The Politics of Just Protest

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD

This is one of a few select parashiyot coveted by bat mitzvah girls, by adult b'not mitzvah , and by all who seek opportunities to learn more about the role of women in Torah. Parashat Pinchasintroduces Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, who share the distinction of being the only group of more than two sisters who are all mentioned by name in the Torah. We first learn about these five sisters, who are always referenced together and individually named, in the extensive genealogy early in this portion: "Now Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons, only daughters. The names of Zelophehad's daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah" (Numbers 26:33).

Chapter 27 begins with a startling sentence, Vatikravnah b'not Tz'lofchad . . . , "The daughters of Zelophehad . . . came forward" (Numbers 27:1). The wordvatikravnah , "came forward," is the feminine plural of the verb karav (kuf, reish, vet ), which means "to come near." The use of the feminine plural form is rare in the Torah, for when even one man is part of a group, the masculine plural form is used for both the nouns and verbs that describe the group and the group's actions. One of the other rare instances of women's collective agency is reflected in Exodus 1:17, when we read, "The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live."

The passage in Pinchas continues, "[The daughters of Zelophehad] stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, 'Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah's faction, which banded together against Adonai, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. 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 27:2-4).

Rabbi Silvina Chemen explains the power and uniqueness of the sisters' challenge: "Together, they go out of their tents, without being called by anyone, to the place where only the high-ranking men congregate, to the place where the Tablets from Sinai rest in the Ark, to the place of holiness and authority, to a place where women did not have authority. . . . They not only come forth, but also they speak with determination . . . . These women know their law and history. They use the fact that their father was not involved in Korah's rebellion (Numbers 16) as evidence to support his-and their-claim to the land. They know that the continuity of family name depends on inheritance of the land; and they realize that the current law is not adequate, for it does not take into account the unusual circumstances of a man without sons. They possess the acumen to recognize this omission-in God's law! But because they consider God's law to be just, or to aim to be just, they show no hesitation in pointing out the unfair nature of the present situation with complete confidence and supporting their claim with compelling arguments" ( The Torah: A Women's Commentary , ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi [New York: URJ Press, 2008], pp. 985-986).

After these five bold women step forward and present their argument, "Moses brought their case before the Eternal" (Numbers 27:5). The Holy One immediately responds, directing Moses to "give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen" (Numbers 27:7). Professor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi points out, "God decrees that the leaders grant the women's request. God's language practically repeats that of the daughters, emphasizing that their petition be fulfilled in accordance with their request." Eskenazi continues, "The one difference strengthens their claim: in an astonishing move, God adds that this land be given to them as 'hereditary.' They not only get a holding ( achuzah ) but receive land that they can bestow as an inheritance on others ( nachalah ). The women who sought to ensure that their father's name not be written out of history now enter history themselves by gaining a legacy of land and law. . . . God extends this law as a law for all generations" (ibid., p. 973).

In a book where birth order-and character-often determine destiny, it is fascinating that the text does not reveal any information about these exceptional women, as individuals, except their names. In a narrative that focuses so often on discord between siblings, the cooperation and shared clarity of purpose between and among these five sisters is powerful and unique. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are driven by both faith and justice. They believe that Moses, as the faithful servant of the ultimate Source of justice, will grant their claim, which they know to be an appropriate demand for fair treatment.

The parashah concludes before the women actually inherit their land-the legal resolution of their story concludes the Book of Numbers (36:1-12). While the Torah grants these daughters the inheritance rights allotted to sons, the conclusion of Numbers ensures that their property, a sign of power and security throughout history, will remain in the hands of their tribe, the tribe of Manasseh. Chemen reads the story of the sisters as extending beyond property and tribal affiliations. She writes, "Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad's daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands, to move from the place that the others have given us-or that we decided to keep because we feel immobile-and to walk, even to the most holy center, to where nobody seems to be able to go. . . . When we believe in our capacity to shape our history, to the point of being able to change even a law that came from the Revelation at Sinai, then we pay a tribute to Zelophehad's daughters" (ibid., p. 986).

