It’s quite easy to make generalizations about the typical disregard of women and their rights throughout the Torah. And, for the most part, you’d probably be right if you assumed that the Torah tends to either ignore or diminish most Israelite women. This week’s portion, Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), with its mention of Serach bat Asher, and the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, is one of the exciting exceptions.
First Serach bat Asher is practically immortal. She is first mentioned in Genesis 46:17 in the list of the Israelites who went down to Egypt. She is then mentioned again in this week’s portion at Numbers 26:46. Why is this noteworthy? This week’s list of descendants takes place HUNDREDS of years after the one in Genesis! How can Serach bat Asher still be around? Together, we’ll read some of the fascinating legends created by the rabbis to explain how, and why, her name appears in both places.
Then, we meet the five daughters of Zelophehad. Zelophehad died without having fathered any sons, and thus there is no one to inherit his property and assets. Bravely, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah challenge the status quo:
The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Eternal, but died for his own sin; and he 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 our father’s kinsmen!” Moses brought their case before the Eternal. (Num 27:1-5)
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, in a discussion of this portion, points out what makes this incident so remarkable:
Rabbi Silvina Chemen explains the power and uniqueness of the sisters’ challenge: “Together, they go out of their tents, without being called by anyone, to the place where only the high-ranking men congregate, to the place where the Tablets from Sinai rest in the Ark, to the place of holiness and authority, to a place where women did not have authority. . . . They not only come forth, but also they speak with determination . . . . These women know their law and history. They use the fact that their father was not involved in Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16) as evidence to support his-and their-claim to the land. 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! But because they consider God’s law to be just, or to aim to be just, they show no hesitation in pointing out the unfair nature of the present situation with complete confidence and supporting their claim with compelling arguments” ( The Torah: A Women’s Commentary , ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], pp. 985-986).
God responds to Moses’ inquiry, and tells him that the daughters’ request is “just.” Such a simple word (jn the Hebrew, it is ken, which means “yes” in modern Hebrew), but a huge concept. They are equal, and their wishes to inherit their father’s holdings is determined to be fair and just. God’s answer of YES is the model for us when it comes to questions of equality and equity.
Additionally, the daughters inspire us to speak out when we perceive injustice. Their plight is one experienced by many groups and minorities – not just women, but also Jews, blacks, LGBT individuals, and more.
Finally, we must remember the daughters for their realization of the importance of legacy. Rabbi Steven Kushner reminds us:
If the worst punishment is to blot out a name—as we are commanded to do regarding Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19)—then the most important act we do in honor of our ancestors is the preservation of their names. Earlier in that same chapter of Deuteronomy we are commanded to do as much within the convention of levirate marriage, a somewhat obscure law requiring the oldest brother (or nearest male relative) to marry his childless sister-in-law, the widow of his deceased brother, so that the latter’s name not be “erased” (Deuteronomy 25:6). Because to forget a name would be to render that soul as if it had never been.
Note that the Haftarah portion for this Shabbat is specific to the time of year – we are now in the three weeks before the observance of Tisha B’Av, and each week we read a Haftarah of Rebuke. Therefore, we do not read the usual Haftarah for Pinchas. Instead, we read Jeremiah 1:1-2:3. You may recall that, following Tisha B’Av, we have seven weeks of Haftarot of Consolation as we approach Rosh HaShanah.
Looking forward to our study together! Shabbat Shalom!