The Voices of Women for Change

Parashat Pinchas

As Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on July 6, 2018

Every year when we hit this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, my email fills with divrei Torah about the great accomplishments of Zelophehad's daughters as writers proclaim the chutzpah of five women who ask Moses for the right to inherit their father’s land.  People pump their fists in the air and call out “hazah!” a glimpse of feminism in the text! Look at these amazing daughters who inherit!

Don’t get me wrong, when read in a certain context; there may appear to be glimmers of hope for the Israelite women. Five named-women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, come forward and voice an opinion, certainly something not recorded very often in our Torah.[1] Yes, they stood up for a cause they believed in, and it would even seem that they won; however, when read with other verses of Torah, we come to find out that the narrative does not unfold in the way we had hoped. 

Please turn to your Shabbat handouts, and let’s take a look at the verses from our portion:

In the preceding verses, Zelophehad’s daughters went to Moses and proclaimed, “Our father died, and he has left no sons.  Don’t let his name be lost because he didn’t have a son. Give us the inheritance.”[2]

Here you’ll find the verses on your sheet: Moses takes the case to God who declares:

Num. 27:7–8

“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. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.” 

So far, so good, this is where everyone pumps their fists and declares “hazah!” Feminism! Women inheriting!

But we have a few problems:

First, to be at this point in the Israelite narrative, without women’s inheritance, is super behind the times. This was not some new innovation to other near eastern cultures, who already had the practice of allowing women to inherit, and those texts are recorded for us to study and make comparisons today. Women’s inheritance was nothing new to other communities during this time.

Second, these women are only inheriting because there are no sons. It’s not like being a first-born daughter gave her any status over a firstborn son — there had to be no sons at all. In the other near eastern cultures, daughters inherited equally with their brothers.

Third, by chapter 36 of the Book of Numbers, the women have essentially lost the inheritance. Let’s look back at our sheets: 

Num. 36:6–9

This is what God has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may marry anyone they wish, as long as they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe. No inheritance of the Israelites may pass over from one tribe to another, but the Israelites must remain bound, each to the ancestral portion of his tribe. 8 Every daughter among the Israelite tribes who inherits a share must marry someone from a clan of her father’s tribe, in order that every Israelite may keep his ancestral share. Thus no inheritance shall pass over from one tribe to another, but the Israelite tribes shall remain bound each to its portion.” 

The women who inherit now have regulations on whom they can marry, which is to say that they can’t go outside of the tribe, because then the inheritance would move in a way that, had a son inherited, it never would. All the perceived progress of chapter 27 is completely gone by the end of the book. Inheritance doesn’t even really last one generation.

So yes, these daughters were brave to come forward and to make a request for inheritance. I’m certainly not taking away from their attempts, but to only focus on this brief moment sacrifices the corpus of our sacred literature. We sometimes do a disservice to our text when we only read a few lines without the context of other parts of the Torah.

One of my favorite biblical scholars, Rabbi, Dr. David H. Aaron, points out, “The need for Numbers 36 stems from an aggressive assertion of a patriarchal rubric for inheritance that bypasses women, ostensibly for the sake of the clan.”[3] Translating to English, the later verses needed to happen to take things back to the way they were, for male inheritance to be the only inheritance, and for wealth and land to stay within a given clan through the male line. They needed inheritance to return to the status quo.

How often has the system put in place by men been to regulate what women can do and achieve? Some of the most important issues that come to mind, today, are abortion rights in our legislature, maternity leave and more flexible hours in for-profit companies, and the fact that women's deodorant or razor costs more than men’s.[4] 

Too often we hear the putting down of women regarding political campaigns or the submission of their name for promotion in the business world. It doesn’t matter the political party, all parties have had cases of furthering a man’s campaign for the sake of the party because of fears that a woman won’t be able to beat the opponent, the voters are looking for a male figure, or that such-and-such-a county isn’t ready for a female leader. So the party leaders ask the woman to quiet down her campaign for the sake of the party, and she agrees because she has given so much of herself to breaking down these barriers that she doesn’t have the energy left at that point to fight the top of the top.

Regarding, the issue of promotion, some women are missing this first step: voicing the opinion, asking for the promotion. The issue is cyclical: Women don’t ask for a promotion because they think they won’t get it; they think they won’t get the promotion because they have watched so many men receive promotions, passing over the few women who have submitted their names. 

This cyclical problem is intricately tied to the issue of maintaining the status quo. The Harvard Business Review has done a number of studies on the topic, and the statistics indicate that if a man is leaving the job, companies will often replace the position with a man; if it’s a woman leaving the job, they’ll often replace the position with a woman. But when men hold the higher positions in companies, we go back to the cycle of women not asking because they don’t think they’ll get it, because the company is maintaining the status quo, and the wheel turns and turns.[5] Just as one point of illustration regarding the issue of gender in top company positions: In 2015, in response to an Ernst & Young report, the New York Times pointed out that there were more men named John running companies than women. That’s right, fewer women run companies than men named John.[6] There are lots and lots of reasons for this, but we can’t overlook the issue of gender.

Looking back to the daughters of Zelophehad, they finally got the energy to voice an opinion, they even made progress that held up for a few chapters, and then they were shut down. We don’t hear from them again. They aren’t given a voice back in the text. We don’t hear them fighting to marry whomever they want. We don’t hear them rebelling and marrying outside the clan, taking their inheritance with them. Instead, they either got tired and gave up, or the writers simply took away their voice.

To the women whose voices we never heard,  and to the women who are raising their voices now, we have to keep going. We can’t give up. We can’t let our voices be taken away. We, now speaking to men and women, must do better for our daughters, our granddaughters, and the generation to come. We must not let the cycle of Zelophehad's daughters continue. 

Slowly but surely, things are improving for women in the workforce. When we are in positions to hire, we must make efforts to overcome the biases that we hold — both conscious and unconscious. So too should women take the chance and put their names in for promotion. There’s a long way to go, and it requires each of us to raise our voices. May we move away from the patriarchal ways of the Israelite society, and continue to pave the way for women to progress and achieve excellence.

כן יהי רצון 

May this be God’s will.

We turn to page 157 as we prepare for the Mi Chamocha, and we see these words which say,

Standing on the parted shores of history we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt, that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together….and raising our voices

And so we have these images of the Israelites marching together toward freedom, just like the men and women marching for continued change and progress in our world. Mi Chamocha, page 158. [Include Miriam's song chorus and last verse, back to Mi Chamocha.]


[1] Num. 27:1

[2] Summary of Num. 27:3–4

[3] Aaron, David H. Phd “The Ruse of Zelophehad's Daughters.” Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 80, 2009, 8.