Zelophehad’s Daughters: The 2019 Version | Parashat Pinchas
By Yuval Linden
Parashat Pinchas describes the incredible story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who fight for their rights as women in a patriarchal society. What can we learn from their story, and what would their struggle look like if it were to be set in our reality today?
As a long-time educator, one of the major questions that concerns me is how social change can be made. How can we change reality? How can I learn to correct an injustice or improve my society and the world in which I live?
For the optimists, or some may say the naïve among us, this week's Torah portion offers the story of Zelophehad’s daughters.
Once upon a time Zelophehad passed away, leaving no sons to inherit his property. His property was, therefore, to be transferred outside of his family. But Zelophehad had five unconventional daughters: Machla, Noah, Chagla, Malka and Tirzta. Zelophehad’s five daughters approached the authorities and requested that they amend the regulations dealing with the issue. In the spirit of the tribal and patriarchal society of their time, the daughters chose their winning argument: “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!”
And what did the authorities do? They accepted their argument, embraced a solution and enacted an unprecedented legal decision for inheritance cases like that of Zelophehad’s daughters.
How wonderful and easy for a liberal educator, a humanist and feminist, to glorify these five women. They witnessed injustice and decided that they would not accept it.
They formulated their appeal, approached the authorities and prompted legal reform that changed their own lives and the lives of many families to follow. The story is so wonderful, that it feels unreliable.
Anyone somewhat involved in social justice, anyone with a pair of eyes, knows that, generally, correcting a historical injustice is not such a simple process. In Zelophehad’s daughters’ version of reality, the first committee dealing with police violence and racism against Ethiopian immigrants in Israel would have already completed the job; kindergartens for ages 0-3 would have long been an integral part of our education system; the education system itself would be based upon teachers who would not feel ashamed of their monthly paychecks; and the annual pride parades would be held only in memory of the struggle that ended with gender equality for all.
Unfortunately that’s not the reality in which we live.
On the other side of this week's parasha and on the other side of the struggle for social change, is Pinchas ben Elazar son of Aaron the priest (cohen).
Pinchas ben Elazar son of Aaron the priest impedes upon the social reality of the Israelites who mingle with the Moabite women and embrace their god. God had already tried to prevent this, setting the law, and authorizing the judicial system to fight this phenomenon. While the justice system failed to act, a common man (from a privileged family, but still, a common man) took the law into his own hands and assassinated Zimri ben Salwa, head of a family from the tribe of Shimon, and Casbi bat Tzur. While the Israelites seem to stand, marveling at the act of brutal violence, God gives approval to Pinchas’s actions, grants him his covenant and even gives him and his family a favored job.
How difficult it is for a liberal educator, a humanist and feminist, to study the story of Pinchas.
Is this the solution? Violence and murder?! Does the Tanakh really give us a fanatical fundamentalist murderer as a role model for social change?
In my own philosophy with students throughout the years, I took the following lesson from our parasha: If you really want to change something, be prepared to fight for your goal.
At this stage, I feel compelled to make an intermediating comment – educators must be careful with their words. Those who claim to educate (especially ministers of education) and to prepare generations of students, must be careful and consider what they say. As is said: Life and death depend upon language. Therefore I will be clear – for me Pinchas is the red line, his actions warrant the command of "do not do" with a black flag flying over head. Anyone who commits the act of Pinchas, Shlissel or Yigal Amir, violates the basic covenant between us as human beings and as a nation and removes themselves far from legitimate protest.
After making that clarification, I will consider the connection between Pinchas and Zelophehad’s daughters. In studying the parashot, I’ve learned that there is no chance that the story of Zelophehad’s daughters could have really been so simple. We are missing part of the story here. Commentators throughout the generations have always added midrashim (commentaries) and wondrous tales when a piece of the story was missing. As such, in light of the story of Pinchas, I offer the story of Zelophehad’s daughters a little differently
It was a struggle, a difficult struggle, even. At first no one gave them a chance. They were told that that’s just the way things are. They were told to know their place and to be thankful that they were even taken out of Egypt (because it's much worse for women there). But they persisted, going tent to tent and making their case. They blocked the desert paths with their bodies so that people were stuck for hours on their camels in the Moab heat in July. The right accused them of bullying and violence, the left accused them of only preserving the patriarchal society which oppresses women. It took them months of struggle just to receive the right to present their claim to the leadership, and even then, change came only when the leadership understood that the public stands alongside the Israelites’ heroines and that they will not back down due to any tribal/state/divine council. Finally, the nations’ senior leadership stood behind them and declared that God had always been on their side and saw their words as true.
After this midrash, you are probably asking yourself why you have not heard the powerful story of Chagla, Noah, Malcha, Malka and Tirza. My answer is that this is because they did not cross the border that Pinchas had crossed. They fought fiercely and stubbornly, but they did not believe that any means would justify their goal. Pinchas remained a notorious fanatical murderer, while Zelophehad’s daughters undertook, against all odds, the Israelite’s incredible journey toward gender equality. Go out and learn from them.
Yuval Linden is the Director of BINA’s Mechina and Shnat Sherut (Service Year).