Parashat Pinchas: #Girlpower; Or: The real stars of the sidra are the five women siblings who transform society and create justice.

‘Va’tikrav’nah b’not Zelophehad’ – the daughters of Zelophehad approached …. so begins one of the most intriguing stories to take place in the wilderness, a story where the bones of the developing society are laid bare for us to see, a rare narrative of the evolution of the legal code, and of the organising principles of our ancestral community.  And how much richer and more rewarding a text than we might imagine – it begins with this proactive and dynamic move – the daughters of Zelophehad, a man whom we have never heard of up until now, a man who is distinguished at this point only through his death – approach Moses and demand what they see to be their, and their father’s right – inheritance of land for them, and continuation of name and memory for  him.

The very first word on the story is unusual – the feminine plural form of any verb is a rarity in biblical Hebrew grammar, which defaults into the masculine with even a hint of testosterone, however many women there are involved.  And this is an active verb – the action of drawing close to another, used routinely in the search for God with the ritual of korbanut – of offering something precious to God as a sacrifice.  The verb one might expect – of simply coming to speak to Moses, is rejected in favour of injecting a sense of closeness – even of implying relationship.  These are no supplicant outsiders, but people whose perception of themselves is of being at the core of the community, who are able to treat Moses with proper respect but without needing to beg.

Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah are clearly of interest to the biblical narrator – not only are all their names recorded, but in the book of Joshua they appear again – and once again all the names are listed – to demand that what God had commanded Moses here in the wilderness was honoured once the people reached the land.  They obviously made a huge impression in their determination to inherit the land of their father, and in their determination to work together – five women, siblings, jointly fighting for their principles and their rights.  Given the terrible sibling stories in the bible – the first murder is fratricide and takes place in the very first generation to be born into the world – the relationships each of the patriarchs had with this brothers and the behaviour of Joseph’s older brothers towards him – you might think that it wasn’t even possible to get along with, let alone work with, your peer generation relatives!  There is a vestige of a hint that sisters might get along as long as they weren’t interested in the same man, in the midrash on Leah and Rachel, but actively co-operating with each other for joint good – that is unique I think to these five women.  Small wonder they are remembered with such particular definiteness.

Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah break the mould of sibling relationships – but they break other moulds too.  Up until this point no-one has come along with their own interpretation of Torah – God has simply given out commandments, either at reaching a new geographical place or during a social crisis.  At no point has anyone so much as solicited a legal opinion from God on a matter God has not yet discussed, let alone come up with their own innovation.  This is something entirely new in the narrative – for someone to come to Moses with a principled resolve based on what they understand to be the right thing to do, and a clear vision of what a Godly society should do.

Rather than merely following rules which have been transmitted to them, these women are willing to innovate, to change the world in accordance with their own principles.  As other women have done before them:– Sarah persuading Abraham to have a son by Hagar, Rebecca disguising the young goat as venison so as to claim the birthright blessing for her favourite son Jacob – the daughters of Zelophehad have taken matters into their own hands and changed the course of history.  This is a radical shift in the development of the Jewish people.  While one can make the case that since Eve in the Garden of Eden, men have tended to follow the rules which are laid down (or at best to interpret them within a narrow focus), women have brought about disjunction and change, this is the first time that the women’s behaviour has been given the imprimatur of God – ‘ Kein b’not Zelophehad dovrot – the daughters of Zelophehad speak right’  – there is divine approval for the different model of approaching the world, that of creating something new that is not connected with what was already in place, of breaking new ground because one is driven to do so by a sense of justice, of the absolute rightness of the new action.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is a story designed to remind us to stand up for rights, even if they are not yet perceived to be rights;  it is a story to remind us that all things might be possible, even with a God who seems to have it all sorted out already, even in a wilderness where the right might seem to be too abstract or too unfulfillable to be relevant.

