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Parashat Pinchas

July 12, 2006

by Cantor Marcia Lane

(In honor of my birthday and in memory of my father, Gerald Rabinowitz, z’l.)

There are five basic sections of this week’s
parashah: The brief conclusion of Pinchas’
slaughter of those who were deemed sexually
immoral, a census and geneology of all the tribes, the
plight of the daughters of Zelophehad, the
designation of Joshua as new leader of the people,
and the long recitation of sacrifices and offerings to
be made at each of the holidays.

I’ve had trouble writing something coherent about
this parashah, mostly because there’s too
much. Too many names, too many events that don’t
seem to go together into a unified whole, too much.
But, given the need to make sense out of it (and,
frankly, not wishing to talk about the violence of
Pinchas and the brit shalom ‘ the covenant
of ‘peace’ which was bestowed to him!), I remain
intrigued by names, and particularly the names of

The Torah never gives us unimportant or unnecessary
information, and it rarely acknowledges women at all,
so what are we to make of the preponderance of
women’s names in this week’s parashah? At
the beginning of the parashah we hear the
name Cozbi daughter of Zur, a Midianite woman who
participated in immoral sexual acts with an Israelite.
We are given the names of the five daughters of
Zelophechad ‘ Machlah, No`ah, Choglah, Milcah and
Tirzah ‘ not once but twice (and presented in the
same order each time ‘ but not the same order as
found later, in Mas’ei, Chapter 36:11). They
are listed first in the geneology under the tribe of
Manasseh (26:33) and again when they present their
legal case to inherit the parcel of land due their
father 27:1). Mysteriously, we hear the name of
Serach, the daughter of Asher (26:46), who is also
counted among the family of Jacob who came down
to Egypt in the initial migration (Genesis 46:17). And
in the geneology of the tribe of Levi we see ‘the
name of Amram’s wife was Yokheved and she
bore . . . (Aaron, Moses, and their sister) Miriam’

If you add up all the occurrences you’ve got 14
mentions of names of women. And each time the
Torah repeats this formula: ‘And this is the name(s)
of . . .’ or ‘And her name was . . .” The formula is
not in place before the names of men. Torah, it
seems wants to draw our attention to the names as
much as to the women themselves.

Why? I keep searching for the thread that makes
sense of all these women. Cozbi is promiscuous, The
daughters of Zelophechad are litigants, Serach is
either more than 200 years old or else she’s long
dead (depending on the midrash you prefer). It’s
Serach who, according to midrash, helps her
grandfather Jacob hear and accept the news that
Joseph is still alive. Two hundred years later she
helps Moshe locate and retrieve the body of Joseph
which had been sunk into the Nile for safekeeping.
Yokheved and Miriam are dead but in life they were
integral movers and shakers of the story of our
people. Miriam remains an iconic image in our

The only women who actually have something to do
in the parashah are the five daughters of
Zelophechad. Their function is to present the first
suit for a woman’s right to inherit. It seems
significant that Moshe doesn’t have the answer to
their request. He takes the matter to God, who
says, ‘The suit of the daughters of Zelophechad is
just.’ And, boom, legal precedence is set. No one had
ever needed to consider the issue before: there had
been no land distribution before this moment in our

It may be something of a stretch, but here’s one way
to look at these women and their names. They
represent all the aspects of womanhood: sexual in
the case of Cozbi, mythic and mysterious in the
person of Serach. Yocheved and Miriam are the
nurturing mother-and-sister pair who insure the
survival of Moshe and of the Israelites (Miriam locates
potable water in the desert wanderings). And the
daughters of Zelophechad? They are real women, a
force to be reckoned with, a presence not to be
denied or ignored. They step up to the plate. They
challenge the ‘received’ wisdom or the standard
practice. In their simple, eloquent presentation of
facts they are clearly demanding to be seen, to be
heard, to be dealt with. Torah so often misses the
women, but not these five!

I am actually strengthened by all these
women ‘ even Cozbi, who dies at the hand of
Pinchas. They range from the safe, popular
representations of women to the dangerous and
liminal. They ‘ we – inhabit multiple personae, and it
would be a mistake to imagine that one woman
cannot hold all these possibilities. Your mother was a
sexual being. The woman who hangs out around the
edges, drawing no attention to herself, knows
secrets. The daughter is the landlord. The slut is the
lover. Like a puzzle box, or like one of those Russian
matrushkas ‘ nesting dolls ‘ we hold the world in