A woman plays in a water fountain in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In this week’s Torah portion we meet the five daughters of Zelophehad: Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milca and Tirza.
These five women approached Moshe Rabbeinu with a claim. They knew the Promised Land was slated to be divided among the Twelve Tribes, and based on the planned division, every man would receive a portion; the women would not get their own portions of land but rather would share their husbands’. The daughters of Zelophehad claimed that this division was unfair: “Our father died in the desert... and he had no sons.
Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.” (Numbers 27:3-4) Before we continue to examine this interesting story, it is important to note that their demand was met. The halacha that was set because of their claim determined that in case a man dies without leaving sons behind, the daughters inherit his possessions and portion of land. But no less interesting than the halachic ramifications are the personalities of these five courageous women.
Zelophehad’s daughters were indeed courageous. In the world of 3,000 years ago, a women’s demand for equality was not an obvious phenomenon. Truthfully, thousands of years went by before society internalized the words of Zelophehad’s daughters – an attitude that the Torah agreed with and expressed in the words: “Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly” – and learned to appreciate the female voice and its contribution to public discourse.
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But it is interesting to discover that our sages, the wise men of the midrash, discerned an additional facet of courage that was required of Zelophehad’s daughters, and that was – the timing of their demand.
Rabbi Natan says: “Women’s strength is better than men’s strength. Men say ‘Give us a leader and we will return to Egypt,’ and women say ‘Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.’” (Sifri, Parshat Pinhas 133) The atmosphere in which Zelophehad’s daughters lived was of complete despair. After the spies (which we read about in Parshat Shlah) returned, the nation was desperate and bitter. The despair grew so much that people preferred to return to Egypt and live in slavery rather than enter Eretz Yisrael. There, they thought, the tragedy would be even greater as the inhabitants of the land would fight and defeat Am Yisrael.
It was in this state of public affairs that the daughters of Zelophehad expressed the complete opposite feeling. They demanded to be given the right to inherit the land. Instead of sinking in despair, they looked forward in hope and believed that Am Yisrael was worthy of entering the Land of Israel and settling it.
The interesting detail in the words of the midrash is that it does not refer specifically to Zelophehad’s daughters. The midrash creates a distinction between women and men. Men tended to despair while Zelophehad’s daughters, who displayed such faith, represented the women’s stance.
By making this differentiation, the midrash reveals a specific facet of women’s strength: faith and hope.
They have the ability to rise above the hardship of the present, look out into the horizon, identify hope from afar, rise above the narrow perspective of present reality – and believe.
Now we can understand the words of the midrash that deal with the Exodus from Egypt: “By the virtue of righteous women, the Israelites were delivered from Egypt.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms) And elsewhere, a futuristic-actual utterance: “The generations are not redeemed other than by the virtue of righteous women.” (Midrash Zota, Ruth 4) The ability to believe and hope even during difficult times is one found particularly among women – in their merit, redemption will come speedily in our days.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.