D’Var Torah: July 29, 2016

Shabbat Shalom Friends,

This week we will be reading from Parshat Pinchas. In it is the amazing story of the daughters of Zelophechad. Zelophechad was from the tribe of Manassah, one of the half tribes. The other was Ephraim, both Joseph’s sons who were adopted by Jacob. Needless to say, Zelophechad died leaving no male heirs. His daughters Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah went to Moses, Eleazar (Aaron’s son, now High Priest), the chieftains, and the whole community with a particular request.

Now before we get into their request, we should note that the Torah is not an egalitarian text. Women’s voices are often noticeably absent as are their names. So it is curious that here all of Zelophechad’s daughters are named. Also, women in ancient days really did not have any power. They were considered part of their father’s household until they got married, at which point they were considered part of their husband’s household.

All that being said, the five daughters went to Moses stating, “Our father has died in the wilderness … 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 27:3-4).

Moses, instead of saying, ‘no,’ took their case to God. God agreed that their request had merit. Furthermore, the daughters were allowed to inherit the land under certain conditions. This in and of itself, is actually a very radical development for the Ancient Near Eastern world.

Again, the Torah is not an egalitarian text, but it does provide for some protections for women. For example, they are not to be sold like slaves nor can they be simply disposed of if a husband becomes disenchanted with his wife. A woman must accept a marriage proposal for it to be considered valid, and a husband is obligated to give his wife a bill of divorcement if he wishes to divorce her. Nowadays we do not find these ideas so significant, but given the context of their time, they were major developments in the incredibly long march towards gender equality.

Traditional Judaism still has separate realms for men and women, and there are certainly gender imbalances. However, liberal Judaism has come a long way and is much more in line with the request set up by the daughters of Zelophechad: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. Nowadays you are just as likely to see a woman rabbi and a male cantor leading a congregation as vice versa. Women now serve in all roles of leadership in congregational and institutional life, and all life cycle events and milestones are celebrated with a sense of equality for all.

This is all the more reason to celebrate the recent development in the United States of the nomination of the first woman to be president by a major political party, regardless of your political affiliations. Of course we are a little late to the party. Golda Meir served as Prime Minister of Israel from 1969-1974.

One can argue that this path began in ancient Israel, and has been moving forward ever so slowly, ever since. It all began with a simple request for fairness with regards to inheritance. And today, a woman finally stands on the precipice of ascending to the most powerful office on the earth. Again, regardless of politics, this is a remarkable, long-awaited development. And as the father of a daughter, my dream for her is that she knows she can be whatever she aspires to be just as my sons already can.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff