My father’s name is Richard Salzman; Hebrew name, Shleim Alter ben Yaakov. Dad is all over Ma’asei, this week’s parasha. Ma’asei is all about how law plays out in real people’s lives. It’s got both criminal and inheritance law. It’s also about goodbyes and ending the book of Numbers. Like Moses, my father died the weekend Ma’asei was read twenty-three years ago, and his death ended a book in our lives, too.
My father was a judge. Dad didn’t do much criminal law, but before he went on the bench, he did a lot of estate law. He’d have liked this week’s parasha. The criminal law part of Ma’asei is the story of cities of refuge. Once the Israelites crossed over into the new land, they were to set up six cities of refuge, under Levite (Priestly) control, so that anyone who accidentally killed someone could have a place to go until trial, unthreatened by angry and vengeful family members of the deceased. This applied to involuntary manslaughter, not Murder One. For that, the family could have at you.
The other story in this text refers back to the daughters of Zelophechad, a personal favorite of mine, since I am one of the daughters of Salzman, and we didn’t have any brothers, either. Like Mr. Zelophechad, Salzman raised a feisty crew of women. Ok, Mom helped a lot, as did my grandmothers. Suffice to say that Dad married INTO a feisty crew of women, so he shouldn’t have been too surprised, and rather than fight it, he eventually embraced it (ok, inwardly, I’m sure.) Anyway, remember two weeks ago, the Zelophechad sisters had come to Moses to protest that just because they were girls, why shouldn’t they still get their fathers’ land inheritance? God agreed with them, and Moses amended the law in their favor. This week, though, Zelophechad clan heads came back to Moses, saying he and God hadn’t really thought this through, because if the sisters marry into another tribe, their birth tribe would ultimately lose their land portion, and that’s just not right. So, Moses amended the law again, saying that the women could marry anyone they wanted of their own tribe, and still keep their share, but if they married out, the tribe would lose their portion.
I wasn’t into Torah text when my Dad was still alive, but I was really into Constitutional Law and current events, an inevitable byproduct of my activist parents. Dad and I had a few lively conversations about the connection between Constitutional Law and Rabbinic Law, and he was intrigued at the process of change for both. My father was a politician, in the best sense of the word: true public servant, passionately involved in local politics, making the town we lived in a better place. Naturally, he kept up with the news, read and remembered everything, and held strong political opinions. Most families ban discussions of religion or politics at the table. Frankly, that’s pretty much all we discussed. It was the ‘70s. It got noisy. Even before he was a judge, it was intimidating coming up in front of the Salzman Court, in session each night at dinner. If you couldn’t defend your position, you were toast. And heaven help you if you cried. Game over. None of us daughters became lawyers, to his disappointment, I’m sure, but I’d like to think my sisters and I each learned how to stand our ground on our opinions, of which we have many, as anyone who knows us would attest. Damn right.
This parasha teaches us that the laws in the Torah are to be lived, wrestled with, turned over, questioned, and ultimately, amended if needed, by real people who are here on earth with us. That’s the basis for Oral Law, Rabbinic Judaism, which we live and engage with today. The Law may be God-given, but it’s ours to interpret and apply. Dad may not have been much for faith and ritual, but he had a holy passion for the law, and the process by which we keep it alive and meaningful, because otherwise it’s irrelevant. Now that I “do” Torah regularly, I mourn the conversations I never got to have with him about all this.
Moses knew he was going to die; he told the people so and prepared them for his successor. My dad just went to the courthouse one day and he didn’t come home. Before starting this week’s post, I never realized how closely Ma’asei is associated with my father’s life, not just his death. Ma’asei and my father: make the law live, make it work for the people who promise to follow it, and learn how to respond to what a handful of uppity women started. Yeah, it works.