Pinchas 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)


At the end of the previous parsha, Aharon’s grandson Pinchas killed two blasphemers in a very provocative act of religious zealotry. At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Pinchas and his descendants are apparently rewarded with a special priestly covenant. Israel then struggles with the Midianites. and another census is taken, in order to prepare for battle. The daughters of a man named Zelophechad complain about the sexism of the inheritance laws, so Moshe consults with God, Who agrees that the laws need to be changed. Yehoshua is appointed as Moshe’s successor, and all the special sacrifices of the holidays are listed.


“The daughters of Zelophehad . . . approached the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly, and said, “Our father died in the desert. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against God, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” ” (Numbers 27:1-4)


The five daughters of Zelophechad complain to Moshe that the laws of inheritance, as articulated up to this point, are unfair to women, who would not inherit a stake in the land from their father’s portion. The law is changed so that women would indeed inherit if they had no brothers. Although the daughters of Zelophechad are rightly acknowledged as proto-feminists for their willingness to speak out against the unfairness of the patriarchal system, the laws are only changed a little bit, in the case of women without brothers. If they do have brothers, the male heirs inherit and the unfairness persists.


What is amazing to me about the story of the daughters of Zelophechad is not only their willingness to speak out against an unfair system, but their incredible faith in the future. They were concerned about inheriting a stake in a land that the Jewish people were years from even settling! In other words, at the point that the daughters made their complaint, their point was still only theoretical, because the Israelites had not yet possessed the Land of Israel, much less apportioned it among the tribes and clans.

The ancient midrash picks up on the five women’s trust in the future:

    “Give us property among our father’s relatives”- R. Natan said: women’s tenacity is stronger than men’s. The men of Israel said: “Let us make a captain and return to Egypt.” [Numbers 14:4] But the women of Israel insisted: “Give us property!” (Sifre Numbers, quoted in the English Sefer Ha-Aggadah)

According to this midrash, the attitude of the “women of Israel” is represented by the daughters of Zelophechad, who demanded a change in the laws so that they could inherit when, in the future, Israel lived in its promised Land.

Leaving aside for the moment any sweeping generalizations about women’s and men’s relative “tenacity,” I find this midrash inspirational. In it, the daughters of Zelophechad believe so much in a positive future that they are willing to take steps right now, this minute, to make it happen, even if current conditions (i.e., being stuck in the desert, not yet near the Land) would tend to make one focus on just surviving the moment. It’s like saving money for a house, even if one is just barely paying the rent, or doing any other action that helps prepare one mentally for the future one hopes for.

Many hopes are never realized, but hopelessness tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without faith in the future, it’s hard to move forward, even on a journey of 40 years. The daughters of Zelophechad never lost their dream, and changed even the Torah itself with the power of their faith.

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