Parshat Pinchas: Female advocates – a precept from the Torah

Parshat Pinchas: Female advocates – a precept from the Torah 

The daughters of Tzelofchad merited far more than just inheriting their father’s portion of the land. They merited to have a chapter of the Torah in their names, as well as to marry and start families.

Rabbinical Court Advocate and civil attorney Osnat Sharon, OTS’s Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline

“The daughters of Tzelofchad came forward… and they stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest… and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting…” The episode concerning the daughters of Tzelofchad opens a window to the study of the laws of inheritance in the Torah. Seemingly, the Torah should have begun with chapter 27, verse 8:

“Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, and he shall inherit it. This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with Hashem’s command to Moses.”

This would be the law, put simply. If so, why did the Torah tell us the whole story of the daughters of Tzelofchad?

Revisiting these verses, we read about five single women. In those days, they would certainly be considered “old maids”, and they had come to demand what they deserved. The verse states: “The daughters of Tzelofchad … stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest… and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting…”. The daughters had come to the Tent of Meeting, the most central and sanctified spot in the Israelite camp, in which the Divine spirit had dwelled. They didn’t dispatch emissaries or public relations agents. They came themselves, with the full force of their strong personalities. The text doesn’t just refer to them communally as the daughters of Tzelofchad. Each of them is mentioned by name. Not everyone in the Torah merits to be called by their first names; the daughters of Tzelofchad came to represent themselves, in the name of their father. They made a point of explaining that their father had died for his personal sin, and that he was not a member of Korach’s congregation. The Torah then describes their pedigree, going all the way back to Joseph.

The daughters of Tzelofchad did not hide behind a curtain or wear masks on their faces out of modesty. They approached confidently and courageously, presenting their arguments to Moses and all of the dignitaries of the community. Such boldness! Nothing they said was apologetic and they never tried to justify themselves. Instead, they spoke succinctly and convincingly.

Essentially, the daughters of Tzelofchad had made a request that might appear feministic today: they wanted an inheritance. “Give us an estate among our father’s kinsmen”…

Were they seeking gender equality?

Moreover, the daughters of Tzelofchad, whom Rashi calls “wise”, engage in a critical analysis of Halacha without a second thought. Noting the words of the Halacha, “for he did not have a son”, they reassert that if Tzelophchad were to have a son, they wouldn’t have made any claims. Rashi calls them “wise women” for good reason. The daughters of Tzelofchad approached Moses and the entire congregation, demanding an inheritance. They said that it was obvious to them that they deserve an inheritance – but have no worry. We haven’t come to foment a revolution. We have no intention of changing the core principles of Jewish law, as set forth in the Torah. It is true that at the outset, daughters do not inherit. Yet what should be done, considering that our father had no sons?

We could suppose that Tzelofchad’s daughters had surprised Moses with this question, and that he wasn’t ready with an answer to it. Even the great prophet Moses had forgotten this tenet of Jewish law. Our sages say that this Parsha should have been written by Moses, but that “the daughters of Tzelofchad merited to write this Halacha themselves”. Single, assertive feminists who wrote the Halacha themselves. God attests to this, saying “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just”. Our sages add, “Content is the person with whose words God agrees.”

What was so great about what these women had done that earned them such praise from the Torah, from Jewish sages, and from all of the commentators? After all, were they alive today, wouldn’t they be considered “loud-mouthed feminists” from women’s organizations? Like the toanot rabbaniyot, the female rabbinic court advocates, whom the rabbinical court system had taken so long to recognize as wise, assertive, studious and righteous women? Could they be likened with the women who demand to dance with Torah scrolls during Simhat Torah, or who partake in the joy of Purim by reading the Megillah?!

The daughters of Tzelofchad teach us that to achieve a breakthrough, you need to be courageous and think clearly. If you believe that your claim is just and correct, there’s no need to justify yourself, be more modest, or ask yourself “why me”, or “Why can’t someone else do it?”

If you have something to say, say it! 

Say it loud and clear.

As we read in the Song of Songs: “Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet”. The words of truth are being spoken. The daughters of Tzelofchad teach us what female assertiveness is all about.  They show and teach us that if we firmly and unflinchingly believe that what we’re doing is right, we will achieve results. Mahla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirtza came to represent themselves, pure Halacha, their families and all of the generations that were to come. The Torah describes their pedigree, going all the way back to Joseph, for good reason.

Our sages explain that the women of the desert generation were not punished for the sin of the spies because of their great love of the Land of Israel. The sages emphasize that the women felt a greater love for the land of Israel than the men, since the men said: “…let us head back for Egypt”, while the women asked “to be given an inheritance”.

The wisdom of the daughters of Tzelofchad, and their keen perception of reality, teach us an important lesson in the ways of the world. They had no intent of changing the essence of Jewish law, but rather to augment it. In this way, they indicate to Moses, Elazar and the tribal princes that they are on the same side. They are religious, Orthodox women. This is how they stave off any opposition their claims might have produced.

We’ll end with the verses at the end of Parshat Masei, which tell us that the daughters of Tzelofchad were the wives of the sons of their uncles. Our sages explain that thanks to their righteousness, they merited to marry their own cousins, within their tribe, so that their father’s inheritance did not pass to another tribe. Their reward seems to be threefold. They merited an inheritance in the land of Israel. They merited that an entire chapter of the Torah was written in their names, and ultimately, they merited to start their own families and keep their inheritance within their tribe.

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