Land Distribution--Then and Now
As Jews, we must express our religious imperative to ensure equal access to land.
The land distribution methods outlined in this section of the Torah represent a radical departure from what we see today. The fact that land is apportioned based on population size underscores the fundamental equality of every person. Every tribe began its new life on a proportionally equal footing, with the tools it needed to build a successful community. The clear starting place for every Israelite was with ownership of land--the most important resource and the most valuable gift that one generation could pass along to the next.
In this context, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, which concludes Parashat Pinhas, furthers the point. As unmarried women whose father died and left no sons, the daughters of Zelophehad were not originally allotted any land--the initial formulation of land inheritance stipulated that land holdings only pass from father to son. The daughters of Zelophehad brought their grievance to Moses who, with God's sanction, remedied the situation, establishing a precedent that title to land can pass from parents to children, including daughters.
The original land allotment structure would have resulted in a manifest injustice, leaving innocent women homeless. With this injustice brought to the attention of people in power, the entire system shifted to protect those whom it had initially neglected. The story of the daughters of Zelophehad comes to remind us that, once we recognize the consequences of structural and systemic injustice, once our consciences are pricked, we must change those structures and systems in order to meet the needs of those who occupy the periphery of any society.
The Israelites had a blank slate upon which to build a new society. They were lucky. Today, we face ingrained systems of wealth disparity. Because of this challenge, it is even more incumbent upon us to engage deeply in the necessary work of land reform. There are many countries that have begun to take brave steps toward land redistribution. As Jews, we must do our best to support these movements and urge our government to behave in ways that express our religious ethical imperative to ensure equal access to land.
As Shabbat brings into balance the uneven scales of our business and spiritual lives, let us help those who have fallen off the scales entirely to find a foothold and a place to call home.
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