close, and advocating face to face with authorities, and standing, confidently and respectfully and together -- it’s hard work. Hard for those who have to ask for things they shouldn’t have to ask for, and hard for allies who want to stand by them. But without doing as the Bnot Tzelophechad did you can’t have good policy and good law. You can do the numbers but you can’t do community and you can’t do covenant that way, and then even the numbers will end up not working out right.
And I think our parasha heightens this insight by contrast with the opening story of Pinchas. Pinchas sees a problem, a crisis of idolatry and sexual immorality, and he jumps up, ויקם vayakom, and he takes matters into his own hands and he kills the people at the center of the injustice. He seems to be rewarded from God -- with a ברית שלום brit shalom, a covenant of peace, and a ברית כהונת עולם brit k’hunat olam, a covenant that his descendents will always be priests.
The midrash says two kinds of things about him. One is that the rabbis envy Pinchas, for being able to turn his outrage into effective activism that works in an instant. It actually seems to work. Pinchas is their secret fantasy. Especially as they were under the thumb of the Romans and other empires.
The other thing is that the rabbis are terrified of Pinchas. He needs a covenant of peace because he’s not any good at covenant. He needs to be forced to be a priest because otherwise he’ll be a dangerous, violent loose cannon and think every problem in society or Torah can be solved with force based on his own read of the situation in the moment. So the rabbis look at Pinchas and say: individual action, or violent action out of outrage, is a card you can play at most once in your lifetime. Then you require a covenantal approach even to what’s difficult and unjust in the here and now.
The rest of the time it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna. That’s not about settling for gradualism vs complete solutions, but about hanging together, working together, exploring up close and telling stories and histories. It’s about trusting what happens when you come up close to people who disagree or to people haven’t seen it right yet, who have power. It’s about timing; the five women had a sense of when Moshe was ripe for their pressure, when he was starting to think about what they needed him to do more on.
And the impact of their work was broader than one law of inheritance. They weren’t actually just gradualists -- it is right after this passage that God tells Moshe his tenure as leader is up, and it’s time to find someone else. Moshe gets it, and he pleads with God to find the people a shepherd who cares for every sheep, who can account for every person. A leader who would know what the laws of property should have been even before the five daughters came to tell him.
So many of the hero stories we tell about change and activism are more Pinchas than Bnot Tzelophechad. But when we really look into those stories -- whether it’s the American Revolution, the Zionist movement, the civil rights movement -- it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad pattern we see everywhere. Let’s see and lift up those kinds of leaders. Let’s be leaders like that, on whatever plane we operate in. Let’s do that so we make better public choices together, and grow close and stand with each other as citizens in that process of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna.