In this week’s Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophehad petition to inherit their father’s portion. The story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah (Numbers 27:1-11) encapsulates the challenges that women faced and what they had to do in order to affirm their rights with dignity.
We might expect that women, heirs to Egyptian slavery and then put under law that frequently favours men, might react by keeping silent, by accepting as natural the rule decreed for them to follow. We might expect women in those days to stay close to their tents, remain out of sight, and not go far from their families.
However, this is not all that the five sisters do. First, they “go out” from their living place, from their social space, from the destiny imposed on them. The text states: “The daughters of Zelophehad … came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” Secondly they speak with determination: “Our father died in the wilderness. … Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”
How does Moses react? Moses discloses his inability to assess the claims of these sisters. He takes the case to God, who responds by clearly supporting the sisters’ demand and even by promulgating a new and permanent law to secure inheritance for any daughters in such circumstances. Thus, the sisters’ claim leads to the law of inheritance’s being changed forever.
The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now. In addition, however, the story of these five women offers a compelling lesson for all those who believe that their destiny is fixed or that divine justice has abandoned them. It encourages us to think differently–and provides a message of hope for all those faced with obstacles. Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands.
– Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Source: Rabbi Silvina Chemen, WRJ Torah Comment)