Innovation in Every Age
We might be tempted to think of the Torah as old-fashioned and "traditional." But when we look closely, what's "traditional" about it is that the Torah inaugurates the tradition of Jewish creativity and innovation that has never ceased from our earliest days. This week's Torah portion offers just a small glimpse of the spirit of innovation inherent to the Torah.
Innovation in Every Age
This week’s parashah is full of exceptions.
It opens with a general rule about vows, voluntary obligations that become sacred responsibilities once they are uttered. One who makes a vow “shall not break their pledge; they must carry out all that has crossed their lips” (Num 30:3).
But a dependent who utters a vow is limited in how much they can require of their family. The Torah presents a case of a wife whose husband can annul her vow; but in our egalitarian age, we may consider the impact our commitments make on all of those around us. You cannot—the Torah seems to be saying—require too much of your family without their consent. In such a case, your vow is canceled and its binding power revoked.
Then the Israelites prepare to enter Canaan and receive their promised parcels of land. However, two tribes—Reuben and Gad—along with half the tribe of Manasseh request permission to settle outside the land of promise. Furious, Moses berates them for their lack of solidarity, but they persist. The leaders of these tribes agree to join their brethren through all their campaigns of conquest, to fight alongside them every step of the way. And only once the land is secure will they return to the region better suited to their way of life, living as neighbors with the Israelites in the land. Moses accepts this compromise, and the tribal borders are redrawn.
There are other exceptions in the Torah portion, but I will share just one more. Previously, five sisters— Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah—had successfully petitioned to inherit the tribal holding of their father, Zelophechad. Their plea had spurred Moses to amend the law for all time. But the sisters’ cousins, other members of the tribe of Manasseh, now protest: If they marry outside the tribe, the patriarchal system will transfer their ancestral lands to men of another tribe. This would violate God’s commitment to stable borders between the tribes and further disrupt the norms of inheritance. So Moses compromises again, sustaining the novel law but requiring these sisters and others in their position to marry within their tribe. Once again, innovations are made and accepted as new conditions arise.
These anecdotes tucked into the latter chapters of the book of Numbers help characterize the nature of Jewish law. Even the Torah, we learn, is not composed of immutable rules enacted once and for all time. Our tradition is founded on innovation and change, responding to the times and tides each generation.
This Torah portion concludes with the summary verse: “These are the commandments and regulations that the Eternal enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho” (Num. 36:13). Commandments and regulations—yes. But tailored for that place in that time and passed down to us as an inspiration for the unique needs of own age. As we conclude the Book of Numbers this week, we recite chazak chazak v’nitchazek, it is as if to say:
The law was strong then
As the law is strong now.
Let us work together to reinvigorate the law for ourselves and future generations.
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