Saturday, June 29, 2013

The 21st Century Daughters of Zelophchad

Pinchas is a parasha that is close to my heart—it is my birth parsha. There are so many ways it speaks to me personally. But this year, this week in particular, this parasha speaks to us all.
During the school year, I teach Torah to 7th graders. I constantly impress upon them what I call “the magic” of the Torah—that these ancient teachings, these stories, these precepts, have managed to speak to each generation with relevancy for its time. And this week is one of the moments when the Torah’s teaching come to life.
In this parasha, there is mention, by name, of nine women—nine  women. So often in the Torah we to have look between the lines to find the stories of women in a document written in a time of strong patriarchy, yet here, out front, nine are named, giving them a true presence in our heritage.
We have Cozbi bat Tzur, daughter of a Midianite chieftain, killed by Pinchas. Now, granted, she is certainly not one to be emulated but still, she gets a name, unlike Potiphar’s wife in the Joseph story or even Pharaoh’s daughter, who plucked Moshe from the water.
During the counting and the listing of the genealogies, we hear "ושם בת אשר שרח – v’shaim bat Asher, Sarach” – The name of Asher’s daughter was Sarach. It is a name we have heard only once before, in Genesis (46:17). Sarach is listed there as one of the 70 souls who go to Egypt with Jacob, once Joseph’s true identity is revealed. She is the only granddaughter of Jacob listed. We never learn anything else about her—yet the mention of her name must note something of importance. One story is that she is the one who told Jacob of Joseph’s survival, and lived long enough to tell Moshe where to find Joseph’s grave in Egypt so that his remains could be returned to the land of Israel, as he requested on his deathbed.
When counting the clans of the Levites, we hear for the first time, the names of Moshe’s parents—not just his father, Amram, but also his mother, Yocheved. Yocheved is not just described as a wife or a mother, but as a Bat Levi—given that honor in her own right. Miriam, his sister, is also named.
And then there are the daughters of Zelophchad, whom I have dubbed “Women with Chutzpah” It is the story of these women that comes to the forefront today, in this monumental week.
We first meet the five sisters, Machlah, Noa, Chauglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, in the list of genealogy (Num 26:33). There, we learn only that their father, Zelophchad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh son of Joseph—had these five daughters; he had no sons. But unlike Asher’s daughter Sarach, we do learn more about them. After all the tribes are counted and named, including the tribe of the Levites, their story is told.
Our story begins (Num 27) with these five daughters of Zelophchad, once again mentioned by name—Machlah, Noa, Chauglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, who come forward. They stand before Moshe, before Elazar HaCohen, before the Nese’im—the chieftains, and before the entire Ai-dah—the entire community. They stand at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and state their case:
Our father died in the wilderness. He was not part of the rebellion of Korach. And he left no sons. למה—LAMA––WHY should his holding in the Land of Israel be lost because of this—give us a place among our tribe. Moshe brings their case to God.
And God says, the words of these women are right, you should give them their place in their tribe—transfer their father’s share of land to them. And so, God relays these new laws of succession for the Israelites. The first of these laws—if a man dies with no sons, his property will transfer to his daughter.
Before the daughters of Zelophchad spoke up, Jewish law dictated that only sons were in line to inherit from their father—any sisters were excluded from the inheritance. The daughters of Zelophchad stood up to this injustice. Some commentators note that in a time when so many of the Israelites were pining and whining to go back to Mitzriyim, to Egypt, these women were looking forward, wanting their portion of the Promised Land. Rashi notes that as the reason their genealogy, going back to Joseph, was mentioned once again at this time. Just as Joseph cherished the land, wanting his remains to rest there (Gen 50:22), these daughters of Zelphchad were imperative in their request for their portion –“תנה לנו אחזה בתוך אחי אבינו – t’nah lanu achuzah betoch achai avinu" - Give us a possession as part of our family inheritance.”(Num 27:4)
 Other commentators are impressed with the manner with which the daughters of Zelophchad
made their request. They did not rebel, like those who stood with Korach. Reish Lakish, a 3rd century Amorah, Talmudic rabbi, says that the women went through the channels Moshe set up for these types of disputes on the advice of his father-in-law Yitro—first they went to the chiefs of tens, who judged that since it was a case concerning inheritance, it needed to go to a higher authority. They then went to the chiefs of fifties, then hundreds, then thousands, then the chieftains. All gave the same reply—this needs a higher authority. When the daughters went to Elazar, he told them to go to Moshe.
So, the daughters of Zelophchad—Machlah, Noa, Chauglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, stood in front of the whole community—including all the chieftains, Elazar HaCohen, and Moshe, in a place for all to see, and stated their case. And Moshe, seeing the deference shown both by and to these women, realized that this case needed to be taken to his “Supreme Court”, God. God ruled in favor of the daughters of Zelophchad, and the law was changed. And while, as we will see next week, there was some modification of the law, the women were granted their inheritance in the land as stated in Joshua (17:3-6), “Ten portions fell to Manashe…because the women of Manashe received a heritage among his sons.
These righteous women saw the injustice they were subjected to, the denial of their inheritance, and knew the time had come to stand up and be counted. Imagine the courage and the chutzpah they had to have to question the patriarchal rulings of the time. A group of five women making a claim for all to see in a time of strong patriarchy. They stated their case with respect, and were treated with respect. They wished to honor their father and their heritage. They showed their desire to move forward into the land of Israel when others wished to go backwards. Their righteousness was rewarded with an implementation of a change from an unjust system of inheritance to one of justice. Aviva Zornberg, a pre-eminent Torah scholar of our time, teaches that this is the first instance of oral Torah – these women were responsible for setting Jewish law.