The daughters of Zelophehad did groundbreaking work, which emerged from their confidence in themselves and the justness of their cause, from their supportive relationship with each other, from the need to link the past with the future and identify themselves within that future.  They established a legal presence and right for themselves and for all women in the future – the right to control their own economic provision.  We know that later on the right was constrained to daughters who married within their own tribe, that while they achieved economic power for women they were still kept away from the more potent power of the time – that of religious decision making – at least within the public and recorded sphere, but that should not change how we view this radical model of behaviour – you  still have to stand up and claim your rights and responsibilities even if you don’t immediately or easily achieve them – you need to challenge even God if necessary, to battle for what you believe to be important, to make your mark upon the world by fighting to make the world a better place.

The world hasn’t changed since the days of Machlah, Noa, Hogla, Milcah and Tirzah – it still seems that generally speaking men tend to operate by following or implementing the rules  and that women work by transforming them.  You only have to look at the impact women have had on the rabbinate to see that generality in action!   The question we need to be asking ourselves is not ‘why is the world so unfair’ but ‘in what way will I change the world because of what I believe in, because of my own faithfully held principles?’

(Adapted from the sermon for my daughter’s batmitzvah parashat Pinchas 2000 – a true disciple of the b’not zelophechad school of women fighting for social justice. Dedicated to the formidable Charlotte Fischer)


Parashat Pinchas: What do we notice and what do we value?

Pinchas has always been a problem. We are told that this sidra begins where it does, in the middle of the narrative – to cause an interruption between the violent act and the divine response, in order the record the disapproval of the Babylonian rabbis who divided the sidrot.  A distance is created between the horror of what he did, and the reward that God seems to offer.  To read the story straight through would cause us many problems with God – how can such a terrible act be so calmly and gladly acceptable?

The Rabbis of the Talmud (San 82b) struggle with the story too. The act of Pinchas is repugnant. Rabbi Yochanan deals with the problem by giving all the responsibility to God :

Rabbi Yochanan taught that Pinchas was able to accomplish his act of zealotry only because God performed six miracles: [First, upon hearing Pinchas’s warning, Zimri should have withdrawn from Cozbi and ended his transgression, but he did not. Second, Zimri should have cried out for help from his fellow Simeonites, but he did not. Third, Pinchas was able to drive his spear exactly through the sexual organs of Zimri and Cozbi as they were engaged in the act. Fourth, Zimri and Cozbi did not slip off the spear, but remained fixed so that others could witness their transgression. Fifth, an angel came and lifted up the lintel so that Pinchas could exit holding the spear. And sixth, an angel came and sowed destruction among the people, distracting the Simeonites from killing Pinchas. (B Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.)]

Pinchas becomes simply the conduit of God’s will, and his act of individual violence is subsumed under the divine plan. But this isn’t the only rabbinic struggle with the text: on the same page of Talmud we read that after Pinchas killed Zimri and Cozbi, the Israelites began berating him for his presumption, as he himself was descended from a Midianite idolater, Jethro. ..To counter this attack, God detailed Pinchas’s descent from the peaceful Aaron the Priest. And then God told Moses to extend a greeting of peace to Pinchas, so as to calm the crowd. (B Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.)]

Here the Rabbis show the Israelites shifting the responsibility for Pinchas’ actions not onto God, but onto Pinchas’ own mixed ancestry, implying that Pinchas maybe wasn’t quite ‘one of us’, his actions not those of a mensch.

In these examples we see that the Rabbinic tradition felt both a revulsion for what Pinchas did, and a need to transform the event in some way; to try to reconcile our disgust at his act, with God’s approval of it. While God may have valued Pinchas’ actions enough to offer him the reward of the priesthood, our tradition remains uncomfortable. We find reasons for this reward – it was given because the plague stopped, it is because he saved the people, it is for anything but the actual act of violent murder without judicial process that it seems to be.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is easier to the modern mind – in fact often the modern mind finds it hard to see the problem in the first place. Zelophehad has died and left no son. So who will inherit from him, and what will be the status of his five daughters?  It isn’t an issue for Moses either, until the daughters come before him to remind him of their existence and to request that they inherit the estate. Moses is so surprised he has no answer – this is simply not part of his world view – and he goes to God for a response.  Luckily God proves to be a feminist and the women get to inherit in their own right.  Today we find this solution to be clearly right. Yet for the Rabbis of the Talmud again they needed to explicate the result – the claims of gender equality were not part of their world, not noticed and not valued.

