Wednesday, 11 Jul 2012

Written by Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

Parashat Pinchas is a wide ranging parasha, dealing with some fairly meaty issues. The parasha begins halfway through the story of Pinchas – in last week’s parasha Balak Pinchas had already, rather gruesomely, dispatched Zimri and Cozbi as they lay in intimate embrace (Num. 25:6–9) . This week, we pick up mid-stream on this story to discover, much to the discomfort of many of our liberal sentimentalities, that God has wholeheartedly approved of Pinchas’s zeal, granted Pinchas and his descendants the priesthood in perpetuity, and ended the plague with which God had struck down 24,000 Israelites at the end of Balak (Num. 25:10).

Following that rather fascinating turn of events at the beginning of the chapter, the parasha turn to rather less gripping content with an extended census of the people – where people means men over the age of twenty – in order to ascertain how many fit soldiers there are. The most telling portion of this census comes at the very end, where we are told that of all these people who have been counted, all bar two – Joshua and Caleb – are free-born Israelites (Num. 26:65). The generation of those who had been slaves in Egypt had now died and a new generation had finally arisen.

And now an interjection – the daughters of Zelophehad, as they are collectively known – and their tribulations over inheritance rights. This section is the one that will, in general, be read in Reform and Liberal synagogues this week1.  It is to this section that I wish to devote my comments.

The daughters of Zelophehad – Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, as they are named in the biblical text – approach Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the assembled chieftains and elders of the Israelites with their problem.

“Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, 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!”2  (Num. 27:3–4].

And so the case is stated, simply, clearly, and though the translation here adds exclamation marks for effect, the biblical Hebrew gives little emotional content away.

Moses’ answer is rather blunt or, rather, non-existent. Moses utters not a word of direct speech in response to Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah; instead he simply retires to consult with an even higher authority, God. God then answers Moses, not Malchah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, directly. God says, however, that “the plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just; you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them” (Num. 27:7). Again, God’s response is merely stated, no emotional content is divulged by the biblical text.

And yet it seems extraordinary to assume that no high emotion was at play here. For us, who are accustomed to the likes of Harriet Harman standing in for the Prime Minister at question time, the voice of women speaking out to the highest authorities in the land about a taxing problem feels rather natural, I hope. That God should reply with an acknowledgement of the just nature of their cause, too, ought I hope sound to us not so much remarkable, but simply reasonable. But within the biblical context these five women seem highly remarkable, though far too often for their predicament, rather than anything else.

I have often heard this story used as a sort of blunt weapon in interfaith circles where the status of women is being debated among people of various background. Jews, all too often, seem eager to score points on the grounds that even in the biblical period, in however constrained a fashion, women, under certain remote and infrequent circumstances, had the right to some level of inheritance. But aside from the fact that the very nature of the limitations under which women had that right militates very much against celebrating it at all, in general this type of debate seems to me to be entirely beside the point. (Not to mention that point scoring in interfaith dialogue also seems to me to be entirely beside the point and poor practice at best.)

What seems to me to be the point is as follows: These five previously unknown women open their mouths, challenge the patriarchal establishment, are heard and rewarded for their courage. Jill Hammer in her book Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women  imagines the scene for us, filling in the lack of emotional content of the Bible. Here Hoglah speaks:

 I have told myself that if I believed, this moment would happen. I imagined it fourteen nights running. But now it has happened, I cannot believe it. Moses has called every chieftain from every tribe. The priests have come out of their holy places to listen. The whole nation is gathered around this small open space. I am afraid that my sisters and I will say something wrong, that we will sound angry or spoiled or bitter, that people will whisper to each other that we want this for the wrong reasons. I am afraid that all the women secretly hate us – or worse, that they are all counting on us, that we are their last chance.

The crowd begins to quiet. Machlah walks forward with delicate steps. Her head is high as a pillar of cloud. Machlah speaks before Moses: Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the rebels, Korach’s faction, who banded together against God, but died for his own sins. He has left no sons.”

Silence. Machlah cannot say more. Tears fall from her cheeks and make dark spots on the ground. Noah clears her throat, but says nothing. A chieftain mutters something under his breath. My heart is pounding. Inside my body a gazelle runs from a lion, but I am the gazelle and I am the lion. I step forward without feeling my feet.

 “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!”
 A wave of startled sound crashes over us. I am shaken by it as I step back. Have I said the wrong thing? 3

Hammer’s reconstruction may be fanciful, but it brings home for us the courage of these women. Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah are extraordinary in every sense of that word – brave, insightful, challenging, strong, anything but the norm. After all the last woman who challenged Moses’ authority, his own sister Miriam, was struck down with leprosy.4 

But then again, we learnt in the verses just preceding this story that all those Israelites who had once been slaves had now died out. This generation, the generation of Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, were free. They were not tainted by slavery. And these five women are the embodiment of that freedom – women who believed in their own right to be heard and vindicated, women who believed in their own ability to stand up in public and demand, from a pantheon of male authority figures, justice. And to receive it from no less an entity than the Divine judge.

When we are looking for the real message of the story of the daughters of Zelophehad that seems to me to be where it lies – that we, too, can open our mouths and be heard, that we, too, continue to have voices worth hearing and believing in. And that is a message worth scoring points with, in whatever context you can.

Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris
This D’var Torah was previously published in July 2008


1  This LJ lectionary gives a choice of readings, one of which is the daughters of Zelophehad, for this week’s readings.
2 All English translations from the JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH, JPS, Philadelphia: 2003.
3 Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, Jill Hammer, JPS, Philadelphia: 2004, pp. 141-142.
4   For the full story, see Nu 12.





The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.