On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Pinchas: Challenging the Rules

In Parashat Pinchas, Zelophehad’s five daughters petition God. It’s the first picture that the Torah provides of radical, essential challenging of the rules, and better yet, the challenging is done by women. What kind of significance does this hold? Listen to Rabbi Rick Jacob’s take on it in this episode of On the Other Hand.

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Welcome to On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he is joined by a special guest. Some weeks, he just shares his own perspective. But, On the Other Hand always provides a modern take on over 2000 years of Jewish wisdom. This week, in Episode 77, Rabbi Jacobs speaks about Parashat Pinchas and he asks who the people are in your life with backbone and who are the leaders with courage and conviction.

This week we focus our attention Parashat Pinchas, towards the end of the Book of Numbers. It's not necessarily the most familiar narrative partly because it comes during summer reruns. But Pinchas of course is this larger than life character. We can talk about him and we have. But this week I want to talk about Benot Slovchad. And you're sitting in your car going, "the who? Talk about who?"

Well, it turns out that in the history of religion a lot of times there's this conservative force that says things have to stay the way they are because that's the way it was given to the people on Mount Sinai. That's the way the tradition was revealed. But in the story of the daughters of Slovchad I think we have probably the most compelling example of a radical and essential change.

So let me just paint the picture. There are five daughters of Slovchad. He's an individual. And we're told that his daughters are raising their voice as they come forward because they have an injustice to address. The injustice is that the Jewish tradition does not actually allow daughters to inherit. And in the case of Slovchad, there are no brothers. He dies and the tribal holdings will disappear.

So the daughters of Slovchad--and they're named--they're not just a group. They are named. Five really strong, articulate, compelling Jewish leaders who come forward and say, that's not right. And Moses, in an amazing moment of leadership-- remember Moses? He's usually always got the right answer. He basically goes, I--I--I don't know. So immediately, he pivots to God. He says: “you've got to ask the Kadosh Borechu; you've got to ask the creator of the universe.”

So they make their argument to God. And God says, basically they're right. They are absolutely just in their argument. Can you imagine? Just to think about some argument you're having with your friends or your peers or maybe in your community and you can say you know what? I think I'm going to take this one to God. Lets see what God says. And God of course weighs in and says you're right. I mean it kind of finishes whatever argument's going on. There's no further like, well let's think about it some more. God weighed in. God said it was right.

I think if we imagine how change happens we usually don't have the recourse to bring it to God. Maybe we bring it to a local authority. Maybe we bump it up and we bring it to a higher authority. In law, we go to the Supreme Court. But I think this idea that religious traditions can't change dramatically because they're "always like this"; this is absolutely a Torah example of a change that was brought about by courageous individuals, particularly strong women.

Now, of course, the Talmud says, Who is this guide Slovchad. I don't know if you remember the podcast last week, but there a story that goes back, actually it's two weeks, where there's a guy who's gathering wood on Shabbat and it's such an outrageous offense that he's stoned to death by the community. So the Talmud says: you know who Slovchad is? He's that guy who gathered up wood on Shabbat. So it already kind of discredits the guy and therefore his five daughters. But the wider tradition; they're not buying it.

There's nothing wrong with Slovchad. He has these five amazing daughters. If you looking for names to name your daughter try Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milka, Tirza. These are names that we want to give our daughters. What's amazing is, in the Book of Numbers women who speak up are sometimes critiqued negatively. Think of Miriam. She speaks up about her brother Moses and the woman he married. This is an example where women speak up and are heard and are heeded. And it's absolutely a great model for all of us.

So I was thinking about some of the strong women I know in my own family. I have this amazing grandmother, my maternal grandmother, who went to law school in the late 1920s. She would tell us about going to law school. She said there were no other women. She went to New York University Law School. I just think of the women who were trailblazers.

I think of the women who were the first cohort of rabbis within the Reform movement. How is it that they marshaled their arguments? Well society changes this and that, but they didn't marshal their argument saying that it's a divine imperative that women take their rightful place in Jewish life. But it is. And I think the daughters of Slovchad are the perfect example to cite over and over again when we come to an impasse that says no we can't change, that we can't actually add a Jewish holiday.

And what's amazing are some of the Midrash themes that we find in this section. There's one great midrash in Yakuts Shimoni which says: At what point did the daughters of God stand before Moses ? It was when basically they're looking for a new leader, because Moses is coming to the end.

And they basically are finding a new leader. And most people want to go back to Egypt because they're afraid and Benot Slovochad love the land so much that they want to make sure that it stays within their family. That's the Land of Israel. The tradition says that when the spies were sent out to scout the land, if they sent the women they would all come back and say the land is beautiful. It's ours for now, for our future. There's also a whole narrative about Israel and about coercion, about women who have both the backbone--the moxie--and the ability to see what might be possible.

In this Midrash, it says the Israelites said, "Let's appoint a leader and that person is going to take us back and Moses said, ‘Israel is asking to return to Egypt and you are asking for an inheritance in the Land of Israel.’"

There's clearly a preference for these women: not only for changing, not only for expanding the inheritance laws, but also for really raising up leaders of courage, leaders of conviction, leaders of transformation. So, if you're a woman listening to this, or if you are, like me, the father or mother of a daughter, or you are an admirer of some of the great leaders in our Jewish tradition who are women, I think we have a perfect week's Parashah to tell us: let's not stop with a little tweak here or there to the tradition. Let's be bold. Let's be like the daughters of Slovchad. Let's step forward and speak up and let's take our cause of justice to the source of justice, to the one who creates and sustains the world. What could possibly change in that paradigm? I think everything.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other hand, Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot.