Shabbat Greetings

Every so often, I learn something very surprising, something that I had no idea to be the case. Here’s an example: Those of you who have lived in the New York metropolitan area for some time are familiar with the Outerbridge Crossing, a large suspension bridge that connects New Jersey with Staten Island. Since living here for the past 24 years, I thought that the Outerbridge Crossing’s name was a reference to its geography. I was quite sure that the Outerbridge got its name because it spans the water between Staten Island (the borough furthest away from Manhattan) and the mainland.

That theory is completely wrong. They called it the Outerbridge Crossing to honor the first director of the Port Authority, one Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge (1860-1932). That makes so much more sense than my convoluted explanation, and I was a little embarrassed that I didn’t know that.

According to Rashi (rabbinic commentator, 11th century), Moses learned a surprising lesson in the same way, albeit one of much greater import. He thought that the Torah allowed only sons to inherit—that is why he asked God when the daughters of Tzelophehad for a fair share of their father’s estate. In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), God says, “The plea of Tzelophehad’s daughters is just (27:7) As Rashi points out from a midrash, it’s not that God said, “Oh, gee, y’all are right. I messed up and forgot to give women the right to inherit, my bad, lemme fix that.” The right of women to inherit from their fathers was already in the Torah all along. The problem was that Moses did not have the ability (or perhaps the will?) to see it.

According to Rabbi Garfinkel, “the lesson for us is one about keeping an open mind. The fact that one is an expert in a given field does not automatically render outside opinions irrelevant.” As tradition teaches us, Tzelophehad’s five daughters were not scholars of the law but they still were able to make a critically important observation that Moses himself did not notice.

According to God’s decree, the promised land is to be apportioned according to the “number of names” of members of the second generation counted in the census recorded in Numbers 26. Since only men were counted in the census, however, Tzelophehad’s daughters would be left without an inheritance. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah come forward to appeal this regulation, stating their case in front of the sacred tent of meeting in the presence of Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and indeed the whole community. They argue that their father’s name (lineage) should not be cut off from his clan just because he had no son and that they should be permitted to inherit his land portion in order to avoid this potential injustice to their father’s name (and property). The story presumes a culture that recognizes a connection between landholding and preservation of a male name in a family lineage.

Moses consults God, and God announces the decision to Moses: the proposal of the daughters of Tzelophehad is to be implemented. The text then moves beyond the particular case to report God’s further generalized regulation for order of inheritance: when there are no sons, daughters shall have first inheritance rights, followed by other male relatives in a set sequence.

Let’s analyze what this text reflects about these women. First, note that these women know their law and history. They use the fact that their father was not involved in Korach’s rebellion as evidence to support his–and their–claim to the land. They know that the continuity of family name depends on inheritance of the land; and they realize that the current law is not adequate, for it does not take into account the unusual circumstances of a man without sons. They possess the acumen to recognize this omission–in God’s law! But because they consider God’s law to be just, or to aim to be just, they show no hesitation in pointing out the unfair nature of the present situation with complete confidence and supporting their claim with compelling arguments.

How does Moses react? The following verse states: “Moses brought their case before God” (27:5). Moses discloses his inability to assess the claims of these daughters. He takes the case to God, who responds by unequivocally supporting the sisters’ demand and even by promulgating a new and permanent law to secure inheritance for any daughters in such circumstances. Thus, the daughters’ claim leads to the law of inheritance’s being changed forever.

As stated above, a key to their success is their full awareness of God’s laws and the people’s history and story. They insist on change by engaging Israelite traditions effectively, something the rabbinic sages recognized when they described the women.

According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 119b), Tzelophehad’s daughters were wise, astute interpreters, and pious: “wise” because they spoke in the precise moment when the decision was issued; “interpreters” because they in essence said, “If our father had a son, we would not have spoken–because he would have the inheritance”; and “pious” because they did not want to marry men who were not worthy.

The achievement of Tzelophehad’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 Tzelophehad’s daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands, to move from the place that the others have given us–or that we have decided to keep because we feel immobile–and to walk, even to the most holy center, to where nobody seems to be able to go.

(Special thanks to Rabbi Eli Garfinkel of Temple Beth El, Somerset, NJ for this words that inspired this week’s greetings)