So we are told, for example: Rabbi Joshua taught that Zelophehad’s daughters petitioned first the assembly, then the chieftains, then Eleazar, and finally Moses” B Talmud Baba Batra 119b) as if it was their following due process was somehow the deciding factor in the decision.  We are also told in a Baraita that Zelophehad’s daughters were wise, Torah students, and righteous.  That they demonstrated their wisdom by raising their case in a timely fashion, just as Moses was expounding the law of levirate marriage; and they argued for their inheritance by reference to that law. (Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 119b.).

According to the midrash they saw the world very clearly, so that “When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said, “God’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of humankind. Humankind favours men over women. God is not like that. God’s compassion extends to men and women alike…” ( Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas, 27; Sifri 27:1).

Both Pinchas and the daughters of Zelophehad caused real problems to the rabbis – they notice that Pinchas’ act of violence goes against all the values and rules of their world, yet it seems to be welcomed by God, so they struggled to signal their own disapproval, to reframe the act so that it is not possible for anyone else to repeat it, and to deal with the apparent delight of God. In this story they notice what is going on, and their job is to try to keep it together with the values and judgements they are hoping to transmit into the future.

The daughters of Zelophehad however are simply less visible or accessible to the rabbis, as they are clearly barely visible to Moses until they bring themselves forward. I would posit that because the idea of gender equality is not part of the ancient world view, they simply cannot conceive of it, even when it is presented to them with clarity and due process. They do not notice it and so they do not value it. One might add that in certain streams of the Jewish world that has not changed much! But that isn’t my point.

What I do want to say is this: What we do not notice for whatever reason, we do not value. And what we do not value for whatever reason, we do not notice. While something may be clearly apparent to someone else – think of Pinchas’ instinctive response to the actions of Cozbi and Zimri – if the tramlines of our mind don’t run on that route, we just won’t see it. And because Moses and the others didn’t see that they had to take action on the behaviour of the people rather than simply lecture them, they didn’t take any action and they didn’t value the action that was taken. It was left to God to show that Pinchas, while clearly hot-headed and over the top, was at least on the right lines. I have always felt that the reward of the covenant of eternal priesthood was at the very least an ironic reward – it would rein in the impulsive nature of a Pinchas into the very disciplined world of ritual purity and choreography and leave no space for him to behave that way again. God may have valued what Pinchas did, but he also noticed that such a zealous personality needed some serious boundaries – and so God provided them.

When Moses brings the request of the daughters of Zelophehad to God, the response is “The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly…”  Rashi explains that God was saying : “[As the daughters of Zelophehad spoke it] so is this section of Torah written before Me on high.” This informs us that their eyes saw what the eye of Moses did not see.” (on Num 27:7)

Moses is the greatest prophet who ever lived, and yet the daughters of Zelophehad apparently saw something that he did not see. Each of us notices and values what is of meaning and importance to us, and each of us can teach the others in our world about the things that have meaning for us, so that we can all learn to value and to notice what may otherwise go unvalued and unnoticed. If we teach each other to see what we can see, we increase the richness of our understanding of our world, and so grow closer to its Creator.

Parashat Pinchas: the Daughters of Zelophehad


There is a maxim I learned at the Leo Baeck college whose truth has sadly been borne out many times in my career as a rabbi  – “where there is a will, there is a “broyges” (a Yiddish word meaning anger/ dispute)

Inheritance can be one of the most fraught areas of family relationships.  Even the best regulated and most even tempered families can discover the pain of frustrated expectation, begin to equate inheritance with love, fall out with each other and end relationships of decades standing once a death has occurred. 

The daughters of Zelophehad were the first people in the biblical narrative to query the inevitability of inheritance, though not the first to be upset about what they did or did not receive. 

These five women feel the injustice of their father’s lack of legacy strongly, they want his name to continue into the future, and it matters to them that the physical legacy he left was to be diverted to people who were not his direct descendants, simply because of gender.  They band together and approach Moses with their case, and Moses is perplexed – what should he do in the face of this determined group of improbable heirs?  As we know, he approached God with his problem and is told that the daughters of Zelophehad speak well, they should indeed inherit their father’s estate, and his name should be allowed to be remembered. 

