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The daughters of Zelophehad have come to stand for women throughout the generations who have fought for women's rights; indeed, they dramatically succeeded in transforming the laws of inheritance, to enable daughters to inherit in the absence of male heirs.
But the sages of the Talmud do not refer to them as champions of equality; they are rather called "wise women, expounding women, righteous women" (hachmaniot, darshaniot, zidkaniot, B.T. Bava Batra 119b). Moreover, the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Lunshitz, 1550-1619), in interpreting the Divine command to Moses which we read just a few weeks ago, "Send forth for yourself men to scout out the Land of Canaan" (Numbers 13:2), suggests that God was speaking sarcastically; I know you will send out your men, and the result will be disastrous, but if you would only send out women, the situation could be saved. His proof text is the commitment of the daughters of Zelophehad. For the Kli Yakar, what characterized these women was not so much their feminism as their passionate love of the Land.
Let us analyze the biblical text in an attempt to understand their motivation. The complaint which they bring before Moses opens with: "Why do you reduce the name of our [deceased] father" by not giving us the inheritance rights to his land?" They are focusing not on an injustice being perpetrated against them, but rather on an injustice being done to their dead father! What do these words mean?
It's been said that almost every individual has three names: the name his parents gave him, which usually expresses the aspirations they had for him; the name by which his friends call him, which expresses how his contemporaries see him; and the name he gives himself, which expresses the degree to which he has succeeded in overcoming limitations.
But there is yet a fourth name, which is perhaps the most important: the name the individual leaves behind after his death. The most obvious manner in which this name is borne is through a son or a daughter, in Hebrew ben or bat. Ben shares the same letters as the root of the word ban - to build. We build ourselves up into the future through the children we leave behind, or the students we have influenced. In the words of our sages: "'And you shall teach Torah to your children,' which refers to your students, who are considered like your children."
Those whom we have taught or touched, who carry forward the values and lifestyle by which we lived, are our continuation into the future. And of course from a Jewish perspective, our eternal building must stand on the bedrock of Jewish tradition, with the very Hebrew word for stone, even, being an amalgamation of av and ben, father and child. This eternal building had its origins in the Garden of Eden, received its character and mission at Sinai, and anticipates the future in a world of peace. Every mortal Jew yearns to be a stone in the building of eternal Israel.
There is one more aspect to this building: its foundations must be deeply rooted in the soil of our eternal homeland. Only in the land of Israel is there full continuity between Jews today and ancient Hebron, for example, where our patriarchs and matriarchs began their journey, and where their burial place remains a place of Jewish prayer. On the other hand, in Babylon, where the Jews experienced a Golden Age with the great yeshivot of the Talmudic amoraim and the post-Talmudic geonim during the first 1,000 years of the Common Era, there is not the slightest remnant of the once-proud Jewish community. No wonder the Talmud insists that only in Israel can Jews consider themselves a kehilla, a real and eternal community (B.T. Horayot 3b).
Hence the Bible tells of the tragedy of an individual who dies childless; ideally, his brother is to marry his widow, and the first son born shall assume the "name" of the deceased and receive his patrimony - a portion of the land in Israel - so that the "name" of the deceased not be blotted out of Israel (Deut. 25:7). Jewish eternity is predicated upon the continuation of the name of the deceased, expressed by the maintenance of his traditions, as well as upon rooted-ness in the land.
Yes, the daughters of Zelophehad made a great stride forward on behalf of women's rights by receiving their father's patrimony. But their motivation was to secure their father's eternity, to see to it that his "name not be reduced" in the building of Jewish eternity, or in his ability to give over (morasha) both his traditions and his portion to his daughters. This is how the rabbis of the Talmud understood it when they praised the daughters of Zelophehad for being wise, learned and righteous.
They pictured these women as having entered Moses' Torah class when he was expounding on the biblical verses dealing with "yibum," the marriage of a man to the widow of his childless brother.
"If we are considered like sons, and so our uncle may not marry our widowed mother, then give us a portion of our father's estate as you would have done had we been male. And if we cannot inherit, then our mother must be able to enter a levirate marriage (yibum). Immediately, Moses brought the matter before God, and they received the inheritance." (B.T. Bava Batra 119b).
Jewish eternity means having children in the land of Israel.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.