Is the Torah a Comedy?
The story of the Israelites’ journeys really ends at the finale of the fourth of the Five Books of Moses, Numbers.
The official fifth book of the Torah is the next one, Deuteronomy, but only one thing happens in the entire book. Moses gives a five week long motivational speech to all the Israelites on the Plains of Moab. Then he exits. It’s an Aristotelian tragedy. It has unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.
It’s not like the fifth book doesn’t have plenty of drama. After all, the Israelites are poised to enter Israel. Everything up to this point has been for this moment, to seize the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob more than four centuries ago. The suspense alone is magnificent: the Israelites seem to hold their breath as Moses expends his. Everyone, including Moses himself, knows he is about to die before he enters Israel, because God told him so. In a monumental effort, he gives one of the most inspiring – and certainly the longest – series of motivational speeches in history. For five weeks, he recaps, deepens and enhances the entire teaching from the prior four books. He adds plenty of clarifications, new laws and cosmic views. He achieves soaring heights of inspired poetry and fiery rhetoric that capture the transcendent pathos of the moment. He exhorts, inspires, cajoles, admonishes, rebukes, and threatens. He even breaks into a transcendent song filled with a keening sense that his own lifecis about to end even as Israel is about to be born in full. The official tradition grants that Moses delivered all of the book as a speech that is later transcribed and added to the four prior books.
The Greek name for the book captures this flavor: Deuteronomy – the Second (deutero-) Telling (-nomy). The Recap. Or as we say in the literature game, the denouement, the unknotting.
So the end of the epic of Hebrews for all intents and purposes is the end of the Book of Numbers. The Israelites are encamped at the other side of the Jordan River on the plains of Moab. They know they’re going to war once they swoop down on the Canaanite tribes that live there. But that book lands on what seems a very curious, sputtering choice for a climax. After the story of Creation, the Flood, the romance of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the descent into Egypt, the plagues, the redemption and exodus out of Egypt, the many failures and dramas in the wilderness, Numbers’ final concern seems to be to clear up a technicality left dangling from several chapters ago: the rights of women to inherit land if they marry whomever they choose.
What makes the daughters of Zelophechad and the legal back and forth about their rights worthy of such a premier position in the Torah?
If we dig into the language, we find a joyous, celebratory climax is right there before our eyes. Like the afikomen at the Passover seder, it’s hidden in the beginning but it comes out at the end, a dessert with rewards to the children who discover it. In fact, the word ‘afikomen’ is the perfect analogy: it also comes from Greek (transported into the seder through Aramaic, the language of the Talmud sages). It means ‘dessert’, specifically the dessert at the end of a wedding feast: afi (from epi – ‘on top of’) and komon (from comus – the name of the fertility rite and the pagan god who presides over it). The same name gives us the word ‘comedy’.
Let us unwrap the afikomen from where we discovered it – just where my Pop placed it every year, under the tablecloth – and taste the dessert. I believe it will reveal that the Torah, if we end at the Book of Numbers, is a comedy. Though it may not be apparent at first glance – it’s been a long and rocky road for the Israelites to get to the Promised Land and figure out how to fulfill their deal with God – the final verses make it clear that the Torah has been a love story all along that is now being consummated. It even has a happy ending. In fact, we could call the end of Numbers a comedy – a komus – in the classic tradition. It ends with a merry festival of love.
The Daughters of Zelophechad Inspire Two Revolutions
The people of Israel haven’t even begun to conquer the land of Israel, but they have already divvied it up among the tribes proportionate to their size and then by individual clans by lottery. A good deal of the last portion of Numbers detail the borders of the tribal states and specify the land given to the clans within them. It’s a divinely inspired strategy designed to forestall any territorial squabbles. At the same time, it shows amazing self-confidence: these former slaves have been forged into God’s warriors. They are completely certain of victory in conquering the Canaanites.
