Throughout the ages it has been accepted to retell Torah stories in the language of the times, Think Tzena u-Rena, the Yiddish accounts of biblical narratives. Here is my retelling of the daughters of Tzelofchad, for 2019.
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Milkah: Hey girls, we have a problem — with our father gone, with no brothers who is going to inherit our father’s portion of the land of Israel?
Tirzah: Let’s go speak to Moses.
Hoglah: Great idea.
Noah: Um, girls, we have a problem. Moses’ yeshiva is on that street with the huge sign, “No women on this sidewalk.”
Milkah: What if we wear our burkas?
Machlah: I think I know a back way in. It’s over a fence, but we can climb it and then go through two garbage dumps. Follow me!
Guard at the yeshiva’s back door: Can I help you?
Tirzah: Hi, we would like to present before Moses, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.
Guard at the yeshiva’s back door: I am sorry, ladies. I can’t let you in. Do you know what people would say if we let you in? If I let you in to present before the illustrious assembly, we will have a slippery slope, and soon enough, women will want to be rabbis. You will have to find another way — I just can’t let you into the yeshiva.
Tirzah: Well, ladies what should we do?
Hoglah: You know, all this is much too much trouble. Let’s just live in New Jersey.
* * *
Of course, no pictures remain of these women since we would have had to blur their faces. It is actually surprising that we have their names.
Yet: There is no indication at all that Moses or any commentaries later in Jewish history had any problem with the women’s behavior. More, the same laws of inheritance for a case of a man with male heirs could have been taught without the narrative. The inclusion of the daughters — with their names — is to reward and acknowledge their righteousness.
Are these five women our first feminists? Are they good role models for those who are demanding equality for all? Was it not clear to all that only males age 20 and up would receive portions in Israel (Numbers 26:53)? Are these women demanding equal rights, representation, and inheritance like those men? God Himself declares “The daughters of Tzelofchad are right!”
Despite that contempoary lens, Tirzah, Hoglah, Noah, Milkah, and Machlah are not feminists. Their argument is based on the fact that they have no brother. They are not looking out for equality for themselves; rather, for the sake of their father’s benefit, so his name would continue through them — and then their children (his grandchildren), living on their inherited portion in the land of Israel. Perhaps it should not surprise us that in 1910, ostraca (potsherds with writing on them) were found in Sebastia (near Nablus) bearing names of two of these women: Hoglah and Noah. Indeed their names were not wiped out in that next generation, but continued to be used as a tribal subdivision of the tribes of Menashe, as proved from archeology.
Feminists or not, these women, like the rest of the women of the generation, were more righteous than their male counterparts. According to the Sifrei, “Rabbi Nathan says: The strength of women is finer than the strength of men. The men said, “Let us head back [nitnah rosh] for Egypt” (Num. 14:4), and the women said, “Give us [tenah lanu] a holding among our father’s kinsmen” (Num. 27:4). Moreover, just as the men contributed to the sin of the golden calf, while the women did not donate their jewelry for the sake of building the graven image, the men accepted the slander of those who had gone out to spy the land of Israel, while the women did not reject the land.
The daughters of Tzelofchad kept their words brief. They did not repeat themselves or stipulate any conditions. And they proposed a practical solution.
The women were smart: they knew when and how to present their case. They were also courageous, motivated, and determined. They believed in their case, and in the justice and mercifulness of God, and therefore did not hesitate to present their arguments.
Tirzah, Hoglah, Noah, Machlah, and Milkah, and all the women of their generation, merited entering the land, and we learn halacha through them — the laaws of inheritance.
The passage on inheritance deserved to be said by Moses, except that the daughters of Tzelofchad were awarded the honor of it being said by them. Thus privilege devolves upon the meritorious, and blame on the culpable. –Sifrei, Numbers 133.