Author’s Note: I’d like to dedicate this series to the memory of my father, David Berkowitz, who was always an early and eagle-eyed reader. I like to imagine he is reading this in the heavenly beit midrash, and I hope that he’ll figure out a way to reach me with his follow-up questions.
There are few biblical passages that speak to the feminist and the progressive Jew in me as much as the story of the daughters of Zelophechad. Five women—Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah—come before the all-male leadership of the Israelites and demand the right to inherit their father’s portion of the Promised Land. They tell Moses of their father’s death and explain that they have no brothers, meaning their father’s landholding will pass to the nearest male relative. They ask: “Should our father’s name be lost to his clan because he had no son? Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:4).
Without a male relative to advocate for them, the sisters have every reason to believe that their request will be dismissed or denied. Their status as orphans and unmarried women makes them particularly vulnerable. But Moses brings the case before God, who responds affirmatively: “The plea of Zelophechad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them” (Numbers 27:7). Moreover, God tells Moses to amend the inheritance law so that in other cases where a man has no son, his daughter(s) will be first in line to inherit.
While this appears to be a feminist victory, the passage also highlights the myriad ways in which biblical law favored men and neglected women. Scholars, both ancient and modern, ask: “If the plea of Zelophechad’s daughters is ‘just,’ why wasn’t the law of inheritance written to include daughters in the first place?”
The answers to this question tell us a lot about the times in which they were written. Midrash Tanhuma (~400-600 CE) suggests that this encounter is designed to humble Moses, reminding him that his understanding of the law is limited, such that “even the women” know something that he does not (“Midrash Tanhuma,” Pinchas 9).
In “Dirshuni” — a beautiful new collection of contemporary midrash written by Israeli women — scholar and advocate Rivka Lubitch offers a different answer:
“Tanot asked God: If Zelophechad’s daughters spoke the truth, why didn’t you write that in Your Torah in the first place, for, after all, You are truth and Your Torah is truth, and Your word endures forever?
“God answered …. There is truth that descends from on high, and there is truth that grows from below. Blessed is the generation in which truth from above meets truth from below. And this is what Scripture means when it says, Truth will grow from the ground, and justice look down from Heaven (Psalm 85:12)” (“Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash”).
In other words, the purpose of this passage is not only to correct the injustice toward these five women. It is to preserve a record of the process of adapting divine law to respond to emerging human circumstances.
In this way, this story inspires me as a feminist and a contemporary Jewish leader. It lifts up a moment in which a leader encounters a marginalized group of people, hears their story, and considers (or reconsiders) existing laws because of their experiences. It illustrates a leader’s ability to respond to a new scenario and admit that there are situations and groups of people that they haven’t previously accounted for. This story reminds me to stand up for myself and advocate for others while making space for my own ideological boundaries to be questioned, pushed, and tested.
In the next parashah, Matot-Mas’ei, we revisit this topic when the men in Zelophechad’s clan present Moses with a new wrinkle in inheritance law: if the women marry men from different tribes, their father’s landholding might pass to the tribes of their husbands’ families. Taking this into consideration, God instructs Moses to amend the law once again: The daughters must marry within their tribe, so that their inheritance will not pass from one tribe to another (Numbers 36:6).
As modern readers, we might be disappointed by this limitation placed on the women’s choice of partners. But this second passage illustrates yet another part of the change process: weighing different values, needs, and priorities; innovating when possible and making compromises when necessary.
Everyone involved in this case wants the same thing: for Zelophechad’s land to stay within his tribe, for his name to be remembered, and for his daughters to have economic security following his death. The men are made to compromise by having the tribal land pass to women. The women are made to compromise by marrying within their tribe.
Rabbis Lisa Edwards and Jill Berkson Zimmerman point out that this story, “sets the stage for processes of change, showing us that even within the Torah itself, lawmaking is an inexact science requiring flexibility to change as issues arise and society evolves. We honor the sisters’ ability to speak up, and their grace to concede when their gain is shown to be against community interests. We are the inheritors of their chutzpah and their quest for equal rights” (“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary”).
In speaking up, and having their protest heard, the daughters of Zelophechad succeed in preserving their father’s name in a way that they could not have imagined. In addition to being associated with the land his daughters inherited, Zelophechad’s name will also be eternally connected to his daughters’ fight for justice and the resulting change. In addition to preserving their father’s name, they ensured that their own names—Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah— will be remembered each time we tell the story.