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What’s in a Name...or in Five?

What’s in a Name...or in Five?

Five women, seen from behind, arms raised and holding hands

In the period of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance into the Promised Land, Moses is instructed many times to count the Israelites. The beginning of Parashat Pinchas recounts “the eligible male descendants of the Israelites who came out of the land of Egypt” (Numbers 26:4). This census is relayed by listing family lineages and their numerous descendants. After the counting is complete, we learn of how land will be apportioned among the tribes and their many tributaries.

What is especially striking is that the tribes are still organized by the names of Jacob’s sons and their sons, down through many generations. We know that names have a power all their own. Abram and Sarai change their names to Abraham and Sarah to mark their faith and commitment to God. Who we may be named for, what our names symbolize, our last names, our Hebrew names, if we choose to change any part of our names: these all together help construct our identity, tell our stories, and make us known to each other.

So, it is especially striking, after a long census-taking, consisting almost entirely of male names, that all five daughters of Zelophechad, of the tribe of Manasseh, are named when they first are introduced in the parashah. Initially, it is because Zelophechad does not have sons (Numbers 26:33), but it also is a hint that these five women ought to be known individually, and in their own right.

When the women appear again in this parashah, we learn their names – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – because we learn their story. Their father does not have sons, and would lose an inheritance. The daughters ask Moses: “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Numbers 27:4). These women want to preserve their father’s name and memory, and by so doing, we remember them and their just claim. In fact, because Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah spoke up, inheritance laws were changed to include and recognize daughters when there are no sons. Although this is not the parity we may seek today for women’s full equality and inclusion, it demonstrates an incredibly important moment and stands as a testament to smart, effective advocacy.

By learning the names of Zelophechad’s daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, we become connected to their story, which is not merely about an injustice that someone somewhere faced. This is a story about a family, these are individuals who have been treated unjustly, in this case, simply because they are daughters, not sons.

Weaving names and stories into our social justice work is crucial – not only because stories build connections and foster relationships, but also because stories fuel our social justice fires. When we associate faces, names, and experiences with injustices, they cannot be ignored. The fight for affordable health care is not abstract when it is a friend or family member who faces losing much-needed coverage. The plight of the world’s 65 million refugees becomes personal when we learn the stories of each family. Stories give context, urgency, and compassion to our social justice endeavors.

Indeed, names help shape our identities and make us known to our communities. When we remember names, we remember stories and families. When we call people by their names, we honor who they are, we honor their stories. When the daughters of Zelophechad – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – spoke up, they did so to honor their father and his name by seeking the inheritance to which they were rightly entitled. Through their advocacy, we remember them, not just as Zelophechad’s daughters, but rather as Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

Sarah Greenberg is the Assistant Legislative Director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant in 2013-2014. Sarah graduated in 2013 from Cornell University, and is originally from New York City.

Sarah Greenberg
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