Bamidbar, 27:1,3: “And the daughters of Tzlafchad son of Gilad son of Machir son of Menashe of the family of Menashe the son of Yosef, approached…Why should the name of our father be diminished (lamah yigara) from among his family because he had no son?
Rashi, 27:1, Dh: Of the family of Menashe son of Yosef: “Why does it say this [of the family of Menashe son of Yosef] – it already said ‘the son of Menashe’? Rather it is to say to you, Yosef loved the land, as it says, ‘and you will bring up my bones…’ and his daughters loved the land, as it says, ‘give us a holding’, and it teaches you that they were all righteous…”

In the midst of the Torah portion, we find the brief account of the daughters of Tzlafchad. He passed away with no sons and five daughters. At that point, the Torah had mandated that only sons could inherit the land of their fathers. Accordingly, as things stood, when the Jewish people would enter the land of Israel, their family would not receive a share in the land. Consequently, they came to Moshe with a request. They asked that they receive the portion of their father’s land. On a superficial reading, this request does not seem out of the ordinary but in reality, they were basically asking God to change the laws of the Torah. This is incredibly audacious and one could even ascribe to it a level of chutzpah – it almost implies that God forgot to address this point when He gave the Torah laws. What is equally astonishing is that God immediately agreed to their appeal and instructed Moshe to amend the Torah laws to allow for daughters to inherit land if there are no sons.

This was not the first time that people came to Moshe with an audacious request to add to the Torah. In Behaalotecha, a group of people were unable to offer the Pascal Lamb offering on Pesach and they also came to Moshe with a request: “…We are contaminated through a human corpse why should we be diminished (lamah nigara) by not offering God’s offering on his appointed time among the Children of Israel.”1 God agreed to their argument and made the new Festival of Pesach Sheini to give those people a second opportunity to do a Mitzva that they missed through no fault of their own.

It is striking that in both accounts, the claimants used the same root word – garah – diminish – in their requests. They were both arguing that they were unfairly missing out on something through no fault of their own. However, there would seem to be a big difference between the two episodes. In Behaalotecha the men were asking to be able to fulfil a mitzvah, whereas in Pinchas, the daughters of Tzlafchad were asking for land. Yet, Rashi points out that the intentions of the daughters of Tzlafchad were also driven by a love of mitzvot and not by a base desire for property. Rashi explains that they loved the land of Israel and wanted a portion in the land. Perhaps the identical word usage alludes to the fact that the daughters of Tzlafchad were motivated by spiritual factors just like the impure men. In both cases, God swiftly and happily acceded to their bold requests and did no less than add mitzvot to the Torah.2

What was the key to the outstanding success of these two requests? Of course, one can never be sure why God answers some prayer in the positive, and others in the negative, but these two accounts give us a clue to effective prayers. In both cases, the request was not driven by selfish motives, rather it was driven by a burning desire to do God’s will – to offer a sacrifice or to have a portion in the holy land of Israel. God wants us to fulfil His desires and come closer to Him, so when we genuinely ask to do so, and asks God, ‘let me do Your will’ then God is far more likely to answer in the positive than if one were to ask God, ‘do my will’.

A prime example of praying in this fashion is Chana. The verse says that she came to pray at the Tabernacle in Shiloh to be blessed with a child: “And she was bitter of soul, and she prayed on (al) Hashem, and she greatly cried3.” The Talmud4 notes the unusual use of the phrase ‘al Hashem’ instead of the expected ‘el Hashem’, meaning to God’. The Gemara explains that we learn from here that she ‘hiticha devarim Klapei Maalah’. The simple understanding of this phrase is in a somewhat negative sense, that she spoke overly strongly to God, however, the Nefesh HaChaim actually explains this as a praise of Chana.

He explains that Chana prayed ‘al HaShem’, means that she prayed for the sake of God. This is the meaning of the Gemara that she played ‘klapei Maalah’ – for the sake of the One above, meaning that she did not pray to God to save her because of her personal suffering, but for the sake of God’s pain at her own travails.

The Dudaim Besadeh5 likewise explains that Chana’s intentions were pure, and that she did not ask for children to have pleasure from them in this world or the next world, rather in order to give birth to children to serve God. This is proven by her promise that if she would have a son, she would “give him to Hashem all the days of his life6,” meaning that she would devote his life to Divine Service. Indeed, she kept this promise, and sent him to serve Eli the High Priest in Shiloh from a very young age. Thus, she gave up the normal ‘nachas’ (pleasure) that a parent has in bringing up their child, because her whole intent was for the sake of God. Her reward was a son who was one of the greatest people in Jewish history.

We have seen three examples of the pure prayers of great people and how they were positively answered. Of course, reaching this level of purity in intention is difficult, but a person should not feel down if his natural intentions are not totally pure. Rav Chaim of Volozhin in his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers writes that if one’s motivations are not totally pure (loh lishma), he should at least have the intention to get to a point where he does have pure motives (lishma). This means that he should want to want to do Mitzvot for the right reasons, even if he is not fully there on an emotional level. In this vein, Rabbi Akiva Tatz suggests that when one prays, he should ask God to want to want for the right reasons. So, for example, if one wants a livelihood for various reasons, he should ask God to help him want a livelihood so that it will help him in his relationship with God. May we all merit to pray in the right way.

  1. Bamdibar, 8:5.
  2. Based on the article, “Lessons from the Daughters of Tzlophchad” by Rabbi Daniel Loewenstein, alaphbeta.org.
  3. Shmuel Aleph, 1:10.
  4. Brachos, 31b.
  5. Quoted in Mishbetsos Zahav, Shmuel Aleph, p.28.
  6. Shmuel Aleph, 1:11.