So they inherit, but soon, as we learn in Deuteronomy and later in the book of Joshua, limits are afterwards put upon the inheritance of daughters, the old need for land to stay within the tribe takes precedence, and the case law established by these five brave women is constrained, though not repealed.

          Inheritance is a strange phenomenon. I think of Abraham, the Ur-ancestor, who tells God that there is no point making a covenant with him because he is childless and his estate will all go to a member of his household, Eliezer of Damascus.  This text made so much more sense to me once I too became a parent – somehow life focuses more when there is a child to pass on to.  And it doesn’t really matter in what area the transmission takes place – tradition, values, wealth, family stories, family name – simply knowing that someone will take it into the next generation makes a difference. 

Yet of course there are many ways of ensuring an inheritance besides that of having a child.  Alexander Pope spoke of his books embodying his legacy. Teachers know that the impact they make on students can reverberate into the next generations, and the Talmud tells us that when a student recalls a teaching in the name of their teacher, it is as if that teacher’s lips move in the grave.  (BT Yevamot 97a)

Anyone who makes a relationship of trust with another knows that the legacy of that relationship will continue until the end of the life of the partner – and maybe even for longer.  What we do, and how we behave with other people, has a lifetime far longer than we expect or think about, the impact of our actions resonates for far longer than we can imagine.

          Inheritance is a strange phenomenon.  It is one of the defining things to give meaning to our lives and at the same time can rupture our connection with the future and the past if not properly organised.  It is something we would do well to consider deeply, to make serious plans about, and to consider the impact and the consequences of what it is we bequeath to the world as a result of our life.

          We are used to the idea of making wills – documents which record what we want to happen to our possessions after our death.  Many of us have made a will and have found that contrary to superstition the making of a will has not somehow brought about our untimely demise. 

But there is more to think about than who gets the jewellery and who gets the house and car. Inheritance is far bigger than possessions – it is, as the daughters of Zelophehad so rightly recognised, what we bequeath about with how we lived our lives and how what we learned or made sense of is transported into the world where we no longer will be. 

There is in Judaism the tradition of making a regular and updated ethical will. The idea is simple yet so important – besides worrying about who gets what of our material possessions, we spend the time thinking about what values we want to transmit, what lessons we have learned that we want our chosen beneficiaries to understand, what was really of importance in our life that we want not to be lost along with the trivia.  It is a valuable exercise, to create an ethical will, in which we put down in black and white what really has mattered to us, be it simple good behaviour or the imperative to tzedakah; be it the need for the discipline of a prayer life, or the permission to doubt God as much as one likes, as long as you still engage in the doubt. 

There is a powerful tradition of writing the personal ethical will as part of the preparation for the High Holy Days – in other words to begin to do so at this time of year, as we take stock of our lived life and try to make judgements about it, and create a framework for the future in order to live a life more in harmony with what is important to us. 

It gives us the space to think about ourselves. Not simply as amassers of material goods, nor as people who just get on with life without much thought for any deeper purpose than to live well enough and be successful and good enough – but as human beings who consider that our lives must have meaning and that that meaning is something to be nourished and cherished and transmitted into the future. 

I heartily recommend that you consider what it is you want your legacy to be. I recommend that you not only make a will, but that you tell your children what that will contains, so that you minimise the broyges after your departure from the scene. 

I also recommend that you consider what you want your spiritual legacy to be – not something unattainable or perfect and not something that you yourself don’t actually manage to do – but that you distil your values, your belief system, your sense of who you are and why you exist, and write on a plain sheet of A4 some of the truths you have learned which have sustained you on your journey through life, and which you would like to project through your nearest and dearest into the future.

What will your legacy be?

Will it be one of infighting for your possessions, of indifference to your existence on this world?

 Of minor irritations or major frustrations? 

Will your legacy be framed in such a way that people will recognise your contribution to the world, or will it simply be a dividing up of the goods?

I have always been so impressed with Zelophehad and with his daughters.  What he owned is irrelevant to me, that his name continued is one of indifference, but the fact that he and his wife bred 5 such superb daughters, who had confidence and tact, who held together to fight for what they felt to be right – that is a legacy to be proud of, an inheritance for which he – and his wife – deserve to be remembered.