Fast forward thousands of years-------

Starting in 1989, a group of righteous women, soon dubbed the Women of the Wall, women who simply wish to respectfully and fully pray at the Kotel, the remaining Western Wall of the Temple, are harassed each time they go to pray. Harassed not just with words, but with chairs thrown at them. There is a timeline available on their website showing how they, like the daughters of Zelophchad, go through the system, saying LAMA—WHY can we not, rightfully, partake of our heritage. And while that struggle continues, they, like Machlah, Noa, Tirtzah, Milcah, & Chaglah, are bringing changes to the laws.
And then there’s Edie Windsor & Thea Spyer—two more “Women with Chutzpah” who literally danced together through life. These two women met in 1965, and fell in love. In 1967, Thea proposed to Edie, presenting her with a diamond brooch instead of a ring to avoid attracting attention. In 1975, when Thea was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, they modified their dancing—whirling on crutches, then a wheelchair—and remained committed to each other. In 2007, they were finally legally married in Canada, this time with a very public announcement. Thea died in 2009. And that beautiful, vibrant, loving 44 year relationship was treated like it never happened.
But Edie, in the name of Thea and their love, stood up like the daughters of Zelophchad, went through the system from one court to another, and this week, the Supreme Court of our land said, “כן—YES” this women is right, this law is wrong and it must be changed.
It is my bond with the daughters of Zelophchad, that makes this parasha my parasha, but we are all a part of their inheritance. They stood up for their rights and for equal justice. They did so with respect and with strength. As do Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall. As did Edie Windsor and her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan. And as did Wendy Davis and Leticia Van De Putte in the Texas statehouse this week, literally standing up for women’s rights and access to the health care they need. And as did Kris Perry and Sandy Stier who, along with Paul Katami, Jeffrey Zarrillo and their lawyers, fought and won the right for marriage equality in our state of California—and hopefully soon, throughout our country.
Rabbi Arthur Green teaches that each generation leaves a bit of their oil on the Torah as it passes through their fingers. What happened in this country this week will become some of that oil, bringing light and relevance to the story of Chaglah, Machlah, Noa, Milcah, and Tirtzah—the righteous daughters of Zelophchad—and pass that on to the next generation of  “Women—and Men—with Chutzpah.”

כן יהי רצון –  Ken y’hi ratzon – May it be so
Shabbat Shalom

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