There are two episodes in the Torah portion of Pinchas which are fascinatingly juxtaposed to one another. The first is a description of the census of the Jewish people after the death of all those who listened to the slanderous report of the Spies regarding the Land of Israel. This description ends with the verse:
But among these, there was not a man of those whom Moses and Aaron the Kohen counted…For the Lord has said of them, ‘they shall surely die in the wilderness,’ and not a man was left of them except for Calev son of Yefuneh and Yehoshua son of Nun…( Bamidbar 26:64-65)
The second episode which follows immediately thereafter is the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad, who turned to Moses to seek a portion of their own in the Land of Israel.
The Daughters of Tzelafchad- the son of Chaife, who was the son of Gilad, who was the son of Machir, who was the son of Menashe, from the families of Yosef’s son Menashe, came forward… ‘Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.’(Bamidbar 27:1, 4)
The daughters of Tzelafchad approached Moses with a seemingly justified compliant: How can it be that we, the ones who have always cherished the Land, should be left out of this all important mitzva of settling the Land simply because the family bore no male heir to inherit their portion? Moses turned to God to receive guidance on this question, and the response was that not only were they entitled to a portion, but that the daughters of Tzelafchad were to be granted a “double portion” in the Land.
Many are the classical biblical commentators who address the connection between the census of the Jewish people and the episode of the daughters of Tzelafchad that follows it. Rashi explains the connection between these two as follows:
Among these (the census) there was not a man; but the women were not included in the decree of the Spies, for they cherished the land. The men said, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt,’ while the women said, ‘Give us a portion.’ This is why this section is juxtaposed to the section of Tzelafchad’s daughters.( Rashi, Commentary to Bamidbar 26:64)
These two side-by-side narratives highlight the fact that the Jewish women took no part in the sin of the spies. Rather, they maintained steadfast devotion and faith in God’s promise, continuing to desire the Holy Land even after the negative report.
The eternal righteousness of the women of Israel is not a one-time phenomenon. Indeed, their ability to serve as a catalyst to uplift and actualize the unique potential of the Jewish people is part and parcel of the very fabric of Jewish history. Look no further than the very beginnings of Jewish peoplehood, when Abraham faced a dilemma regarding his sons Ishmael and Isaac. God commands Abraham “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.” (Beresheit 21:12) According to Rashi, this passage teaches us that our matriarch Sarah had a higher level of prophecy than our forefather Abraham (Rashi, Commentary to Beresheit 21:12). This theme is further exemplified through the story of young Miriam rebuking her father from separating from her mother; this subsequently led to the birth of Moses, who redeemed the Jewish people from centuries of slavery in Egypt. Similarly, during the episode of the Golden Calf, it was the women of the nation who declined to give their jewelry and resolutely refused to take part in the sin while their male counterparts fell to the temptation.
Whether during the years of slavery in Egypt or the subsequent years of wandering as a nation in the wilderness, the women of Israel have set the bar for spirituality for the Jewish people. What, then, is the unique nature of a Jewish woman’s spirituality that enables her to engage in this noble task?
The answer can be found by delving deeper into the episode between Abraham and Sarah regarding the sending away of Ishmael cited above. On the verse, “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice,”( Beresheit 21:12) Rashi explains that Abraham was instructed to listen to Sarah because her words contained ruach hakodeh (divine inspiration), and in this context Abraham was on a lower prophetic level than his wife. Rashi’s explanation begs the question: is it possible to assert that our saintly forefather Abraham was on a lower level than our matriarch Sarah? A biblical scholar would note that God spoke to Abraham twenty times – whereas God spoke to Sarah only once. Surely an individual who has had more interaction with the Divine would be considered to be on a loftier spiritual plane. But in his work the Emek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin offers an enlightening answer to this question through an explanation on the difference between the concept of ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) and navuah (prophecy). His teachings further illuminate the unique nature and strength of a Jewish woman’s spirituality.
Writes Rabbi Berlin, navuah (prophecy) is a direct external communication with the Divine whereby God “speaks” to the individual and imparts His message directly. Ruach Hakodesh, on the other hand, is an internal process whereby individuals involve themselves in deep spiritual introspection and turn their thoughts inwards to God. From this reflective experience, they are then able to independently perceive the proper path to follow without any direct Divine intervention. In contrast to prophecy — which can be revealed regardless of a person’s state of mind or attitude — ruach hakodesh can only be attained through a state of happiness and desire to fulfill the mitzvot, and in a commitment to living a life of complete trust and faith in God (Rabbi Berlin Commentary to Beresheit 23:1). Our matriarch Sarah reached her level of ruach hakodesh through love and complete faith in God; the verse “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice…” teaches us that this is in fact a higher prophetic level than even that of our forefather Abraham.
