‘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)
The first thing we learn about Noah is his genealogy as the generations that separate him from Adam are listed – he is the tenth generation since the creation of humanity and ten is a powerful symbolic number in bible. (Gen5)
The second thing we learn about Noah is a connection between him and the ur-ancestors Adam and Eve, with the verbal root ayin-tzaddi-beit, (the noun itz’von – hard work/ creative work being used earlier for Eve and then for Adam and then not used again in Hebrew Bible)
The third thing we learn is that his name, Noah, meaning ‘rest’ or ‘repose’, but midrashically stretched to mean ‘comfort’ is somehow the counter to the idea of itz’von, that this one, Noah, y’nachameinu – will comfort us – in our work (ma’asei) and the creative work of our hands (itz’von yadeinu), from the ground which the Eternal has cursed (Gen 5:29) This is the first time that a name has been explained in bible since the first couple were named.
And the fourth thing we learn is that unlike his nine ancestors, Noah waited a long, long time before having children. Five times longer than the usual delay – he was 500 years old before fathering a child.
The text has signalled that this man, the tenth generation of human beings, is notable. In some way he is born to mitigate the sheer hard work of creative exertion that has been the lot of human beings since leaving Eden. And indeed he does alter the course of human history, becoming himself the ur-ancestor for the post-flood generations. And he is a late starter.
Why does Noah wait to have his children? One midrash tells us that God had made him impotent for the first 500 years in order not to have older children at the time of the flood which took place in his 600th year. (Gen Rabbah 26:2). Had his children been wicked they would have been killed alongside the rest of humanity, had they been righteous they would have had to make arks of their own, so the midrash places them at the cusp of adulthood – hence the delay in their births.
A much later commentary (Sefer haYashar) suggests another reason – that Noah knew that he would be bringing children into a corrupt world and chose not to do so. God had to remind him of his duty to find a wife and to have children, and to take that wife into the future in order that more children might be born after the end of the flood.
I would like to add a third explanation – that just as the child of Sarah was to be the chosen heir to Abraham, so too does the saved remnant of humanity need to be the child of a particular woman. For the text signals something very powerful about the mother of Shem, Ham and Japhet – she appears five separate times in the bible, and yet her name is omitted from the text.
In all but one of her appearances she is listed after Noah and his sons, and before the wives of the sons, but in the penultimate verse God tells Noah to “Go forth from the ark, you, and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you” but they actually leave in a different order –Noah, his sons, his wife and their wives.
It feels like a moment has been missed. That moment is in need of revisiting and the wife of Noah in need of being rescued from her erasure.
The midrash tells us that the wife of Noah had a name, she was called Naamah. How do they know? Because we know of a Naamah, the daughter of Lamech and Zillah, and sister of Tubal Cain – she is the only single woman listed in these early genealogies (and the other two women are the two wives of Lamech) and so must be of some importance, though the text does not tell us what. Her name may give us another clue to her special abilities- the root primarily means to be pleasant, but it also has the connotation of melody and of singing. Naamah, whose brothers are each named for an aspect of human activity (the children of Lamech’s other wife, Adah are Jubal, the founder of the music of harp and pipe, and Jabal the patron of tent dwellers and cattle raisers, while her full brother Tubal Cain is the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron)is not given a role in the text – but surely her pleasant and calm singing voice forms a backdrop to the story much as the singing of a niggun helps us to focus on our own prayer.
Maybe this is her downfall – the musicality of a woman’s voice has certainly become something to fear for some rabbis and commentators. Maybe her name had to be erased from the text lest her singing lead us to really notice her, make us ask why Noah waited so long to marry her and have children with her, make us wonder what qualities she had that would lead her to being effectively the second Eve, the mother of all living after the flood.
And there is something else that makes the modern feminist want to winkle out more about this unnamed but significant woman – the later midrash and the mystical literature choose to take her name (pleasant/lovely/musical) and transform her into the feared seductress of men, the woman who married the fallen angel Shamadon and who mothered the most fearful demon of all, Ashmodeus, the king of the demonic world. Whenever a woman is trashed in rabbinic literature, called a seducer, a demon, a killer of babies, a prostitute or a witch– there we know we can find a woman whose strength of mind, whose scholarship, whose sense of self is powerful and outspoken. We find a strong woman who scares a certain kind of weak man. Lilith the first wife of Adam who chose not to be secondary to him; Eve whose actions led to the curse of ceaseless work; Deborah likened to a wasp who moves from being a judge in biblical text to a teacher of established laws as commentaries take over; Huldah described as an irritant, a hornet; Beruriah the scholarly wife of Rabbi Meir whose end was to be seduced by one of his students and so committed suicide…..
