The Daughters of Tzlofchad – Parashat Pinchas

My Indian “mother”, half my age and twice as determined as me, stands over me with a spoonful of rice: “just a little more”, she says, almost begs, her eyes on me as I struggle with the never-ending heap of food on my plate, “you want I make other food”? I love Indian food and yet, I put my hands together in prayer motion to sign, please please, no more food. Every day, when we break for lunch, two young mothers show up with pots and pans, settle on the colorful rug, and, using their skillful fingers, roll rice and veggies as they methodically pile balls of food into their children’s mouths. It turns out, that Indian mothers are Jewish mothers too.

The women of the community I’m visiting in Eastern India are amazing and a true inspiration. They are busy all the time, cooking, frying, sorting, cleaning, washing, and yes, learning. When I am away from my room teaching, little angels change my sheets, add bananas and dates, fill the fridge with bottled water they get just for me, and hang an ironed tunic dress. They come in and out unnoticed, tiptoeing barefoot on the stone floor, their scarves floating gently behind them in the all too light breeze. They do their tasks with pride and humility, not grudgingly with a puffed breath under their chin, but with grace and delight. It’s their honor to walk in Abraham and Sarah’s footsteps. What can be better than to be busy with the work of Hashem. They feel lucky.

They constantly move, but then, yesterday evening, they stopped. I was asked to show how to make challa. Ingredients were assembled based on the list I gave earlier in the week and set on a clean table; a new microwave-convection oven appeared and was connected respectfully in the main-room. Then the ladies, young and younger, adults and students, all changed into lovely dresses, each unique in its design and colors. They stood behind me curiously, singing heartfelt songs we learned this week for peace and the well-being of the Jewish people world-wide (yes, in Hebrew), while I was kneading and praying not to fail them. They on the other hand, didn’t care what will come out of this unusual creation of yeast and white flour in a world of rice and chapati. “Failure” was not an option Anything would be success, they told me. If it “doesn’t work, we would have learned how not to do it next time”. While the dough rose, they kept singing; then the students played games learned in history class earlier in the day. There is no TV not because we’re in “backwards” India; there is plenty of technology- cellphones, screens for learning, electrical musical instruments and more. But there’s a choice: to spend time with each other, with books, with learning, with Hashem and his commandments.

The students I am so very honored to teach, are incredibly bright, committed, studious and learned. They want to know and exactly, what happened when Zimri brought the Midyanite woman before Moshe; why could Moshe not answer; is there something in common to all the cases Moses could not answer and if so, is Pinchas related to Pesach Sheni (he is!). These daughters of Tzolfchad are polite, smart, and insistent: they don’t give up on their questions. In a society where dress code (for men and women) is pretty strict and different, and buses are separated as is the ball area in the stadium, the women nevertheless know they want to learn, and learning they will.

It’s warmer than 90F and the weather channel says it feels like 107F; humidity is in the 80-90%. No one says a word about it. It’s hot so it’s hot. But India is waiting for rain, a feeling I know after living in California and growing up in Israel. The monsoon season is delayed, and the summer sown crops are wilting in some areas due to the dry spell. We add prayers all too familiar to rain. Wherever you are too, may it be a Shabbat Shalom.

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