This concept of an elevated level of ruach hakodesh, of finely tuned internal spiritual intuition, is the gift and inheritance of all Jewish women. It is precisely this inimitable quality that can be immeasurably impactful on the individual as well as the community. Though there are many biblical figures who stand as praiseworthy examples, in the more contemporary era there are three Jewish women whose groundbreaking efforts and vision continue the legacy: Rebecca Gratz, Sarah Schenirer, and Nehama Leibowitz.
Rebecca Gratz was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the late 1700’s and was highly active in promoting Jewish causes and education her entire adult life. In 1815 she founded the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, followed by the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1819 as well as a Jewish foster home in 1855. However, most pertinent to the above discussion was her establishment of the first Hebrew Sunday School in America in 1838. Until that time, the Jewish education of children in America was conducted privately, at home. Unfortunately, it was not enough to stem the tide of the generation’s fast assimilation into the dominant Christian culture of the time. Rebecca Gratz started the first Jewish Sunday School in Philadelphia with a class of 60 students. As she wrote in a letter to a friend a few years later:
I am gratified in the improvement of a large class of children…it will be a consolation for much lost time—if this late attempt to improve the degenerate portion of a once great people shall lead to some good—and induce wiser and better Jews to take the work in hand (Ibid.).
Rebecca’s undertaking spread to the Jewish communities in Charleston, Savannah, and Baltimore and undoubtedly caused a resurgence of commitment to Jewish values and education among the Jewish population in the “New World.”
Close to 80 years later, and across an ocean in Krakow, Poland, Sarah Schenirer was faced with a similar dilemma of watching young women with no formal Jewish education assimilating at an alarming rate due to the secular influences they were encountering at the Polish state schools (https://www.thelehrhaus.com/scholarship/sarah-schenirer-and-innovative-change-the-myths-and-facts/) . Regarding her personal experience during the High Holy Days, she writes:
And as we pass through the days before the High Holy Days…fathers and sons travel, and thus they are drawn to Ger, to Belz, to Alexander… And we stay at home, the wives, daughters, and the little ones… The mother goes to the synagogue, but the services echo faintly into the fenced and boarded-off women’s galleries. There is much crying by elderly women. The young girls look at them as though they belong to a different century. Youth and the desire to live a full life shoot up violently in the strong-willed young personalities. Outside the synagogues, the young girls stay chattering; they walk away from the synagogue…They leave behind them the wailing of the older generation and follow the urge for freedom and self-expression. Further and further from the synagogue they go, further away, to the dancing, tempting light of a fleeting joy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Schenirer).
Due to these experiences and her desire to “train Jewish daughters so that they will serve the Lord with all their might and with all their hearts; so that they will fulfill the commandments of the Torah with sincere enthusiasm,”( Ibid) in 1917, Sarah Schenirer opened the first “ Bais Yaakov” kindergarten with a starting class of 25. Due to her tenacity in the achievement of her goal, by 1933 there were some 265 schools established in Poland alone, with close to 40,000 students ( Ibid) . The effects of Sarah Schenirer’s revolutionary work in women’s Jewish education can still be felt today through the hundreds of thousands of pupils who benefit from this educational framework.
Finally, Professor Nehama Leibowitz was a figure in the latter part of the 20th century who reinvigorated bible study amongst people of all walks of life, both in Israel and around the world. Most notably, she began a worksheet project on the weekly Torah portion to further adult bible education. As she explained the state of the program in 1942:
The problems of adult education began to occupy and trouble me. From my work in short courses for kibbutz members and from immigrant youth movement and counselors, I realized that there was a need for these studies to continue. An idea came to me to carry on this brief seminar study via a guided correspondence course, leading to regular study over a prolonged period…(Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar, pg. 51)
These worksheets and her subsequent responses to questions submitted by students made their way through every strata of Israel society: secular kibbutz members, religious soldiers on the front lines, new immigrants, yeshiva students and teaching colleges. By 1986, close to forty years after the start of this project, Professor Leibowitz had responded to over 40,000 letters (Ibid, pg.66). Her correspondence, scholarship, and teaching have left a lasting impact on how the Bible is studied in Israel and abroad.
These are but three of countless figures who have made an important imprint on the story of our people. In crucial yet challenging moments throughout Jewish history it has been the righteous women of Israel who set our trajectory – onward and upward.
In his work, “A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik encapsulates this idea in describing his personal relationship with his mother:
We have two massorot, two traditions … Father teaches the son the discipline of thought as well as the discipline of action. Father’s tradition is an intellectual-moral one (i.e. prophecy) … What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? …Most of all I learned from my mother that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience (i.e. divine inspiration). She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to the mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life — to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive (A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne.Tradition 17:2 [Spring 1978], pp. 76-77).
Such is the strength that lies within generations of the righteous women of Israel