Parashat Pinchas has a subtle message about the behavior of children with regard to their parent’s will. The parasha opens with a census of all Israelites from the age of twenty up, following the plague that resulted from Korach’s rebellion.
ותפתח הארץ את-פיה ותבלע אתם ואת-קרח במות העדה באכל האש את חמשים ומאתים איש ויהיו לנס: ובני-קרח לא-מתו:
Then the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korach with the death of the assembly, when the fire consumed two hundred and fifty men – and they became a sign. But the sons of Korach did not die. (Num.26:10)
The plague referred to was a direct result of the Midianites, as is made clear by the new paragraph, written in the middle of the verse, separating the beginning psukim of the parasha , with the words: ויהי אחרי המגפה – It was after the plague.
This clear textual separation is informative in and of itself. Without this distinction, one might think that 24,000 Israelites died, with the Midianites receiving no retribution at all.
So the concept of retribution is pretty fresh in our minds when suddenly, at the beginning of the census, we hear that Korach’s sons did not die? The aftermath of Korach’s rebellion was dealt with exhaustively in Parashat Korach. So why suddenly mention that Korach’s sons did not die. One could either take the face-value explanation – this is a census – and this is the explanation of why Korach’s sons are counted here. But retribution itself is a weighty topic. After showing the severe retribution that Pinchas stopped, with 24,000 deaths to pay for rampant immorality, suddenly we have people mentioned who, by all rights should have been dead. How on earth could HaShem eliminate 24,000 Israelites, but spare the sons of Korach? When the deaths surrounding Korach’s rebellion were counted, 14,700 people had died, and no mention at all was made of the survival of Korach’s sons.
This critical bit of information is saved for Parashat Pinchas, and the juxtaposition with the story of Zelophehad’s daughters informs us why. When we hear of 24,000 Israelites perishing in this plague, of course we would add that to the 14,700 who died in the previous plague: 38,700 people died in a matter of weeks. The census alone is not sufficient reason to mention their survival – we are being instructed on when to honor one’s parents – and also when not.
Zelophehad’s daughters came to Moshe to claim their father’s inheritance, stating that their father died in the Wilderness, but neither as a result of the plague of Midian, nor as a result of the plague of Korach’s followers. Moshe doesn’t rule automatically in their favor, but rather brings their claim directly to Hashem. There is more to this than meets the eye: the daughters can only claim their father’s inheritance if they commit to not marry men outside their own tribe, as that would redistribute the lands and wealth amongst the other tribes, creating a dangerous precedent. If this became permissible, there would be no distinction at all between the various tribes within a generation or two. The precedent causes Moshe to lay out the laws of inheritance, as a decree of justice: לחקת משפט.
These righteous women are enabled to retain land in their father’s name, creating a precedent that shines forth to this day: women have the right to inherit property. It’s not that this was unknown in t he ancient world – but the way in which they attained that right was by showing that their father was innocent of the taint of immorality or rebellion. Likewise, the sons of Korach are counted in the census. They too had survived by virtue of distancing themselves from immorality, even when the immorality stemmed from their own father.
This is tantamount to giving the right of free choice to Am Israel. Yes – honoring one’s parents – כבוד אב ואם – is one of the ten commandments. But the mecessity of distancing oneself from evil is incumbent upon all, including those with a misguided, dangerous parent.
The daughters of Zelophehad are exemplary. The sons of Korach more so. The daughters show their intense understanding that to build a just society, you must give up a degree of personal choice. The sons of Korach maintained the inheritance of Yizhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi. Just behavior is needed to maintain a hold on the land, even if it might go against your person desire, or turns you against your own immediate family.
Plague and pestilence is the inheritance of those who would give in to evil, or create salacious alliances with the enemy. Surely they would lose the land, rather than value it. An inheritance is easily diluted by those who would intermarry, refusing to set themselves apart.