Chemen's sensibility is shared by a wide range of Christians and Jews who harness the power of this story to support their own work for gender justice. For example, Daughters of Zelophehad is a transitional housing program for homeless women and children in the Richmond, Virginia, area. Citing Numbers 27:1-11, the program's Web site states, "A home, a family and a relationship with God-that is the meaning of God's promise to Zelophehad's daughters. The Daughters of Zelophehad make that same promise today" ( Sarah Schneider, who identifies herself as "a daughter of Zelophehad," writes about the tension many in her traditional community feel between the passion for study and engagement in communal life and the demands of home and family. After surveying the rich midrashic commentary on this story and focusing on the sisters' challenge to Moses, she concludes, "It is . . . no surprise that a growing number of women in this generation identify with the daughters of Zelophehad and find their own yearnings mirrored in their tale" (

For many individuals, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah exemplify the politics of just protest, claiming rights for themselves and for others disenfranchised by the system. Sisters from the tribe of Manasseh, the five daughters of Zelophehad taught their contemporaries that women count. In The Journey Is Home , the theologian Nelle Morton describes deep, attentive listening as "hear[ing] into speech" ([Boston: Beacon Press, 1985], p. 00). All who work toward the creation of an equitable society must "hear into speech," and respond to, the just claims of every member of that society. While the Tanach stops short of ensuring full equality for women, these five women open a conversation about visibility, fairness, and equity that continues to this day.

My thanks to Professor Andrea L. Weiss for her gracious and keen editorial guidance.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., spent nearly two decades working with synagogue leaders to keep congregations healthy and vibrant through the Union for Reform Judaism. The founding director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and the first rabbinic director of Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Program of the JCC of Manhattan, Elwell served as editor of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001), The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (2002), poetry editor of the award winning The Torah: A Women's Commentary (2008), and as editor of Chapters of the Heart (2013). She continues her rabbinate through study, teaching, writing, and as a Spiritual Director.

More Than a Victory for Women: A Victory for the Community

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Melanie Aron

"R. Nathan said: Women's tenacity is stronger than men's. The men of Israel [being willing to give up the Land] said: 'Let us make a captain and let us return to Egypt' (Numbers 14:4). But Israel's women insisted: 'Give unto us a possession'" (Sifrei B'midbar 133, as translated in Hayim NahmanBialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends [New York: Schocken Books, 1992], p. 97).

"To teach you at what hour, they stood before Moses, [it was] at the hour when the Israelites were saying, 'Let us make a captain' (Numbers 14:4). Moses said to them: 'Are not the Israelites asking to return to Egypt and you [feminine form] are seeking an inheritance in the land?' They said to him: 'We know that in the end all Israel will hold the land. And it is said: "It is time for the Eternal to work, they have made void Your Law.'" (Psalm 119:126). Don't read it thus, rather: They have 'broken your Law,' now it is time (for us) to 'act for the Eternal'" (Yalkut Shimoni ) (brackets added).

If Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah had acted only to advance the status of women in Judaism, dayeinu, "it would have been enough for us." But in truth they did much more. They were like Jeremiah, who purchased land in Anatot even though Jerusalem's destruction was imminent, as a way of showing his faith in the future (Jeremiah 32:9). His action was testimony to his belief that "houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be bought in this land" (Jeremiah 32:15). Similarly the daughters of Zelophehad, by coming to Moses with their plea for an inheritance, showed their faith in the fulfillment of God's promise, "I will bring you into the land" (Exodus 6:8). For that reason, they are called ot umofeit, "a sign and a wonder," by traditional commentator Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael HaKohen Baifus, in his work Yalkut Lekach Tov , the same words used for the miracles God performed for the Israelites in Egypt (see Exodus 4:8, 4:30, 7:9, and 10:1).

Rabbi Baifus notes that actions are judged not just in themselves, but also in their context. The times, the surroundings, the circumstances, all affect the evaluation that we make of a person's deeds. In his eyes, the daughters of Zelophehad deserve additional praise for their deeds, which were not only meritorious in themselves, but were even more meritorious because they stood in the face of the prevailing mood of their times and their community. For this reason the daughters are compared to Noah, Abraham, and Lot, who preserved righteousness in an unrighteous generation or place.

It is so often true that when we fight our battles as women, our victory is a victory for the entire community.

Rabbi Melanie W. Aron is rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.

Reference Materials

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568

Originally published: