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Parashat Pinhas 5780

July 10, 2020

A D’var Torah for Parashat Pinhas
By Rabbi Jill Hammer

In Parashat Pinhas, five daughters, the daughters of one man, Tzelofhad, appear before Moshe, bringing a case. Their father has died. Each Israelite family is to be allotted land in Canaan when the people enter the land. However, because Tzelofhad has no son, he has not been allotted land. The women present the case that their father deserves a portion in the land: “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Num. 27:4) Moshe brings this case before YHWH, and YHWH declares that “the plea of Tzelofhad’s daughters is just” and rules that if a man has no sons, his daughters may inherit, provided they marry men from within their own tribe (Num. 27:7-11). This caveat about the daughters’ marriage is put in place so that, when the women have children, the land does not pass to other tribes (since people inherit tribal status from their fathers and if the women marry men of other tribes, the women’s children would belong to other tribes).

The story of the daughters of Tzelofhad suggests incremental justice rather than a radical shift in Israelite law. The daughters don’t win inheritance rights for all women. Rather, they win a concession: daughters of fathers who have no sons may inherit, provided they marry in such a way that their inheritance does not shift tribal land allotments. However, the moment that the daughters step forward at the Tent feels like an important moment in which a plea for justice is stated and heard. That moment requires courage— to walk out in front of the tribal leaders and Moshe, to stand out among women, to ask for something that has not yet been given. If we took a snapshot of that moment in our minds, we might imagine faces we recognize, faces of those determined to make change.

What causes the daughters to have such courage? Sifrei Bamidbar 133:1 suggests that the daughters believed God would be on their side.

When the daughters of Tzelofhad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes, and not to females, they gathered together to take counsel: “The compassion of the Omnipresent One is not like the compassion of human beings! Human beings, their compassion is for men. The One who spoke and created everything is not like that, but has compassion on males and females—compassion on everyone! As it is said (Psalms 145:9): “God is good to all and God’s compassion is over all God’s works.”

If we were to translate this midrash into modern language, we might say as follows: “Human beings have biases, based on who has power and what society values. But God is not like that. God has equal compassion on everyone. God places equal value on all of us.” The daughters of Tzelofhad are buoyed and inspired by their sense that God finds them valuable even if society denigrates them. The midrash perhaps draws this interpretation from the word “Vatikravna”—”the daughters drew close” (Num. 27:1). They draw close to God, because they know God will hear their case.

The daughters also seem to draw their courage from one another. All five of them come together. They don’t send one or two daughters as delegates: they all come as one. The Talmud understands the daughters as having a sense of equality among themselves. The Talmud (Bava Batra 120a) notes that:

Later (in Numbers 36:11), the verse lists them [the daughters of Tzelofhad] according to their age, and here (in Numbers 27:1), according to their wisdom. This supports Rabbi Ami who said: In the yeshiva, precedence goes according to wisdom, and when reclining [at a feast], according to age…. A tanna of the house of Rabbi Yishmael said: The daughters of Tzelofhad were all equal, as it says: Vatihyena (and they were)—they all had one being.

The Talmud observes that there are two lists of the daughters, one when they step forward, and one when they marry their cousins, in fulfillment of the request that they marry within their tribes. In this passage, the first opinion suggests that the daughters are listed in different orders because the context is different. The text observes that in general, people are seated according to wisdom in a yeshiva, and according to age at a festive meal (that is, wise people have seating priority in yeshiva and older people have seating priority at a banquet). In the first text, the women are speaking before Moshe so it is like yeshiva; in the second text, the women are getting married, so it is like a banquet. In this opinion, the Talmud imagines that the daughters’ listed order replicates the different hierarchies of their time.

But the second opinion, by a tanna of the school of Rabbi Ishmael, is more radical. He suggests that the different orders of the names show that the daughters were all equal. This interpretation focuses on the word Vatihyena — “they were” — from the phrase, “they became… married to their cousins—tihyena… livnei dodeihen lenashim (Num. 36:11). The word tihyena, this midrash suggests, means that the women were all of one being, one havayah (the same root as tihyena). The women speak as one, without jockeying for place and without argument. How often in the Bible do we see siblings inherit anything without internal conflict? The tanna is proposing that the daughters not only argue for equality—they demonstrate the principle of equality through their own behavior.

This beautiful second interpretation seems to me to speak to us today, reminding us that when we seek to make our society more equal, we first have to start by listening to everyone and giving honor to everyone. Equality means seeing one another as of one being, one havayah. The daughters of Tzelofhad establish no precedence in their order: no one comes first all the time. This seems to me to be an important principle: we are called to create a societal structure where people all have the opportunity to be first sometimes. Even though our differences in age and wisdom might make a difference in some contexts, there must be other contexts when we assume a radical equality.

According to these midrashim, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah know that God values everyone equally, and they too value one another equally. This list of five names from our parashah feels like a rallying cry for our time, not only because it is the beginning of an inquiry into the rights of women, but also because it continues the vision of Genesis 1 that we are all made in the image of the Divine. It is almost as if the five daughters are offering us five new books of the Torah, books in which new forms of equality, liberty and compassion are written. May we continue to open those books as we move forward into the future.

Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons—as well as the forthcoming Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah.