We are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Although we live in the Information Age, levels of uncertainty increase each day. News channels are packed with commentators and the discourse ranges from descriptions of catastrophe to messages of reassurance. We hear the cries of those who have not been impacted by the virus itself, but rather, suffer from its devastating economic impact. Today, almost four months since Israel’s initial coronavirus outbreak, it is clear to all that the world order is changing, and that there is a need to reshape the social contracts between various communities and between governments and their citizens.
Parashat Pinchas includes a wide range of issues, ranging from the laws pertaining to sacrifices made in the temple to censuses of Israelite families, and the laws of inheritance. Hiding amongst the verses is a short story that shows how the primordial laws failed to reflect justice and to answer the relevant issues of the day. At the center of the story are five sisters whose father passed away with no beneficiaries to inherit his land. According to ancient law, inheritance is passed only between men and because there were no men in this family, the sisters were to have no inheritance whatsoever. In their grief, the sisters appeal to the highest authority – Moshe – to bring about justice.
“Our father died in the wilderness…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!” Moshe brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moshe, “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…This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with the LORD’s command to Moshe.” (Numbers 27:1-11)
Zelophehad’s five daughters: Machla, Na’ah, Chaglah, Malkah and Tirtzah, do not accept the social order as it exists. They dare to challenge social norms and to make their voices heard. They sound their claims, explain the injustice that they face, and await a decision. It is difficult to make social change, even more so in a patriarchal society, but surprisingly, Zelophehad’s daughters’ voices are heard. Moshe placed the decision in God’s hands, and thus, the decision became the truest higher order. This short story carries with it a powerful message for future generations: Sometimes the existing law does not address the social injustices that exist in society. Existing practices disregard certain groups. The story of Zelophehad’s daughters teaches that in order to change reality we must establish three basic conditions:
First, sounding the voice of the casualties. Authorities do not want social change; therefore, the expectation that the government will see and understand the magnitude and impact of the crisis without it being pointed out to them is unfeasible. In order to make real change, the voice of protest must be sounded, a voice that challenges the existing order and draws attention to the fact that the current reality creates injustices that must be resolved.
Second, leadership. Leadership that is unafraid to make unpopular decisions. Leadership that does not hide behind the status quo or the argument that change is impossible within the framework of pre-existing legislation. Rather, to effect change, we need leadership that examines, time and time again, whether the law and its objectives serve the general public for which the laws were originally enacted.
Third, the search for a long-term solution. Today we see leadership that seeks out temporary solutions that serve to dampen the flames of social unrest. However, if we seek real change, rather than a ‘band aid solution’, it is our responsibility to create real, long-term solutions. As a leader, Moshe did not turn to solutions that provided a temporary fix, rather, he ensured that the change of law would apply for generations to come.
Today, as independent business owners struggle to make ends meet, there is a strong need for decisive leadership. We need leadership that is not content with merely providing quick and temporary fixes, but one that yearns for solutions that will truly change the game. We need transformative leaders that will redraft governmental budgets and allow the millions of disenfranchised citizens to receive government and public support in these times of crises. This is not simply sound economic logic, but a moral debt that the government must pay its citizens.
Avraham Eisen is BINA’s Education Department Directo