Weekly Parsha: One Verse, Five Voices
Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father. And Moses brought their cause before the Lord. Numbers 27:4-5
Rabbi Nicole Guzik
I stood in front of a mirror with three of my college girlfriends. The mirror was inscribed with the following: You are beautiful inside and out. The four of us get together once a year and remind one another of what seems so hard to individually internalize. Together, we remember that we are strong, kind, loyal, beautiful women.
Our dinners have no agenda. No judgment. We are women who want to raise strong, kind, loyal, beautiful women, but often let personal insecurities speak over what we know to be core to our character. Although we stood in front of a mirror declaring our worth, the entire dinner was one of reflection and offering. We left feeling full; satiated by friendship and sisterhood.
It is rare to see a pact of sisterhood in the Torah. The daughters of Zelophehad come forward before the whole assembly. They come forward together. Rashi explains that their individual names are specified to indicate that they were of equal importance. How easily one could have let personal ego trump their collective agenda. How easily one could forget the magnitude of women banding together for a cause and purpose over a brief moment to be perceived as better, smarter, prettier.
The daughters of Zelophehad teach a poignant lesson: Women are stronger as they stand side by side. May our daughters understand that inner beauty pours forth when we stop seeing one another as threats and start seeing one another as sisters.
Rabbi Silvina Chemen
Kehilat Beth El, Buenos Aires
Excerpted from myjewishlearning.com
The story about Zelophehad’s five daughters — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah — encapsulates the challenges that women faced and what they had to do in order to affirm their rights with dignity.
According to the Talmud (BT Bava Batra 119b), Zelophehad’s daughters were wise (chachamot), astute interpreters (darshanyiot) and pious (rachmanyiot). “Wise” because they spoke in the precise moment when the decision was issued; “interpreters” because they in essence said, “If our father had a son, we would not have spoken — because he would have the inheritance”; and “pious” because they did not want to marry men who were not worthy.
The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now.
In addition, the story of these five women offers a compelling lesson for all those who believe their destiny is fixed or that divine justice has abandoned them. It encourages us to think differently and provides a message of hope for all those faced with obstacles.
Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands, to move from the place that the others have given us — or that we have decided to keep because we feel immobile — and to walk, even to the most holy center, to where nobody seems to be able to go.
After all, nothing is more sacred than life itself and the fight for what we believe is worthy.
Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel
Professor Yuli Tamir, Israel’s former minister of education, once authored a political article titled “Siding With the Underdogs.” Siding with the underdogs is a seminal feature of the sacred Torah narrative. Judaism commences with a devastating critique of tyrannical empires and its hegemonic values of autocratic power, and the personality cult of its despots. Abraham’s Mesopotamia and Moses’ Egypt constitute a clear case in point. The Torah favors the Hebrews, a dehumanized group of slaves undergoing genocide, over the military and economic might of Egypt. The Torah is indeed “siding with the underdogs.”
Secondly, the Torah engages once more in what Nietzsche called a “transvaluation of values,” by consistently favoring the younger sibling over the older sibling throughout the intergenerational familial sagas of the book of Genesis.
The Torah is, among other things, a radical philosophy of the Other. We are commanded no fewer than 36 times to love the Other.
Our parsha seeks justice for the quintessential Other and underdog of the Ancient Near East: the legal status of women. God himself instructs Moses to safeguard the rights of women to inherit their paternal plot.
With the inheritance rights of daughters established here, the Torah continues its pattern of undermining prevailing gender roles and the patriarchal structures of its epoch, leaving the work of subsequent expansion of its core values for posterity, a civilizational endeavor which continues to this day, inter alia with the #MeToo movement.
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation
Rashi explains that when God agreed with the daughters of Zelophehad, God said: “This is the way this section of the Torah is written before Me on high.” And so Rashi concludes, “We learn that the eyes of the daughters of Zelophehad saw what the eyes of Moshe did not.”
How could these women see what Moshe — the only person who saw God face to face — could not see? What does this mean?
The daughters of Zelophehad offered a personal lens through which to relate to Torah. They showed us that halachah speaks with relevance to our raw and emotional experiences because Torah is a dialogue between each of us and God. And so, the daughters of Zelophehad took the Torah Moshe saw and they made it their own — as we all must. But perhaps most profoundly, they modeled how to see and share the ongoing revelation of God’s Torah in halachic discourse — with humility, commitment to tradition, and deep love for God. The Midrash tells us they were devout, learned women who turned to Moshe with a legitimate question at the right time.
May we follow in these holy women’s footsteps — each finding our voice and being willing to engage the tough questions of our time with humility and the mission to further unfold God’s Torah on high.
Center for Women’s Justice, Chochmat Nashim
A wise man once said, “Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.”
When a wave of sin ensnares the entire nation, a man named Phinehas “rose up from the midst of the congregation” (25:7) to do what is right. Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it. Shortly afterward, the daughters of Zelophehad stand up to economic discrimination in the laws of inheritance: “And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation” (27:2). Right is right, even if no one is doing it.
After both incidents, God voices approval: Of Phinehas, God assures that “he was very jealous for My sake” (25:11) and similarly emphasizes that “correctly do the daughters of Zelophehad speak” (27:7). A new, eternal law, allowing daughters to inherit from their sonless fathers, is introduced into the Torah because of these women.
But did God really need Phinehas to stand up to his peers? Was God unaware that the law was unjust until the daughters of Zelophehad pointed it out?
Here’s a radical thought: Perhaps injustice and wrongdoing are built into the divine system so we can be partners in its refinement and hone our own sense of morality and activism.
Bereshit Rabbah 44 declares, “The commandments were given but for the purpose of refining creation through them.” We are not meant to dismiss our sense of justice when it is at odds with the law. On the contrary! Channel your indignation to make change.