Daughters of Zelophehad a Model for Empowerment

Rabbi Lynnda Targan

Rabbi Lynnda Targan

Parshat Pinchas

Pinchas, the name of this week’s parsha, contained in the Book of Numbers in chapters 26-30, embodies a story unique in all of Torah.

In chapter 27, five sisters, identified as the daughters of Zelophehad, a man who came out of Egypt with Moses but died in the wilderness with no male heirs, become unlikely heroines of the Jewish evolving narrative by their brilliant triumph over personal tragedy and loss. The Daughters, notably named Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, bravely come together to call out inequity and injustice by claiming the rightful inheritance of their father’s portion of the land.

The text says, “They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains and the whole assembly at the Tent of Meeting and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness, and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to the clan because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.’”

Respectfully, Moses listens to the women, and, without hesitation, he appeals to God and pleads their case. Just as quickly, without further ado or deliberation, God responds, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: You should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.’”

God continues, ‘‘Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer the property to his daughter.’” If he has no daughter, the text delineates further rules.

This statement, the law of procedure for the Israelites, is issued in accordance with the Lord’s command to Moses. Thus, it becomes the biblical precedent and leads to a law of patrimony that daughters can inherit the land, a major gender equity victory established in antiquity.

A little later in the Torah, their power is somewhat limited by stipulations to marry within the tribe to guarantee and preserve their rights. Nevertheless, their courageous appeal leaves a lasting legacy, including their ability to pass the inherited land on to their heirs as the authorized owners while the laws of succession are enumerated.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman in Eitz Chaim writes, “The references earlier to Rabbinic changes in marital and inheritance law clearly show that not only does the Torah stake out a claim to moral behavior in its own day, but even more important, it intends for its abstract ethical teachings, which transcend time and place, to be upheld in every generation. This cleaving to general principles will guarantee that the specific rules do not, in the course of time, devolve from ethical to unethical.”

The Daughters’ narrative is noteworthy for a variety of reasons. These women, named four times, which is an unusual distinction, distinguish themselves among the stories of men and women who play significant roles in the Torah, specifically as moral agents and architects of change, not just foils for others.

All five sisters coalesce as a community, seeking parity before God and the community at large. They teach us lessons about process, about progression and Jewish continuity. They show us how to communicate convincingly and the importance of collaborative women’s voices as a collective seeking elevation and the ability to uplift others.

They are also models of healthy sibling relationships in a canon of tales inclusive of jealousy, greed, rivalry and inequality between warring family members. The French exegete Rashi speaks glowingly about their behavior and their power to influence. Explaining why their names are listed in different sequences in various places with none of them being dominant, he expounds, “This tells us that all of them are of equal importance. That’s why Scripture changed their order.”

According to author Naomi Rosenblatt, these trailblazing women bring important themes to the fore, and their behavior models what we all have the power to emulate. Rosenblatt says that what they inform us by example is how to find faith over fear and why it’s possible to prevail over opposing circumstances.

The Daughters also demonstrate that, even in the face of loss and an uncertain future, we can commit to a new horizon, converting ideas into action as we find the righteous and compassionate path to pursue.

In these days of worldwide difficulties, may we all look to these amazing women, the daughters of Zelophehad — Noah, Milcah, Mahlah, Tirzah and Hoglah — for hope and light in the face of adversity. And may we all be empowered to work as a community in the name of tikkun olam. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Lynnda Targan is a pluralistic community rabbi. The founder of the Women’s Midrash Institute and a Mussar facilitator, she also presides over life cycle events and is an author. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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