By Rabbi Alanna Sklover
Seth’s daughters — Lot’s wife — the Witch of Endor — Lemuel’s mother. Throughout the Tanakh, we cross paths with hundreds of unnamed women. Many of these women are remembered through the generations by the men to whom they were connected, their husbands, fathers and brothers, and others by their deeds.
Some, like Pharaoh’s daughter who rescues Moses and raises him as her own, are central to the narrative in which we encounter them, and others are more tangential. What they all have in common is that they, unlike the hundreds of male characters listed in censuses, tallies and troop lists each remembered by name and tribe, these women are easily forgotten.
This week, however, in Parshat Pinchas, we encounter something quite to the contrary. This week, we read two different stories about six women all of whom are remembered by name. Like for the rabbis of old, when something unusual arises for me in the text, it calls out to me Darsheini — parse me out.
At the beginning of Parshat Pinchas, we read the story of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who were slain for cult prostitution by a zealous leader, the eponymous Pinchas, who is rewarded with the priesthood.
Why is Cosbi bat Tzur mentioned by name in this story? What is so important about this story that we learn the name of this slain Midainite woman? Perhaps it is a lesson about the dangers of following foreign gods, but if so, wouldn’t it be more effective to only learn the name of the Israelite man who went astray? Why also his Midianite accomplice?
Perhaps we learn the name of Cosbi bat Tzur for a different reason than we learn her male Israelite counterpart. The command that Moses gave to the leaders of Israel was to execute any Israelite who was found to be worshipping a foreign God. When in his zeal, Pinchas killed not only the Israelite Zimri but also the Midianite Cosbi, he went a step beyond that which was commanded.
According to Moses’s instruction Cosbi — or at least those in her position — were not supposed to be killed. Perhaps we learn Cosbi’s name, therefore, as a memorial — as an extra memory of a woman caught in the crossfire.
Later in the parshah, we learn the names of five women, very different from the first. We read of Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milka and Tirtza, the five daughters of Tzelophehad. These sisters, each mentioned by name, bring their case for inheritance to Moses: left without brothers, they wish to inherit their father’s land. Moses, unsure of what to do and without precedent, turns to God.
Why do we learn their names? What is so special about these five sisters that, in the midst of the desert census, we learn their names and not those of all of the other women unnamed amongst their brothers, husbands and friends in the Israelite community? Perhaps it is not because of what Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milka and Tirtza did, but rather what it led to.
When Moses brings the sisters’ request to God, God not only grants the daughters of Tzelophehad their inheritance but creates a mechanism for other women in a similar position to do the same. Perhaps, therefore, we learn their names not only for their own sake, but also for the sake of all of the women who came after them and were able to be named because of them.
As we read Parshat Pinchas this Shabbat and chant aloud the names of these women may we be moved to notice. May we not only hear the story being told, but also notice the hidden stories behind them. May we not only see the names of these six women, but also notice all of those who are not named. And may we notice all of the places in our texts — both this week and beyond — where a word, a phrase… or a name — calls out. Darsheini.
Rabbi Alanna Sklover is the rabbi at the Germantown Jewish Centre. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.