A woman’s voice is her sexuality, and takes her from her assigned role of quiet service to others, to one of power and of public awareness. No wonder poor Naamah was hidden in the text, no wonder that even when God said she should leave the ark immediately after Noah and before her sons and their families, when it came to it she was described as having left after her sons, relegated to the status of secondary character yet again. Midrash goes on to trash her further, calling her an idolatrous woman who used her voice to sing to idols (Genesis Rabbah 23) The statement by Abba b. Kahana, that Naamah gained her name (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God is rapidly overturned in majority opinion and recorded texts. She is other, she is frightening, and she is the mother of the demon king. Let’s keep her quiet, unassuming, disappeared….
The role of women beyond child bearing and rearing is sometimes frustratingly alarming to the rabbinic world view. Naamah has adult children who themselves are married – her role is apparently fulfilled, we learn of no further children of Noah after the flood, so what else should she be doing? No doubt she knew, but we can only guess.
There she is, the descendant of Cain, bringing his descendants back into play in the world, providing a sort of redemption to the first biblical murder and fratricide.
There she is, the new mother of all living, as everyone now will descend from her and Noah, bringing to fruition the promise made on the birth and naming of Noah, “’This shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which comes from the ground which the Eternal has cursed.”
There she is, released from the burden of Eve, having finished with the work of childbirth and instead supervising the recreation of the post-diluvian world while her drunken husband passed authority to their sons.
There she is, the singer, whose voice echoes the voice of God as the world is once again put back together after the chaos of the flood.
Abba bar Kahana, the 3rd century amora and one of the greatest exponents of aggadah tells us that she was called Naamah (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God. This teaching has been overlaid and overturned in tradition, the idea being apparently too awful for some rabbinic teachers to contemplate. Her conduct was pleasing to God. God noticed her. She was the woman destined to be the mother of all who live since the flood. About time her voice is heard again, singing as she goes about her work.
One of the biggest differences between Judaism and Christianity derives from the story of Adam and Eve and their leaving Eden. According to Christianity, this is a story of a fall from grace, and is linked to the doctrine of original sin – that human beings are born in a state of impurity which derives from the pride and disobedience shown by Adam and Eve in the garden. Judaism is emphatically opposed to this idea – indeed our morning prayers include the words “My God, the soul which You gave me is pure, You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me. You preserve it within me and You will take it from me…” a prayer that can be found in the Talmud (Berachot 60b).
The story of the leaving of Eden is not a tragic event, something that should never have happened; and we should not spend our lives yearning to return there – after all, why would God create a garden in which there are two trees that we should not eat from, if not to challenge us and to provide a catalyst?
Adam and Eve in the garden are innocents, they are like new-born children, and if kept in that state they will never be able to grow and learn and develop their own ideas and identities. Making mistakes is part of growing up and becoming who we are. The story of leaving the Garden of Eden is a story of maturation, of acquiring independence, of leaving home in order to become one’s own full self. Making mistakes is how we learn.
Jewish teaching tells us that we are born with a pure soul, and that we are responsible for its state. We will make mistakes, we will – in common parlance – sin, and we have a mechanism in order to remedy those mistakes, Teshuvah. Often translated loosely as ’Repentance’, in fact Teshuvah means to turn back, to return to God and become our best selves. Judaism further teaches that we have two competing drives, the Yetzer haTov and the Yetzer haRa – the inclination to do good by acting selflessly, and the inclination to act selfishly. We have free will and can make our own decisions about which inclination we might follow at any given time. And sometimes the more selfish choices are important ones too, as understood by the Midrash (rabbinic exegesis on the bible)
“Nachman said in R Samuel’s name “Behold it was very good” refers to the good desire (Yetzer haTov), “and behold it was very good” also refers to the evil desire (Yetzer haRa). Can then the evil desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But for the evil desire however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:7)
So we need to have a selfish inclination, we just have to keep it in check, develop and practise a sense of morality. As we mature, it is this sense of responsibility to others, this moral code that influences the choices we make. And this is the sense of responsibility that Adam and Eve lacked in the garden; it is arguably something they could only acquire with experience.
We are born with a pure soul. And we are born with two competing urges – to act for our own good and to act for the good of others. Sometimes these are compatible, sometimes they are not; sometimes that is obvious to us, sometimes it becomes obvious only in retrospect.
We become responsible for our own actions and our own choices, but we have the possibility always to return our souls to the pure state in which they were given to us, by acts of Teshuvah, of implementing the moral code. The story of the leaving of Eden is the story of both Eve and Adam choosing to follow the Yetzer ha Ra, to act according to a more selfish need. Had they not done so, one assumes that humanity would never have grown and developed, never exercised free will and made moral choices.
An important message of this story is NOT that people are evil by nature, that we are flawed from birth and spend our lives attempting to attain a state of goodness, but that we should use our more selfish as well as our more selfless impulses for creating a better world. Both are necessary, it is how we balance these impulses, how we moderate our behaviours with our moral and ethical understandings that matters. We are never cast away from God with no route back – the door is always open, our souls are given from God, preserved by God and will return to God. But the state they are in during the time we have them, that is a continuing and constant choice for us to make.