But wait. There’s a fly in the ointment. A few chapters ago, the parents of five daughters have died, leaving them with no brothers. They want to keep their father’s inheritance in the family, but women are not allowed to inherit the land. Shouldn’t they have the right to continue their father’s legacy like any other heirs? So they screw up their courage to appeal directly to Moses. Their gumption – and love of the prospective land – is compelling, but Moses is stumped. This is beyond his pay grade. Nothing like this has ever happened, or at least ever before in recorded human history. Prior teachings of the Torah don’t cover it. Moses appeals to God. In a stunning innovation not only of the rules for the Israelites but for all human civilization, God makes an incredible new decree on the spot in the daughters’ favor. These brotherless women, the daughters of Zelophechad, shall inherit their father’s land.
Yet this creates another problem, a loose end which the finale of Numbers dramatizes in its last short chapter. The heads of the daughtes’ tribe, Menashe, now protest to Moses. What happens if these girls marry a guy from another tribe? We’ll lose our lands to them! Not to mention the gerrymandering – the broken patchwork of territorial rights – this will cause. There could be a hostile clan’s reservation right in the middle of our state!
You’ve got a point, Moses agrees. So here’s the solution according to God. He then offers another neat reconciliation:
This is what G-d has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may become the wives of anyone they wish, provided they become wives within a clan of their father’s tribe. (Num 36:7)
But is this really deserving of the closing shot? It all seems like such an anticlimactic technicality, a Talmudic dispute you might hear a couple of millenia later, but not the finale of the Hebrew epic in the 13thc BCE.
The future feminine plural of active creation
This is the second part of the text I quoted above in Hebrew:
תִּהְיֶינָה לְנָשִׁים אַךְ לְמִשְׁפַּחַת מַטֵּה אֲבִיהֶם תִּהְיֶינָה לְנָשִׁים׃….they become wives within a clan of their father’s tribeNumber 36:7
The Bible seems eager for us to look at those two words (in bold) that it repeats. The Hebrew is “tihyeynah l’nashim” (תִּהְיֶינָה לְנָשִׁים). It’s hard to translate perfectly into English. It’s the future feminine plural of the verb ‘to be’. We first encounter the basic verb in the Genesis 1:3 as God declares “’Let there be light’ and there was light!” (יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי־אוֹר׃ ).
Hold that thought, because it reveals a critical shortcoming in most standard translations.
Most translations of our repeated phrase fold it into the passive or at least ambiguous sense of “becoming wives” like this comon mis-translation of the Hebrew above: “They may become the wives of anyone they wish, provided they become wives within a clan of their father’s tribe.”
But the verb is the future feminine plural of active creation. The daughters don’t just become wives, they now get to choose to make themselves wives, to wed by their own volition.
The next verse of Torah gives God’s reasoning. Most translations separate it out as a standalone declaration:
וְלֹא־תִסֹּב נַחֲלָה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמַּטֶּה אֶל־מַטֶּה
The inheritance of the Children of Israel is not to go ‘round from tribe to tribe…
But this is also a mis-translation. This rationale sounds like a command. Don’t make a mishmash of tribal boundaries through intermarriage. Wait. In one breath the daughters are told they can choose to wed anyone they wish, and in the next that it has to be a man from their own tribe?
But there’s a sneaky “and” (vav) at the beginning of that line, conjoining its logic to the prior verse. It is still ambiguous whether this makes it an imperative – And marry in your tribe! – or a conditional. Make yourselves wives of anyone you love; wed in your tribe and you inherit the land.
The repetition of the words tihyeynah l’nashim suggests there are two separate possibilities, a choice the consequences of which this next line spells out. Choose anyone you wish from any tribe, but only if you marry intra-tribally (the technical term is endogamy) do you keep your inheritance.
