The Right to be Right

When people seek out the hero of Parshat Pinhas, they might easily get stalled on Pinhas, who is the star of the parashah’s opening scene. If one reads further on, though, we discover some unsung heroes, or should I say, heroines, the daughters of Zelophehad, who measure up as models of Jewish womanhood, but even more so as models of the requisite courage to stand up for one’s rights and to stand up to power when it seems an injustice is being done.

As the forty-year sojourn comes to an end, Moshe declared to the people the details of how the land will be apportioned among the tribes. When it became clear that only male descendants would be eligible for inheritance, the daughters of Zelophehad, who had no male siblings to inherit their father’s portion, come before Moshe to plead their case: “And the daughters of Zelophehad… came forward… and stood before Moshe and Elazar the priest… at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, saying, Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not a part of the community that banded together against the Lord with the community of Korah… and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name be withdrawn from the midst of his clan because he has no son? Give us a holding in the midst of our father’s brothers. And Moshe brought forth their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moshe: saying, ‘Rightly do the daughters of Zelophehad speak… (See Numbers 27:1-11)

In any number of rabbinic midrashim, these exemplary sisters are recognized as paradigms of the virtues of womanhood. The following midrash fleshes out the background story justifying the sister’s demand to participate in the inheritance of their family’s portion in the soon to be conquered land:

During the forty-year trek in the desert, it was the women who mended what the men transgressed. So, you find that when Aharon said: ‘Take off your gold rings’ (Exodus 32:2) [in the story of the golden calf], it was the women who refused and protested to their husbands, as it says: ‘And the people too off their gold rings’ (32:3), [their rings but not those of the women], since the women did not participate in the sin of the golden calf. And so too, the sin of the spies who [came back from their mission and] slandered the land: [as it says:] ‘They spread calumnies about the land’ (Numbers 14:36) And regarding them, the stern decree was issued, for they said: ‘We cannot attack that people’ (Numbers 13:31) But the women were not with them in this conspiracy, for it is written above: ‘Thus said the Lord to them, You shall surely die in the desert and not one man will remain’ (Numbers 26:65) [Note, it says]: man and not woman, since it was the men who did not want to enter the land, while the women brought themselves to Moshe to request an inheritance [in the land]: ‘The daughters of Zelophehad… came forward’ (Numbers 27:1) And that is why this parashah was written next to the death of Miriam, for that is when the men transgressed , the women mended…

[Not only were the women righteous, they were also wise] What was their wisdom? That they choose the appropriate time to raise the issue, for Moshe was busy dealing with inheritance rights, as it says: Among these shall the land be apportioned’ (Numbers 26:53) They said to him: If we are like sons, then we should inherit like sons; And if not, our mother should be entitled to Levirite marriage (as if she was childless so that she might give birth to a son to inherit the families portion of the land). Immediately, ‘And Moshe brought their case before the Lord’ (Numbers 27:5) … (Adapted from Tanhuma Pinhas 7)

In this midrashic “rewriting” of the background to the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, the sages attribute to these women two significant traits. First, they represent the righteousness of the women of the trek through the desert who remained loyal to God and His mission to redeem the people and, in doing so, ensured its success. In addition, the sages portrayed them as “sages” who could argue and justify themselves as well as any rabbi! Their righteousness, their wisdom and their courage to stand up for what is right is what makes them role models for all of us.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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