Esther Goldenberg
Esther Goldenberg

What Do You Do When Everything Changes?

Once there were 601,730 men and 6 women.


You might be wondering why there were only six women.

You see, these 601,736 people were mentioned in a census of men age 20 and over. We can assume that somewhere, not too far away, there were a lot of women that these men came from, and probably many they had helped produce. But in this story, this true story, they were counting males who were 20-years-old and older.

So my question isn’t why were there so few women, but why were there so many? Presumably there should be.. zero. When counting men over age 20, and counting them by their fathers’ tribes no less, the sum should be a number of… men.

Yet in the middle of the census, we’re told of a man named Zelophechad who had died leaving only daughters: Mahlah, Noa, Hogla, Milcah, and Tirtza.

Can we pause here for a minute?

This is a story that happened thousands of years ago. It was common for men to have multiple wives, or at least multiple women with whom they were reproducing. What are the odds that a man would die without having a son? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but… not a common scenario.

And I just want to point that out because if we view this from our regular environment, living in the now (which is a good idea) we might miss what a big deal this was. It was pretty unheard of. So when it happened… they didn’t already have a plan in place for what to do.

And before I tell you what happened next, I want to ask this question:

Have you ever been in a situation where the game changed and all new rules had to be written?

Maybe your doctor retires and you need to find a new one. Or you’re out of ideas for something. Or you’re in a pinch.

Hive mind: who has a GP they like?
Friends: Who knows a great place for a 6yo birthday party?
Google: What can I use as a substitute for baking soda?

Sound familiar?

These are small examples of things changing. In these circumstances, we ask for help. We make a little plan. We remember for next time (or ask again). We share the info with others. But mostly, we move on.

What about when the stakes are bigger?

A business decision that can lead to a gain or loss of a lot of money.
Moving to a new city.
An illness.
A loved one passing away.

When the game changes, when we deviate from what we know, when we’re faced with a brand new situation, it is easy for fear to move in. And somehow, shame can sneak in there, too. All of a sudden, the rules need to be rewritten, but what should they be? Why don’t we know? Something needs to happen, but what?

This reminds me of the man who scaled the outside of the Sears Tower in a Spiderman suit and suction cups many years ago. Before he did that, there was no need for or thought of making a law against scaling the outside of a skyscraper. It was only as a result of the game changing that new rules were made. I think this is worth remembering when we get into those new, often surprising, situations. We’ve never been there before. It’s okay to not know what to do, or to have an idea of what to do but not know how to do it.

When the daughters of Zelophechad found themselves in an unprecedented situation, they reached out for help. They went to Moses and Elazar the priest and the chieftains and the whole congregation and asked why their father’s name should be cut off from the family just because he had no sons. They proposed that they, the daughters, should receive his share.

And guess what. Not only did they receive this portion, but a whole new plan that had never existed before was put into place.

“If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall give over his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, you shall give over his inheritance to his father’s brothers. If he his father has no brothers, you shall give over his inheritance to the kinsmen closest to him in his family.”

New situations call for new rules. We can’t progress applying old rules to new games. Where would we be if the daughters of Zelophechad (or the suffragettes or the first astronauts or Malala Yousefzai or YOU or I) weren’t willing to make new rules when the game changed?

Now, one last thing.

Were you counting the women in the story? I said there were 6, but I named five daughters of Zelophechad. The sixth woman mentioned during the census was Serah. This is what we know about Serah:

“The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah.”

I wish I could be a fly on that wall. I be there’s a lot more to that story.

About the Author
Esther Goldenberg is the founder of Out-of-the-Box Judaism. Her books The Out-of-the-Box Bat Mitzvah: A Guide to Creating a Meaningful Milestone and A Story Every Week: Torah Wisdom for Today's World is available on and at other online booksellers. Join the conversation at
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