Friday, July 1, 2011

The Daughters of Zelophehad

My opinion of the women’s role in Judaism has changed drastically since I was a child. At the age of eight I was horrified the first time I saw a mehitza. When I was thirteen I read proudly from the Torah. And in my last year of high school I was insistent that I be the first woman in our Temple to hold one of the Torah scrolls when we danced with them on Simchat Torah.

Once I left for college and began understanding traditional Judaism that all changed.
One of the first Shabbats that I was in an orthodox shul was the Shabbat of Pinchas and the passage of the daughters of Zelophehad, Numbers, Chapter 27, verses 1-11, was read. The daughters of Zelophehad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh son of Yosef, drew near and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza. And they stood before Moshe, and before Elazar the Cohen and before the princes , and all the congregation at the opening of the Tent of Meeting saying: Our father died in the Wilderness, but he was not among the assembly of Korach, but he died of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be omitted from among his family just because he had no son? Give us his inheritance among our father’s brothers. And Moshe drew close to the Tabernacle before HaShem. And HaShem said to Moshe saying, Yes, the daughters of Zelophehad speak (properly). You shall certainly give them for possession their inheritance among their father’s brothers and you shall pass their father’s inheritance to them. The passage continues with all the laws of inheritance when there are no children.
 Although that was almost forty years ago I still remember the chuckles of some of the women in the women’s section over the “first women libbers”.  I was intrigued. Years later I finally sat down and learned in depth about the daughter of Zelophehad with my friend and teacher, Nurit Mandlecorn. Our sages teach us that those five women, the daughters of Zelophehad, were righteous, learned, and loved the Land of Israel.
We know that they were righteous because instead of staging a demonstration or organizing a rebellion, they went straight to Moshe and respectfully asked for the inheritance. Later in Masei, Numbers, Chapter 36, members of the tribe of Manasseh complain that if the daughters of Zelophehad marry outside their tribe their father’s land will end up with a different tribe. HaShem commands: Let them be wives to whoever is good in their eyes, but only to the families of their father’s tribe shall they become wives. The chapter continues with the statement As HaShem commanded Moshe so did the daughters of Zelophehad. And Mahlah, Tirzah, Holgah, Milcha, and Noah became wives to the sons of their uncles. Rashi teaches us that the order of the daughters’ names was changed since they were all equally righteous.
According to the Midrash one of the arguments Zelophehad’s daughters used when speaking to Moshe had to do with the commandment of yibum. In Deuteronomy, Chapter 25, we learn that when a man dies without any children his brother is commanded to marry his widow in order that she can have a child to carry on her dead husband’s name. Since the laws of yibum do not apply when there is a female child, the daughters reasoned that they should be able to inherit. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza could not have used this argument if they had not been learned.
Their love for the Land of Israel is so clear. Half of their father’s tribe, Manasseh, settled on the other side of the Jordan with the tribes of Rueven and Gad who had requested that their portion be there. Holgah, Mahlah, Milcah, Noah and Tirza could have easily settled there but they did not want to. They wanted to live in the Land of Israel with all of its commandments, responsibilities, spirituality, and rewards.
I have learned through the years that there is far more to Judaism than leading services and reading from the Torah. Jewish women have always had a special power. The women of Egypt kept the hope of redemption alive through the bitter years of slavery. The women of the desert did not contribute to building of the Golden Calf. When the spies returned from scouting out the Land of Israel and ten of them told the people they would not be able to conquer it the woman did not despair. Unlike their male counterparts they refused to believe the evil reports. When death was decreed on all between the ages of twenty and sixty the women were spared and they, along with Yoshua and Calev, who did not slander the Land, were allowed to enter and settle the Land of Israel.
On the seventeenth of this month we will fast to mark the beginning of the three weeks of mourning that culminate on Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av. Would that we, the women of today, be able to learn from our spiritual foremothers. I pray that we can be righteous, learned, love the Land of Israel, and hasten the time of the final redemption.


Leora said...

Interesting post about your changing attitudes toward women in Judaism.

I find some of the women who are most vocal about not having the voice they want in Judaism aren't very observant in other areas. I most admire those who can find their voice within their community.

I find your post via Batya - may you continue to write and inspire.

Ester said...

Thank you, Leora. My role modesl are obervant teachers who are building Am Yisroel via their family and students.