This more liberating reading is confirmed in our celebration called Tu B’Av (the 15th of the month of Av) when we are commanded to be joyous, perhaps as a tonic to the deepest day of mourning six days prior, Tisha B’Av (the 9th). The sages tells us that the reason for joy is that it’s the exact date of this ruling (15th of Av, 1273 bce), “when tribes were permitted to intermarry.”
So a better reading of the two verses, putting it all together, would be this:
Women should wed anyone who pleases them, but if they want inherit the land, they should choose a husband from their own tribe so land doesn’t circulate from tribe to tribe
Yes, God told them in a revolutionary moment, women deserve their father’s inheritance. And now, perhaps even more monumentally, God reveals to them and the world that women can wed whomever they please, from any tribe. But to balance it all, in exchange for your newfound freedom, He says, I gotta restrict the other revolutionary liberty I gave you (to inherit the land) so that you get it only if you choose to wed someone from your own tribe. Otherwise, the inheritance of the children of Israel will circle from tribe to tribe, mash up the neat map we just drew, and our peaceful utopia will be doomed before we even get there.
The deepest love
If this is a perfectly logical rationale, the next line is soul music. In the next breath, the same verse, God then explains – or mandates – the deeper spiritual force behind His compromise between love and inheritance:
כִּי אִישׁ בְּנַחֲלַת מַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו יִדְבְּקוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
“…because each Israelite must cling to the land of the tribe of his father.”  (Num 36:7)
The text’s word for ‘cling’, or the more antic ‘cleave’ – d-b-k, devek – is the same word Torah uses for other transcendent attachments, good and bad. It’s the same word for the God-given mystical connection between a man and his wife in Genesis. It describes Shechem’s deep, illicit lust for Dinah and also how persistent the plagues against the Israelites were, clinging to them. Later it applies to the deepest embrace between the Israelites and God. “You must cling to Him, for He is your life.” In later Jewish tradition it inspires the deep mysticism of devekus. But here it’s the engine of a love triangle: the Israelites love of Israel equals the love between man and woman equals the love between us and God.
And as if winking at us the Torah confirm this reading a few lines later. There are those same words bracketing this end of this story – tihyeynah … l’nashim:
תִּהְיֶינָה מַחְלָה תִרְצָה והגְלָה וּמִלְכָּה וְנֹעָה בְּנוֹת צְלפְחָד לִבְנֵי דֹדֵיהֶן לְנָשִׁים׃ (Num 36:11)
The verse says, “They chose (Tihyeynah )- Mahla, Tirtza, Hogla, Milka and Noa the daughters of Zelohechad”– the Torah names them here again to honor their importance – “to their cousins to be wives (lenashim).” The sages say Moses wasn’t telling them what to choose, but offering good advice from God. They heeded Him.
Having motivated two earthshattering revolutions through their chutzpah, they now show their modest wisdom. They choose to wed their cousins “so that their inheritance went along with the tribe of the clan of their father” (Num 36:12). It’s a great call. They get to have their wedding cake and eat it too.
With such a satisfactory wrap up, Numbers is quick to close the curtain with a swift last line: “These are the commandments and the laws that God commanded by the hand of Moses to the Children of Israel, in the Plains of Moab, by Jordan-Jericho.” (Num 36:13) Good show. Cue the soaring happy score.
We usually read the final weekly reading of Numbers, Masei, along with the one before, Matot. Together they create the longest reading of the year. The significance of the climax to Numbers may slide by us in the rush to get through the reading and as we get tangled in the technicalities of the revolution in marriage laws. The commentary is silent mostly about the startling fact that we’ve just heard the announcement of an unprecedentedly massive wedding, a five-fold celebration of women choosing their own mates. This even beats Shakespeare’s record in his comedy As You Like It, which famously ends with four simultaneous weddings.
Once we join the party, the message for the sweep of the epic narrative of the Hebrews starts getting deeper and clearer. It is really a celebration of the entire joyous covenant of the Torah, its climax. So let’s swiftly recap that epic in the light cast back by this happy moment.
