Passionate Daughters

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

Once upon a time, in an arid desert, there lived five beautiful sisters: Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah. In addition to being beautiful, the sisters were both righteous and wise. They were the daughters of Tzelaphchad, the son of Chepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Menasheh, the son of Joseph.

We are first introduced to them in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, at the end of the Israelites’ 40-year trek through the desert. And how did these lovely ladies come to be among the very few individuals with the distinction of being discussed in the Torah by name?

The daughters of Tzelaphchad…came forward… They stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chieftains and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, saying, “Our father died in the desert – but he was not in the assembly that banded together against G-d in Korach’s assembly – rather, he died for his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.”

And Moses brought their case before G-d.

And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: “Tzelaphchad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them. Speak to the children of Israel saying: ‘If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter…'”

Numbers, 27:1-8.

This story is truly significant and profound on so many levels.

First, and most obvious, this episode is an incredibly empowering one for Jewish women. These sisters were not the archetypical Matriarchs, whose every word and deed plotted the fate of their descendants.They were also not Miriams, born to a blessed family marked for leadership. They were the daughters of a father whom they acknowledged as a sinner, and who died for his sins. They were women, in a nation whose leadership – particularly after the death of Miriam – consisted entirely of men. But neither their pedigree nor their gender was the important thing. What was important was that they perceived an injustice in G-d’s laws, and they reacted to it – not with blind and unquestioning acceptance, repeating the mantra “if G-d said it, it must be just” – nor with grumbling resentment, or the rejection of an unfair Torah. Rather, the sisters understood the law, accepted that it was the law, yet respectfully and courageously challenged the justice of the law to the lawgiver himself.

In this they joined the distinguished ranks of Abraham, who challenged the justice of G-d’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah; and Moses, who challenged the fairness of several of G-d’s decisions. Indeed, in some ways, the challenge mounted by Tzelaphchad‘s daughters was even more impressive. Abraham and Moses were privy to G-d’s “early-warning” thoughts and musings, and they spoke their mind before G-d actually decided upon His course of action. The daughters, however, challenged a law that had already been passed, delivered and taught, at point that perhaps even Abraham and Moses would have considered it a done deal. For an interesting perspective offered by Silvina Chemen on this topic, see here.

Second – they won. In a profound statement of the dynamic quality of Torah, G-d (G-d!) agreed with Tzelaphchad‘s daughters, and altered Torah’s laws as a result. The daughters were not ordained rabbis, they were not priests, and they were not members of the High Court. But they were intelligent, they were devout, they had a keen sense of justice, and they rightly believed that G-d would require no more than that.

One the saddest casualties of the Reform movement was the creation of a rigid and inflexible Orthodoxy – a term first appearing with respect to Judaism in 1795, and largely considered a response to the Reform movement. Before Reform and Orthodox, there was simply Judaism. Perhaps we should call it traditional Judaism. And traditional Judaism was dynamic, always changing, evolving, adapting. When the Second Temple was destroyed, Judaism had to adapt from a Temple-centric service to personal worship. From a religion based upon a central beacon, animal sacrifices, and an annual pilgrimage, Judaism became a religion of prayer, of personal improvement. When Ezra returned to the Holy Land at the end of the Babylonian Exile and found rampant intermarriage between the Jews and the gentiles, he instituted a system whereby peddlers would circulate among the Jewish communities selling makeup and trinkets that would provide Jewish women with some tools to make themselves feel more beautiful and to better compete with the gentile women seeking to attract their men. Today, by contrast, some ultra-orthodox communities condemn their women for wearing wigs that are too beautiful; and then, on the other end of the spectrum, is Miley Cyrus. We are thus left with the two extremes of either all or nothing, and the adaptable quality of Judaism has been lost in the mists of time. Tzelaphchad‘s daughters teach us that, when it is pursued with integrity, G-d is open to change.

Third, the argument employed by the sisters highlighted the fundamental equality between men and women – a concept which, though obvious, was nevertheless in danger of being lost in legal morass. They essentially proposed as follows: A child should inherit its parents. Is a girl considered a child? Do we count? If so, let us inherit our father. If not – if not – then our father had no children, in which case our widowed mother is eligible for the levirate marriage (in which the brother of a deceased childless sibling takes the widow as his wife for the purpose of perpetuating the deceased’s name). So let one of our father’s brothers marry our mother, and our father’s portion in the Land of Israel will thus be preserved in his name.

And with that sound legal and logical argument, based upon the Torah itself, the daughters demonstrated the irrationality of ignoring female heirs. (As for possible explanations for as to why daughters do not inherit when there are sons, see the well-reasoned perspective of Judith S. Antonelli in In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah.)

One might think that the Rabbis might have felt upstaged by these upstart women who dared to challenge the status quo. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The Talmud describes the daughters of Tzalaphchad as “wise,” as “virtuous,” as “righteous” and – a particularly meaningful praise from rabbis – as “exegetes”; i.e. they possessed a mastery over the scripture that allowed them to present a thorough and accurate analysis of the law.

However, the Torah also saw in the daughters of Tzalaphchad a trait that was characteristic of all the Jewish women of that generation: they loved the Land of Israel. It was a land that they had never seen, only heard about in tales of their distant ancestors. Moreover it was a land that had been publicly besmirched by the only men who had seen it – those sent as scouts nearly 40 years earlier. See Numbers, 13:1-33. Nevertheless, the women believed in G-d’s promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. They disregarded the naysayers and skeptics, and maintained a love for the land that endured throughout the Egyptian exile and the 40 years of wandering as discussed here and here. Whereas the earlier spies had scorned the land, and whereas the men of the tribes of Reuben and Gad would soon ask to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan, outside of the land, the daughters of Tzelaphchad mounted a legal challenge to ensure that they would inherit a piece of the land that they loved.

Indeed, the sisters appear to have been somewhat calculating in this regard. The Talmud reports (with approval) that “even the youngest of them was not married under forty years of age.” Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra, 119b. This was an odd decision, since forty years old is – and certainly was then – considered an unusually late age for marriage. In fact, the very same section in the Talmud cites the opinion that “a woman who marries after forty cannot bear children.” Id., 120a. Nevertheless, it is understood that the sisters did not wish to get married earlier lest their marriage somehow jeopardize their claim for a piece of the Land of Israel. Thus, notwithstanding their diminishing fertility, Tzelaphchad‘s daughters waited until their inheritance in the Promised Land was assured before settling down with husbands.

In the end, they got their cake and ate it too. Not only did they prevail in their legal claim, but the Talmud states that G-d performed a miracle, similar to the miracle that He had performed for Moses’s mother, Yocheved, 120 years earlier. As He did for Yocheved, G-d restored to the daughters of Tzelaphchad their youthful beauty and physiology, and they were able to bear children in the land that they loved.