by Rabbi Billy Dreskin,
Woodlands Community Temple
, White Plains, NY
I love the story of the daughters of Tz’lophekhad. I mean, since when do women catch a break in the Torah? And not only do these ladies get a hearing from Moses, but the names of all five daughters are mentioned
in the Torah and then once again in the book of Joshua. When sacred text goes to these lengths to preserve a story
everyone’s names, you know something important is going on. Of course, not unlike what I used to whine as an immature child, that’s for God to know and for us to find out.
Tz’lophekhad himself is only mentioned in passing (Num 26:33), as a descendant of Joseph and a man who “had no sons, only daughters.” But what extraordinary daughters they must have been! They petitioned Moses (Num 27:1-11) about their father having died during the forty years of wandering and, leaving no male heir, they hoped to receive – on their father’s behalf – a piece of land like everyone else (well, everyone male) in the Israelite community. Moses accepts their case, brings it to God, and (rather amazingly) returns a favorable ruling that the daughters be granted a hereditary holding in the Promised Land. Then, in this week’s parshah, Mas’ei, the daughters approach Moses again (Num 36:1-12), requesting they not lose their father’s land when they marry and title transfers to their husbands. Moses brings another supportive decision from God, reaffirming and sealing the daughters’ request.
This achievement alone would be plenty to impress us. But then in the book of Joshua (17:3-6), the daughters request and are granted an audience with the high priest Elazar, the heads of all the tribes, and with Joshua himself, to remind the new leadership of the previously promised arrangement, and to see to it that it is brought to successful completion.
these women? How did they become such a powerful force whose reach extended into the uppermost echelons of two generations of Israelite leadership? What became of them? And what stories of theirs are
in the Torah?
Most people I’ve asked admire the daughters of Tz’lophekhad because they did not have power, and in a vital moment they found the courage to stand up, to confront an establishment that had little interest in women’s ideas, and to convince the community to provide a resolution to their plight. Such a narrative appeals to us because we love it when an underdog wins.
But Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, has made a strong case for there being other factors that contribute to extraordinarily surprising success. That these women are mentioned (by name!) a significant number of times suggests that they were far more integrated into Israelite leadership than our Torah text would admit. By the time they approach Moses about their inheritance, he knows that when the phone rings, he’d best take their call.
Whichever of these scenarios is accurate, it’s clear that these ladies changed the rules, no mean feat when it’s God who’s calling the shots. But they spotted an inequity in their community and, in stark contrast to Pinkhas who, only one parshah earlier (Num 25:1-9), had taken the law into his own hands to rectify a communal wrong, the daughters of Tz’lophekhad worked through the normative legal system and changed the rules – from the inside – for every Israelite, not just for themselves.
In Sifrei, one of the classic collections of rabbinic midrash, the daughters reason, “The Omnipresent’s compassion is not like that of flesh and blood, who have greater compassion for males than females. But the One Who Spoke and the World Came into Being extends mercy to all.” Armed with their conviction that their cause is just, with their passion for righting a wrong, and their belief that God is good, the daughters approach Moses and process their grievance in a way that can be heard, can be considered, and (perhaps with more politically-adept support than the reader is shown) can be brought to fruitful completion.
But the daughters of Tz’lophekhad don’t stop there. They monitor their cause, even after their petition has been granted, and work to ensure that the next generation of leadership is still on board. In a different era, I’ve no doubt these ladies would be running the show in a field of their choosing.
This formula which the daughters employed is an excellent one for our own communities today. The nations in which we live do much that is right and just, but there is always room for improvement. Laws can be changed, made better, but it takes unflagging passion and unremitting endeavor. It takes a daughter of Tz’lophekhad.
The formula applies elsewhere, as well. In the world of art – of music, of dance, of literature, of theater, of paint – new ground, new ideas, new perspectives, fresh perspectives, require daring, and insight, strength of vision, and the resolve to create in the face of those not yet ready for change. Here too, it takes a daughter of Tz’lophekhad.
And finally, in the world of relationships, the formula also applies. It is our nature to grow and to change. No relationship can remain stagnant, in one place. It cannot always be what it once was. For relationships to remain strong, those who connect themselves one to another – whether in work, in companionship, or in love – must not be afraid to change. It takes courage, creative daring, and a relentless vow to make things work. It takes a daughter of Tz’lophekhad.
Malcolm Gladwell argues that many, if not all, of the alleged underdogs who make it in their field despite any and all challenges, very likely had significant and abundant support to set them on their way. Perhaps it was a father who had prepared his daughters for a life of involvement, concern and action. Or maybe it was a beloved third grade teacher. I don’t know. But not only are there many situations in our world which require a daughter of Tz’lophekhad to change the rules, there is also great need for mentors who will assist in growing such individuals. Whether we become a daughter or the teacher of a daughter, our world will likely benefit.
And one more thing: 3000 years later, we remember the daughters of Tz’lophekhad. 3000 years from now, it could be your name someone is remembering.