By Devora Greenberg
How do we effectively combat social injustice? How do we sound our voice when it is not countered or heard? How does leadership react to a call for change in the face of injustice and inequality?
One of the main stories in this week’s parasha is the unique story about Zelophehad’s five daughters, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, who find themselves without inheritance, and demand a change in the divine laws so they too will receive a place amongst the tribes of Israel.
The story begins with God’s instruction to Moses and Eleazar the priest to conduct a widespread census of the people. They are then told to distribute lots of land in proportion to the size of the group (larger groups will receive larger portions of the land than smaller groups). However, women were not included in this process of distribution and inheritance of the land. Therefore, Zelophehad’s daughters, whose father had died, were not entitled to any land at all.
Zelophehad’s daughters petitioned Moses, Eleazar, the chieftains, and the whole assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for their right to inherit his property rights in the Land of Israel.
After the women make their plea, how does Moses react? Moses takes the case before God, Who responds by unequivocally supporting the five sisters, telling Moses that the plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: that Moses should give them a hereditary holding and transfer their father’s share to them. Furthermore, God changes the law for all times and all daughters.
Zelophehad’s daughters dare to question their social place and the destiny imposed on them. They stand in the centre of the public space demanding from the main authority figures, all of whom are men, that they change the existing laws discriminating against them and demand to be counted. Moreover, they make it possible for daughters to inherit land when there are no sons or brothers, an incredible step for women of the time.
I find the story of Zelophehad’s daughters inspiring not only as a woman but also as an active member of the Masorti movement in Israel. Their courage and triumph offers a compelling lesson for all those who struggle to create change in a system that seems to be immovable. I am a first-generation Sabra (my family immigrated to Israel from the UK over 40 years ago). Growing up in Orthodox educational frameworks, I always felt a dissonance between the religious sphere of my life and the secular. Only after I encountered Masorti Judaism did I discover how all my worlds could live side by side. In recent years we have been witnessing more and more Israelis joining Masorti congregations throughout the country (there are now over 75), discovering that there is more than one way to be Jewish. More and more Israelis are demanding that the State of Israel recognize the diversity in Judaism’s streams and call upon the Israeli government to ensure that all its citizens should be counted and heard. Zelophehad’s daughters teach us to walk right into the most holy centre of the people, and demand their rightful space.
Devora Greenberg is the director of the Rav Siach program, a joint initiative of the Masorti movement in Israel and the Ministry of Diaspora affairs. For more information visit www.masorti.org.il/ravsiach