Israel preserved its identity since the promise to Abraham through slavery in Egypt. They hear God pronounce His pact with them, newly-liberated slaves, on Sinai. They then get it in writing from Moses. It includes a detailed constitution, a set of laws for establishing a prospective heaven on Earth in the union of the people and land of Israel. They should have been eager to rush across the Red Sea and Sinai to seize their destiny, but they are not up to it. They fail every which way imaginable: through idolatry, cowardice, doubt, backsliding, violence, rebellion, complaining, lawlessness, debauchery, ambition, treason. Others have peeled away to return to Egypt. Some disappeared through assimilation with pagans. Some withered by wandering off in the desert. By far, God’s many plagues, afflictions, earthquakes, fire and snakes have eliminated the bulk of the spiritually weak, the rebels, the sinners and the merely conflicted. Their failures doom them to wander 40 years in the wilderness until the entire generation of former slaves die out. Even at the last moment, Moses faces two breakaway tribes, Reuben and Gad. They want to take the fat, fertile Moabite territory on the other side of Jordan, outside the borders of Israel proper. Moses first loses his temper when he hears their request. He compares them to the spies whose cowardly refusal to take Israel when they had the chance was the immediate cause of their wandering. But then Moses relents. Maybe he thought it would be better to let them pursue their corrosive greed outside of the utopia now rather than risk them rotting the future Israel from the inside, spiritually. Even so, to make sure they’re not just dodging the draft for the impending war against the Canaanites, he cuts a deal with them. He demands that they fight with their brethren before they take up residence across the border, build their cities and graze their cattle. Reuven and Gad readily agree. In fact, they’ll serve as shock troops, the most daring of the warriors. They’ll win the war and only then return to occupy their fat Transjordan lands. Are they loyalists who can’t resist their materialism or are they mercenaries? No matter. Moses has made the final selection of the spiritually fittest.
The only Israelites left are a new generation of fearsome, enspirited warriors. They’ve defeated the Sihon and Og, the Bashan, the Ammonites. They’ve just overcome the Moabite’s evil prophecy with superior God prophecy. They then completely decimate the even stronger Midianites for trying to seduce their whole nation. They leave almost nothing alive, taking only the cattle, gold and remaining virgins as booty. Then they carve up the land of Israel as if the outcome is assured, though they haven’t yet stepped foot in it.
In short, these vital Israelites are about to take, in the very Biblical sense, Israel. Israel the people are about to consummate their long-forestalled, pent-up ecstatic promised union with Israel the land. It’s a magnificent climax.
Jewish mystical tradition and literature overflow with the metaphor of groom and bride in this union between the people and the land. They interpenetrate and fertilize each other. They are meant to cleave to each other, just as bride and groom in the three-way union of man and wife with God as the not-so-silent partner. History proves the mysticism is real. When Jews occupy the land, it is fertile. Josephus in 75 CE testified to Israel’s abundance before the Romans destroy the Temple and scatter the Jews. To humiliate them, the Romans call it Palestine after the Jews’ bitter enemies the Philistines. The land never recovers for almost two thousand years. Empire after empire, Rome, Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, Ottomans, England – all try and fail to make it anything less than desolate. Ramban (1194-1270), flees Spain for the Land of Israel. In Acco, he couldn’t even find nine other Jews to pray with. He wrote to his son, “Many are Israel’s forsaken places, and great is the desecration. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem is the most desolate place of all.” He prophesied that Israel will remain desolate until the Jewish reoccupy the land.
Riding on horseback through what is now is the fertile Jezreel Valley in 1867, Mark Twain observed, “There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent – not for 30 miles in either direction.” He calls it “the curse of a Deity… that has ruined its fields and fettered its energies. …Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.”
