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July 2, 2021

The Daughters of Zelophachad
Parshat Pinchas – Numbers 25:10-30:1

Their names were Machla, Noa, Chogla, Milka and Tirtzah, the daughters of a deceased Israelite named Zelophachad.  Five orphaned, unmarried sisters with no status, no power, no voice in the community, and no father, husband, brother or uncle to speak up, protect, or fight for them.  

No one knew who they were, but these sisters were well aware of Moses, Eleazer (Aaron’s son and successor after he died), and the tribal princes and chieftains – the male political leaders who spoke in the name of God, who made and enforced the laws and commandments, and who sat as judges and representatives of the people. And who, in this week’s Torah portion, were deciding the future of these five young women.

As the people of Israel were about to enter the land of Canaan, Moses had received instructions from God explaining how to apportion the land among the tribes, clans, and heads of households. In each instance, the land would be ascribed to a patriarch and inherited by his sons.

The sisters immediately realized that according to this policy, they would be left homeless and destitute. I can only imagine their panic. What would become of them? Where would they live? How would they eat? Would they have to beg on the streets? Sell themselves into servitude or slavery?

When I think about this story, I can’t but help but be reminded of the 19th century novels of the Bronte sisters and other Victorian writers where penniless orphan girls were treated with degradation, abuse and humiliation until finally at the last moment, a rich male benefactor somehow rescued them. Actually, even if they weren’t orphaned and just middle class, the prevailing notion for hundreds, if not thousands of years, has been that women still need rescuing. That they aren’t strong enough, brave enough or smart enough to change their situations or save themselves.

Every fairy tale I was raised on reinforced that idea, not to mention the dynamics in my own family. I have two brothers and a sister. My brothers have law and medical degrees, while my sister and I always worked in the world of theater. My brothers were equally artistically inclined, but my mother insisted that they needed to have a profession that “could pay the rent.” When I was in my twenties and a struggling writer trying to make ends meet, I asked my mother indignantly, “Why didn’t you ever worry about me paying the rent?”

She shrugged apologetically and said, “I thought your husband would do that.”
I grew up during the time of Women’s Lib and was deeply affected by Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Freidan and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, all of whom changed my life in one way or another, giving me the courage to follow my own path. Is it just coincidence that all four of these women happened to be Jewish? I think not. The tradition of Jewish women speaking up and demanding justice for themselves and others has a long and proud history.

Starting with the daughters of Zelophachad.

When the sisters learned of the inheritance rules, they knew that had to act. Since there was no one to rescue them, they decided to rescue themselves. Mustering up their courage and in my mind, holding hands, the five of them pushed their way through the crowds to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, where the Torah tells us that “Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains and the whole assembly” were gathered. This brave and bold act would be comparable to you or me entering the White House or the Capitol Building and interrupting a Cabinet meeting or a session of Congress.

Why these unknown, unimportant females were allowed to speak, we can only guess. Some commentaries speculate that it was because of their dignity and their righteousness, and even their wisdom. I think it was also because they were banded together, united, supporting each other and speaking in one clear, determined voice:

“Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, of Korach’s faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sins and left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!  Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

Moses and the other leaders were stunned.  Allow women to inherit? Give daughters the equal status of sons? The question was so mind-boggling that Moses had to consult God before he could answer.

“And the Lord said to Moses. “The plea of Zelophachad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen. Transfer their father’s share to them.”

I can imagine the surprise and disbelief of the male princes and chieftains at this decree, and then perhaps, a sense of grudging respect for these five sisters, who dared to confront authority, speak up for themselves and demand justice. Not only did these sisters change their own futures, but also the futures of the daughters and sisters who would follow them. And while it is true that the Torah still affirmed the precedence of a living brother over a sister to inherit, the sisters’ actions were a powerful first step and laid the groundwork for future changes. In Talmudic times, the Rabbis changed the law to allow daughters to inherit equally with sons, and through the centuries, Judaism has continued to evolve and expand women’s rights faster than many other societies, cultures and countries.

The fact that the story of the daughters of Zelophachad is included in the Torah and that their names are mentioned three separate times emphasizes the significance of this incident and offers a compelling lesson for all those who believe that their destiny is fixed or that divine justice had abandoned them. It encourages us to think differently and provides a message of hope for all of us who are faced with obstacles. It inspires us to discover that we too have the ability to know what is right for ourselves and what our rights ought to be.

But perhaps the most important legacy of Machla, Noa, Chogla, Milka and Tirtzah is their call to us to take hold of our life with our own hands and to move from the place that others have chosen for us and to walk, even to the most holy center, to where nobody seems to be able to go.

Shabbat Shalom,

The Daughters of Zelophachad
Parshat Pinchas – Numbers 25:10-30:1