After hundreds of years of slavery and 40 years of wandering, our people were finally ready to enter the land of Israel. We would each be given a piece of this land of promise. According to the Torah, each of us had a claim to the land … except for five sisters from the tribe of Menashe: Noa, Milchah, Tirzah, Holgah and Malhah. Their father, Zelophehad, died without sons to inherit his property. In parshat Pinchas we learn that his daughters would receive no land, no inheritance. Only a man could inherit land. Zelophehad’s inheritance would transfer to male relatives. When he died, the five sisters had no claim on their father’s property because they were women.
These five women stepped forward and asserted themselves. A midrash says they stated their case before a successive hierarchy of chieftains and tribal leaders. Each time, they voiced the same claim recorded in the Torah, “Why should our father’s name be lost to his family simply because he had no sons? Give us the rights to his property.”
The daughters of Zelophehad seemed fearless. Their voices were clear, their backs were straight. These were not women who would become mere historical footnotes. These were women who proclaimed that the gates to the Promised Land should open for them. These women stood not in the shadows. These were women with names. Each of these women knew she carried the responsibility of honoring her father’s legacy and a right to inherit what was promised to her people.
When the sisters spoke, they were not alone. Our mothers — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah — stood with them. Their birth mother (whose name was never mentioned in the Torah) and all the nameless mothers stood beside them. Our mothers gave them strength.
When the sisters spoke, they were not alone. They stood with all the women who would come after them, all the women who would one day need their story.
When the sisters spoke, the leaders listened. The rabbis say that the daughters of Zelophehad were wise, virtuous and knowledgeable of the Law. Each leader saw merit in the sisters’ claim. Yet, each man was unsure how to respond.
The women came to stand before Moses. They announced their claim as they had several times before. Moses listened. The chieftains and tribal leaders were watching, waiting, wondering. They looked to Moses, but Moses did not immediately respond. First, Moses consulted with God.
God told Moses, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just. … Give their father’s share to them.”
Then God amended the Torah. The Master of the Universe changed the Law! Another midrash explains this was because the sisters’ cause was just, and justice is the Law. God tells Moses, “If a man has no sons, his property goes to his daughters. …”
According to another Midrash, the five daughters held counsel before approaching their leaders. They said to one another, “God’s compassion is not like mankind’s compassion. Those made of flesh and blood may favor men over women. But the One who spoke and brought the world into being, is good to all and has tender mercy for all.”
When the sisters spoke, they were not alone. God heard their voices.
May we listen to their voices as well.
Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff is a local storyteller.