Travel to Israel today and you can see immediately the instantiation of the metaphysical inter-fertilization of people and land both named Israel. When I last visited with my brother and sister, we traveled up and along the middle and northern borders – along the territory known as the West Bank, up north along Lebanon and Syria. Driving around and up the hairpin steepness of two lush mountains in Golan, a sudden gap opened in front of us. It was a vista of a forsaken, arid landscape in the distance, framed by green
“What’s that?” my sister asked, startled by the contrast.
“It looks dead.”
When the Jews are absent from Israel, the land suffers. Where they go, the land blossoms. Yes, there are exceptions. The territories Reuven and Gad bargained for, now Jordan, are still mostly lush, though I doubt anyone there still calls themselves a child of Israel. They still make wonderful wine in the Bekaa valley (mentioned in the Talmud) of southern Lebanon. Yes, there are mundane explanations for Israel’s fertility: Wealth, education, pent-up historical yearning, Western science and technology, sheer energy. But the mundane meets the miraculous halfway and the former disguises the latter from our dim mortal sight.
The Jews of Israel today are a testament to this mystically fertile union, especially after many of their great grandfathers shriveled (physically) in the shtetls of Europe before being incinerated. Brown, robust, social. Almost every man and woman serves in the military when they are 18. Their voices have music in them. In the last worldwide survey, Israel is one of the top countries for self-reported happiness despite the fact they’re surrounded by enemies, neighbors regularly pledge to eliminate them (the Palestinians and Iranians), and they’re despised by many nations of the world who should know better.
So why end with these women who have been given the new right to marry for love? Because their wedding is neither by force nor convenience. They’ve been given the Divine right to choose to marry whomever they wish, whoever they love – men who “find grace in their eyes” as the Hebrew literally says. They have expanded the domain of human joy and freedom by actively choosing their own paths. The daily ubiquitous miracles we mistake for the coincidences of material reality require us to meet divine will at least halfway on the road to fulfilling it.We’re not in Egypt anymore. we’re free to choose and act. You can’t just lay about and huddle in your hovel and wait for the hand of the Almighty to intervene. After all, He sent you a raft, a rowboat and a helicopter. You have to choose to take the ride. Israel the nation is now, finally, stepping into the boat. Tihyeynah.
What is a more fitting, complete ending to our epic adventure of the Hebrews than a five-fold wedding that we commemorate for all time? We celebrate it like that other, best of all liberation meals, the Passover seder. We end with the special dessert that, in its very name, celebrates the fertile conjugation of wife, husband and God through their separate deliberate acts of choosing, creation. It was set aside from the beginning only to be fulfilled now. It’s the Torah’s afikomon.
Tihyeynah. The future feminine plural. The Torah doesn’t have to tell us how the comedy ends. The daughters lived happily ever after. After all, this is true love.
– David Porush
Aug 1, 2022
I am indebted to my study mates in our Friday Noon Parsha Shmooze for delving this reading of Matot-Masei with me: Nicolas Cruz, Ron Kardos, Bobby Lent, and Brad Diller. I am also indebted to Rabbi Yossi Marcus for his Shabbos drash on the significance of Aaron’s yahrzeit being mentioned here out of place (it’s the 15th of Av; Aaron dies on the 1st). Aaron earns the only yahrzeit date explicitly mentioned in Torah. It comes to teach us the fundamental aspect of love for our fellow humans suffused in the Torah through Aaron. Finally, I am indebted to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman for confirming the meaning of the key word here – t’hiyeynah – as the future feminine plural of “to be,” and even more so for responding positively to this particular reading of the end of Numbers as a comedy.
 As Lord Byron quipped, “All tragedies are finished by a death. All comedies are ended by a marriage .” Most Shakespearean comedies end with a wedding: The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, many others. As You Like It ends with four weddings.
Going further back, we see the modern wedding comedy as a civilized version of its primitve pagan roots. The genre of comedy originated in ancient Greece as Dionysian fertility revelries. Komus was the Greek god of merrymaking who brought wine to his father, Dionysus, for his infamous parties. The annual spring rituals of komus weren’t so much weddings as festive orgies of appetite.
