The story of the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27:1-11) has all of the earmarks of a Jane Austen novel: the disenfranchisement and injustices borne by women surrounding the question of inheritance rights; the formal but respectful articulation of the grievances of those women; the dramatic and triumphant vindication of their plight and plea.
The story starts out revolving around the issue of land allotments in anticipation of the Israelites settling the land of Canaan. Ownership of land was an essential component of the society of ancient Israel. This was a people that wandered, a migrant nation, a community of slaves. The idea of owning property, of having something permanent that would endure into the future and could be handed down from generation to generation was a central value. But it applied only to men.
Zelophehad died leaving no sons. His five daughters—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah—approach Moses and present their case. Moses refers the question to God. (This is the fourth and final time in the Torah that Moses will seek the counsel of God on a matter of legal clarity.) God responds affirmatively to their request:
"The plea of Zelophehad's daughters is just . . ." (Numbers 27:7)
The words of God are powerfully articulated. The expression of affirmation, the Hebrew word kein, which in today's vernacular is the simple and unequivocal "yes," is the first word of the verse. It is followed by their identities—b'not Zelophehad, "daughters of Zelophehad," and concludes with the verb dovrot, "speak." Literally: "Yes the daughters of Zelophehad speak." (Numbers 27:7). Concise and poetic, it is stated without ambiguity. And it comes from the ultimate Authority.
We can have little doubt as to the importance of this tale. It was a game changer. Albeit a few verses in length, the story of Zelophehad's daughters will command the attention of students of Torah for generations. Particularly in the modern era, these five women will be a source of strength and inspiration to those who espouse a liberal and progressive interpretation of Judaism.
To be sure, while hardly a reversal to the male-dominated emphasis of biblical Judaism, this story is nevertheless a dramatic affirmation of the voice of the woman in Torah. Unlike the previous challenges to Moses, especially those in this Book of Numbers, the daughters of Zelophehad are not dissenters or rebels, they merely seek a redress of legitimate grievances. It is little wonder that these five daughters will become role models for the modern Jewish woman.
Even more, for those of us who seek a textual basis to substantiate our view of Judaism as an organic tradition, the story of Zelophehad's daughters presents the religion of Moses as a work in progress. Their case is one that God, at least within the narrative of Torah, had not considered. Because of their situation and subsequent plea, the daughters of Zelophehad effect a reform, an adaptation to the halachah, "law," as dictated by shifting realities. More than simply seeking clarification, they bring about change.
There is, however, another aspect of this story that must not be overlooked. Indeed, while it is the p'shat, "simple," or basic plot line, it is, I believe, the narrative's most salient element. What I believe to be the story's central message is that these five women are acting, first and foremost, as "daughters," that their central concern is not for themselves but rather their father's legacy:
"Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen." (Numbers 27:4)
They are not asking for social change. Even though they ask for possession of their father's portion of allotted land, they do so only on the grounds that their father's name not be lost. It is in their sense of familial responsibility that I believe the daughters of Zelophehad are at their most noble.
This is no small matter. The sense of responsibility to one's ancestors is of paramount value within Judaism. More than simply remembering our forebears, the whole notion of "tradition" is that it is mesorah (the Hebrew word for "tradition"), something that is passed on, something that is handed down. Implied in this word is that the source of the tradition is as important as the recipient. Indeed, it is more important, because it is that which has preceded us that we are endeavoring to preserve. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a name.
If the worst punishment is to blot out a name—as we are commanded to do regarding Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19)—then the most important act we do in honor of our ancestors is the preservation of their names. Earlier in that same chapter of Deuteronomy we are commanded to do as much within the convention of levirate marriage, a somewhat obscure law requiring the oldest brother (or nearest male relative) to marry his childless sister-in-law, the widow of his deceased brother, so that the latter's name not be "erased" (Deuteronomy 25:6). Because to forget a name would be to render that soul as if it had never been.
The daughters of Zelophehad understand this. They are moved by it. They are willing to go to the top. And they succeed, not merely in keeping their family's inheritance but also, even more important, in preserving their father's name. To wit, rarely do we refer to them by their individual names; rather, throughout the generations they are known simply as b'not Zelophehad,""the daughters of Zelophehad. In so doing, however, I wonder if we do them an injustice? Perhaps we owe them more than simply referring to them as b'not Zelophehad? If they have taught us anything, it is that they are more than someone's daughter or sister or wife. They have names, too.
Mahlah. Noah. Hoglah. Milcah. Tirzah. May their memories continue to reap blessing. And may we all be blessed to have dear ones who will do for us what Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah did for their father, Zelophehad. What's in a name? A life.
Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.