July 10, 2020 – By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES
In Parshat Pinchas, toward the end of the Book of Numbers, a census has taken place, presumably to assign land rights for when the Hebrews enter the Holy Land. The logistics unfold predictably until the five daughters of Zelofechad arrive at the Tent of Meeting requesting an audience to express their feelings of injustice regarding the culture of inheritance.
“Our father died in the desert…and has 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 the brothers of our father” (Num 27:3-4).
This is an extraordinary event in the Torah: Not only do these five women summon the courage to come forward; not only do they make a dignified case to inherit in this very male-centric society; not only are their names listed (Mahla, Noa, Chaglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah); and not only is the matter worthy of consideration, it is taken directly to G-d. At this stage, this would have been enough.
Then, without equivocation, Hashem tells Moses, “The plea of Zelofechad’s daughters is a just one… transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter’” (Num 27:7-8).
To say this passage is unusual is an understatement. Women are mentioned in our Holy Books, but rarely are their names listed, and even more rarely are they seen outside their roles as mothers or wives. More often than not, women in the Torah are noteworthy for the manner in which they assist or challenge men who make up the main narrative than for their own agency.
The women are treated in a respectful manner and the matter progresses seamlessly – no drama, no controversy – just a comforting message: Sometimes, when conditions are right, an injustice can be brought to those in power, considered, and corrected and not just for those in the immediate situation but as a legacy for those who come after. How wonderful!
Another thing that makes this instance remarkable is what doesn’t happen: In order for Zelofechad’s daughters to get their birthright, the men, who would have inherited, don’t dispute the women’s appeal. They just let it happen. Whether gracefully or ungraciously is unknown; there is no mention of anyone challenging the fairness of the request or complaining about G-d’s ultimate ruling.
An occurrence like this gives us faith in right-mindedness. There are times when the right thing to do is so obvious that anyone with a little seykhl (common sense) can see it: Wearing masks in large crowds, helping to change a culture in which Black people are in danger, petitioning for better health conditions in seniors’ residences, speaking out against antisemitism when the tinfoil-hat crowd creates outrageous conspiracy theories, and so on…
As one of our more well-known quotes urges: Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof – Justice, Justice, Shalt thou pursue (Deut. 16:20).
I had the pleasure of streaming the Broadway show Hamilton last weekend. Although my knowledge of U.S. history is limited, the George Washington character chants a song that feels very relevant:
“I know that we can win
I know that greatness lies in you
But remember from here on in
History has its eyes on you.”
Chaverim, history has its eyes on us. What will we tell our great-grandchildren about how we conducted ourselves during this complicated time? Will we be gracious and brave even if it means sacrifice? Are we on the right side of history?
At this time of upheaval and adversity, let us have the strength to tap into the greatness that lies in us and may we conduct ourselves with the integrity and dignity that defines the best of our tradition.
Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently studying online with the Jewish Studies Learning Institute as a rabbinic student and will be ordained in June 2021.