 The Contemporary Torah, Jewish Publication Society, 2006.
 Rabban Simon b. Gamaliel said: “Never was there any more joyous festival than the fifteenth of Ab and on the Day of Atonement, etc.” It is readily understood why the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the second tables of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the fifteenth of Ab be a day of rejoicing? “Because,” said R. Judah in the name of Samuel, “on that day the members of the different tribes were permitted to intermarry.” What passage did they interpret to prove this? (Num. 36, 6) [Ein Yaakov (Glick Edition), Taanit 4:11]
 In fact, Ramban berates Rambam for not listing the imperative for Jews to “cling to the land” as one of Rambam’s 613.
 The word is a contranym; it means two opposite things at the same time. Cleave could imply “to bind or unite”, or it could mean “to sever completely, (as with a cleaver).” The implication is that two entities have a deeper wholeness or unity.
 There’s another whole drash to be written about the connecting theme in Matot-Masei of willful, feminine choice, encoded in the verb of “to be.” This one is the contrast between the daughters of Zelophechad and the evil choice of the Midianite women to seduce the men of Israel: The consequence of their debased choice is that all the women are slaughtered and the virgin daughters become booty בָּזָז׃. “The Israelites seized the women of the Midianites and their children and all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth as booty. [Num 31:9]… “Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses yells at them: “You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who made it happen הָיוּ to seduce the sons of Israel to the bidding of Balaam, to trespass against HaShem in the matter of Peor, so that G-d’s community was struck by the plague.
 From the Kabbalistic tradition: “Behold the holy Torah and Eretz Yisrael have a unique relationship. So too the Jewish people have a unique deep spiritual relationship to the land of Israel. This can be seen from the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 48) dividing up the land between the twelve tribes, granting each tribe the parcel of land best suited for its needs. This was accomplished by each tribe bordering the place from where the soul of his tribe emanates from. Thus each mitzvah performed in Eretz Yisrael ascends and adorns each of the borders in relationship to the soul of each tribe. In this way, the completeness of the soul is dependent upon which portion of land it dwells in. And the fulfillment of the land is dependent upon the souls that dwell there in accordance with its existence. The essence of this is that Zion is the point of the original creation (Gemara Yoma 54b) For, from that point the rest of the world unfolded. That point of course is associated with the Shechina.” Chabad https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380682/jewish/A-Land-for-Every-Nation-21.htm
Also Kabbalah: “The land of Israel and its cities also represent a sexual aspect. The first sin caused a split between the masculine principle of the divine powers (symbolized by the sefirah of Glory or Foundation) and the feminine principle (symbolized by Kingship). The coupling of the two principles is already symbolized in early Kabbalah by the unification of “Zion” (Glory or Foundation) and “Jerusalem” (Kingship). Since the righteous person similarly is symbolized by the sefirah of Foundation, the sexual aspect is also reflected in the fact that only perfectly righteous people can possess the land.” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mystical-israel/
 “These two Galilees, of so great largeness, and encompassed with so many nations of foreigners, have been always able to make a strong resistance on all occasions of war; for the Galileans are inured to war from their infancy, and have been always very numerous; nor hath the country been ever destitute of men of courage, or wanted a numerous set of them: for their soil is universally rich and fruitful, and full of the plantations of trees of all sorts, insomuch that it invites the most slothful to take pains in its cultivation, by its fruitfulness; accordingly it is all cultivated by its inhabitants, and no part of it lies idle. Moreover, the cities lie here very thick, and the very many villages there are here are every where so full of people, by the richness of their soil, that the very least of them contain above fifteen thousand inhabitants.” Note how Josephus connects the robustness of the warriors and their dauntless spirit with the fertility of their land. Josephus, The Book of Wars transl. by William Whiston, (London: 1737) 3, 3:2
 Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad (1869)