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Monday, July 24, 2006

The Post-Trauma Victim in the Torah: Tzelofchad

In Bamidbar/Numbers Chapter 27 the daughters of Tzelofchad came before Moshe, Elazar the Kohen (who succeeded Aharon after his death) and the elders of Israel. The background is the allocation of land in Eretz Yisrael which is to be conquered and given out to tribes and families. The five daughters claim that it is not fair that their father, just because he had no son, should be done out of having an inheritance in the land for his future descendents. The reason given is because he did not participate in the rebellion of Korach, but died in his own sin. That is to say that although he had his own issues, he did not negatively influence others.
There is internal evidence that Tzelofchad's sin did not adversely affect others. From pshat (straightforward meaning of the text) we see that he had five fine, wise daughters who grew up to eloquently plead for a share in the Land. The Sages of the Talmud (Shabbat 96b) wonder just what that sin was. Rabbi Akiva claims he was the man who went out to gather straw on Shabbat and was put to death (Bam. 15:32-36). Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira disagrees, attributing Tzelofchad's sin to joining the "presumptuous ones" who attempted to force their way into Eretz Yisrael without divine sanction and were killed (Bam. 14:39-45).
What do both of these opinions have in common? I would like to suggest that both the straw-gatherer and the presumptuous ones (Hebrew ma'apilim, used in modern Hebrew to refer to the illegal Jewish immigration during the British Mandate White Paper days) were two different manifestations of what we call today Post-Stress Trauma Disorder (PSTD).
Some people who have been in mortal danger, for example soldiers in battle or firefighters, cope with their fear by recklessly charging forward into the danger without concern for the danger. This sometimes ends in heroism and other times in death. The Israelites accepted the evil report of the spies and expressed their wish to go back to Egypt. For this G-d punished them with 40 years of wandering in the desert. None of the adult males would go into Eretz Yisrael; all would die during the 40 years. There were those who attempted to charge forward anyway. They were told that G-d would not be with them and the enemy would destroy them, and so it was.
The other category was the straw-gatherer. The straw-gatherer was a case in which Moshe had to ask G-d specially what to do with him. This is peculiar, since it is a known fact that transfer of an object in a public domain on Shabbat is a capital offense. However, there is a principle that the actual conviction of a criminal in a capital case should be avoided at all cost to prevent the spilling of blood. Any mitigating factor is used to prevent the conviction. But apparently here the case was clear-cut. The offender was caught in the act, questioned, warned before at least two witnesses, and then proceeded despite being told that he would stand to be executed. Strict proceedure called for stoning. But there was a wider consideration. This person was in a state of lessened volition because of both lack of clear motive and compulsive behavior. Let me explain the origin of the trauma. Back in Mitzrayim (Shmot/Exodus Chap.5), when Moshe first came before Pharaoh and told him to release the Israelites from bondage, Pharaoh responded punitively by requiring the workers to produce the same quantity of bricks as before without being provided with straw. This forced each worker to do the additional, highly traumatic work of foraging in the sand gathering straw under threat of beating by the Egyptian taskmasters. Does this already sound familiar?
The second factor was the total lack of need to gather straw in the Sinai desert. The people were covered with protective clouds by day and fire by night, therefore they had no need to make fires to warm themselves. None of their clothing wore out that they would have to replace it with fibers of any sort. Their food came down from heaven in an edible form. Those who felt a desire to cook it could do so, but such a desire does not seem to compel going out davka, purposely on Shabbat when it was forbidden, to gather straw.
It is clear from the above that the straw-gatherer is the opposite pole of PSTD, the compulsive reliving of the old stress. We may suggest that Tzelofchad or whoever was walking along in the desert on Shabbat and just happened to look at the straw on the ground. This triggered the recurrence of the trauma from the days of slavery in Mitzrayim. The Torah puts Shabbat, the symbol of freedom from toil, in juxtaposition with this overwhelming compulsion. Moshe and the people were perplexed by this, causing Moshe Rabbeinu to appeal to Hashem for an understanding of what to do.
The verdict is that the individual still in principle has free will and is culpable, but the suffering and death of this unfortunate individual effects an atonement for his soul, since he is still a victim, has not caused others to sin and presumably received his punishment with proper confession and contrition (Yoma 85b and Rambam, Teshuva 1:4). So, in either case, the daughters of Tzelofchad have a case.

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