Pinchas 5778 – Challenging the Status Quo

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

In today’s parsha, sandwiched between Pinchas getting rewarded for killing the Simeonite Prince and the Midianite Princess and Moses empowering Joshua to succeed him and lead the people to the land of Israel, is a brief section which is easy to overlook. It deals with how Moses is instructed to divide the Promised Land amongst the tribes. It was assumed that only males could inherit land because the clan was perpetuated through the male line.  Here we meet the five daughters of Zelophehad. This is historically very significant.  While some of the men were calling for mutiny, abandoning Israel and preparing to turn back to Egypt, the daughters of Zelophehad had their own ideas.  They challenged the tradition and asked for their own portion of land.

The story of Zelophehad’s five daughters encapsulates the challenges that women faced and what they had to do in order to affirm their rights with dignity. We might expect that women who were put under a law that frequently favored men, might react by keeping silent, by accepting as natural the rule decreed for them to follow. We might expect women in those days to stay close to their tents, remain out of sight, and not go far from their families. So how and why did Zelophehad’s daughters write a new chapter in history?

They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Imposing as this may have been, the five sisters decided to claim their rights. Together, they go out of their tents, without being called by anyone, to the place where only high-ranking men congregate, to the place where the tablets from Sinai rest in the ark, to a place of holiness, to a place where women did not have authority. The men must have been overwhelmed when they saw this surprising situation. But this is not all the five sisters do. They not only come forward, but they speak with determination about how their father died in the wilderness and that he left no son. They said:” 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.”

Let us analyze what this text reflects about these women. First, note that these women know their law and history. They know that the continuity of family name depends on inheritance of the land; and they realize that the current law is not adequate, for it does not take into account the unusual circumstances of a man without sons. They possess the acumen to recognize this omission in God’s law. They show no hesitation in pointing out the unfair nature of the present situation with complete confidence and supporting their claim with compelling arguments. How does Moses react? Moses discloses his inability to assess the claims of the sisters. He takes the case to God, who responds by quickly supporting the sisters’ demand by creating a new and permanent law to secure inheritance for any daughters in such circumstances.

A author named Eturuvie Erebor(AKA Gabriella) wrote in an essay stating that in confronting Moses on this issue, the daughters set a new precedent. These women were empowered women, these women were leaders. Leadership lessons that can be learned from the lives of these great women are as follows: great women are liberators; they do not sit around waiting for others to liberate them of the challenges life throws at them.  Rather, they confront the challenges that face them and liberate not only themselves but others with them. Great women challenge the status quo, they never accept it. Great women are not afraid to go where no one has gone before. Great women are pathfinders and trailblazers. Great women fight for a cause bigger than themselves. For these women, it wasn’t about an inheritance, it was more than that. It was about ensuring that their father’s name did not die. They spoke for their father when he was not there to speak for himself. Great women are change agents. These women brought change not only for themselves but for women that would be born many generations later. No more would a woman be unable to inherit her father’s possession. No more would a man’s name die off because he had no sons. Great women are bold. These women were bold; they stood before Moses and the entire congregation and stated their case without fear and trembling. They asked a question which had never been asked by a woman:” why should his name be lost because he has son?” Then they boldly declared what they wanted.  The daughters of Zelophehad did not back down when encountering resistance. Moses said” no” at least three times before he conceded the logic of their position. Moses is a greatest profit who ever lived, and yet the daughters of Zelophehad saw something he did not see. Notice that these women did not say to Moses,” will you give us? Is it possible?” No, they place a demand on Moses. They said” give us.” And Moses and God gave.  Great women are inspiration to other women. Yes, their story sends this short but powerful message to all women,” you can too, because you’re a woman.”

The Bible seems to define society as being composed of men only. On at least three occasions, a census of only men with taken. The women and children were never counted. In ritual areas, men predominated. Women, however, did take part in organized religious life.

From the time of our patriarchs onward, and throughout Jewish history, there have been selected individual women who displayed spiritual qualities that their husbands, who were themselves great men and leaders of Israel, could not attain.

In the generation of the Israelites wandering in the desert, the women repaired what the men broke down.

The Torah tells us of entire groups of women who rose above the fray and refrained from participating in the two major sins which befell the Jewish men during the journey in the desert. During the episode of the golden calf, the midrash tells us that women absolutely refused to give their jewelry. During the sin of the spies, it was only the men who despaired, not the women. And, in our parshah, when the men had been unwilling to enter the land, the daughters of Zelophehad petition to receive an inheritance. These women saw beyond the surface, to the reality of divine assistance, and the vision of a future where God’s grand plan would be carried through.

When it comes to the women’s lack of participation in these major mistakes of Jewish history, however, something is missing in the Midrashic and textual references. No direct credit is given to these women for their insight and patience. Only through roundabout textual review can we even realize that they were not among the sinners.

The Jewish women, as a whole, were credited for continuing to bring children into the world during the harsh Egyptian slavery.  So why not likewise credit all the Jewish women for standing firm and avoiding the two well-known sins of the calf and the spies

Women have held positions of respect in Judaism since biblical times. The matriarchs, as well as other female characters in the Bible, exhibited independence of thought and action, and critically influenced the course of history, although differently from men.

Scores of women who appear throughout the Bible show that women, despite socio-legal limitations, could act resolutely to shape the future according to their vision.

According to traditional Judaism, women are endowed with a greater degree of “binah” (intuition, understanding, intelligence) than men. It has been said that the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) were superior to the patriarchs in prophecy.  Miriam is considered one of the liberators of the people of Israel, along with her brothers Moses and Aaron. One of the judges, Deborah, was a woman. Seven of the 55 profits of the Bible were women.

In this lies the truth power of Jewish women: first, to possess the innate feminine qualities of insight, long-term vision, and seeing beyond the surface to a deeper reality. And second, to have the wisdom and courage to act upon it. In this way, each and every Jewish woman, in large and small ways, can truly change Jewish destiny.

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, however, 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.  It provides a message of hope for all those faced with obstacles.

After all, nothing is more sacred than life, itself, in the fight for what we believe is worthy. Thus, this parshah inspires us to discover that we, too, have the ability to know what is right for ourselves and the power to challenge the status quo.