Parshat Pinchas

Torah Reading for Week of June 23-June 29, 2013

“Five For One”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D. ’11


Parshat Pinchas is often thought of as synonymous with the zeal with which Pinchas takes up his spear and executes the Israelite-Midianite couple Zimri and Cozbi. Actually, however, the brief episode of violence ends the previous parsha. The idolatrous pair is dispatched with a single thrust and the twin plagues of the dangerous influence of foreign women and deadly illness are simultaneously extinguished.

But Parshat Pinchas goes on to recount a more compelling and far more nuanced narrative. This story is driven by a zeal expressed not through violent action but through discernment, reason and patience. Its focus is on five unmarried daughters, orphaned and marginalized women who dare to challenge custom and law. The narrative of the daughters of Zelophehad spans three locations in the Tanach, mirroring the stages of the initiation, pursuit and completion of the women’s quest for justice. In the Torah, in Numbers 27 and 36, the daughters’ petition to be recognized as their father’s heirs results in the promise of inheritance and a subsequent profound legal reform; finally, in Joshua 17, the sisters take possession of their portion of the Promised Land.

Tractate Bava Batra records the rabbis’ praise for the learning, wisdom and virtue of the daughters of Zelophehad; Me’am Lo’ez asserts that their assertion of their claim to their father’s land, enables Moses to pay homage to the Shekhinah. But at its heart, this is a story about the power of the ostensibly powerless to effect a profound tikkun. So important is the theme of the dignity of the individual that in each iteration of the story, each daughter is individually named. Further, the order of the listed names varies in the different segments of the story, a fact that Me’am Loez explains as a way to emphasize the fact that all five women possess equal wisdom.

The naming of each of Zelophehad’s daughters also serves to underscore that the story of these women is the story of the power of the relational. These are not merely biological sisters–their power to challenge the established order stems from the fact that they are true sisters of the heart, united by their shared belief in their cause. Their embodied bond as they stand together “before Moses, Elazar the priest, the chieftains and the whole assembly” and speak not as individuals but in a single, united voice is so compelling Moses that takes their case to the Holy One. And, from the Holy One comes the affirmation of the right that the sisters have asserted as well as the establishment of their case as the precedent for “the law of procedure…in accordance with [the Holy One’s] command to Moses.”

Tractate Semahot explains that the origins of the sisters’ extraordinary vision of equal rights and equal justice is anchored in their belief in the Holy One’s compassionate presence: “When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that Eretz Israel was to be apportioned to the tribes in accordance with the men and not by women, they gathered together to take counsel. One said to the other: “The Omnipresent’s compassion is not like that of flesh and blood. Flesh-and-blood creatures have greater compassion for males than for females. But the One who spoke and the world came into being is not like that. Rather, His mercy extends to all, to the males and to the females…’”

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is a story worth our careful attention–its three-part structure comes to remind us of the tripartite structure of life–beginning, middle and end. Its five main characters come to heighten our awareness of how our individuality is not obviated when we are in mutually supportive relationships. In their relationships with one another, these orphaned sisters find strength and inspiration that surpasses their individual strengths, and they draw yet more strength and inspiration from the One who is always available to us. May we, too, turn to the Compassionate and Omnipresent One to support our hopes and dreams for a more just world.

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