By Rabbi Peretz Rodman
The latter half of today’s double portion, Parashat Mas‘ei, is a geographer’s dream. Its very name means “travels,” and it opens with Moses providing a review of the decades of wandering, naming the people’s encampments place by place by place. The journey has been the unifying theme of Numbers, and now the Israelites are poised at the threshold of Canaan. The borders of what is to become Israel’s landholdings are listed, and a team of chieftains is appointed to apportion the lands to the Israelites after the conquest. The towns to be allotted to the Levites are described, the first known towns with planned “green belts” around them, not unlike the one London first mapped out in the last century. The six cities of refuge are named as well, the places where a person guilty of unintentional manslaughter can be safe from family members of the victim who are intent on exacting revenge.
Speaking about Parashat Mas‘ei in a synagogue d’var Torah four decades ago, a prominent scholar of medieval Jewish philosophy mused, “I wondered for a long time where these places we read about in this parashah really are. Now I know: they are in the pages of the Torah. That is where they exist.” Not so for the geographers who have worked to map the biblical sites on the present topography of the Land of Israel.
In Mas‘ei, what really excites historical geographers is the final section, tying up loose ends of the story of the daughters of Ẓelopheḥad. When these five sisters’ father died without a son, they petitioned Moses for the unusual right to inherit their father’s landholdings. The daughters will in fact receive their father’s lands, to ensure that their family’s homes and farms are not given over to other Israelite families. Now a counter-petition is filed, this time by the male members of the other clans and families of Zelopheḥad’s tribe, Manasseh. It would be unfair, they argue, if their female cousins were to marry men from other tribes, who would come to own some of the lands of the tribe of Manasseh, incorporating them into their tribes’ holdings. The solution: the five daughters of Zelopheḥad must marry men of their own tribe.
And why is this story a geographer’s delight? Over a century ago, archaeological exploration of the region of Samaria revealed a cache of potsherds on which were written the records of an Israelite royal tax collector, documenting the agricultural products he gathered as payments from family farms in the area. Those farms were categorized by clan and tribe. Lo and behold, two districts bearing the names of ancient clan leaders are, quite unusually, named not for male ancestors but instead bear the names of two of Ẓelopheḥad’s daughters, No‘a and Ḥogla.
This lends some credence to the biblical account. At the very least, the story was invented to explain the very real phenomenon of having clan districts named for women. Whether providing proof of the biblical account or merely showing the realia that prompted the invention of an origin story, the five daughter’s names represented very real places, places that exist not just in the pages of the Torah, places where very real families and extended families lived for centuries, rooted to the land of their tribe and their people.