Friday, July 9, 2021/29 Tammuz, 5781
Parashat Matot-Masei Numbers 30:2–36:13
Five sisters passionately pleaded their case before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the Jewish community in last week’s Torah portion. “Our father [Zelophehead] died in the wilderness… He left no sons. Please don’t let our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” they said. “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:1:4). Up until this point, women were not able to inherit land. Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah found it unfair that the absence of a son in the family meant that their father’s land couldn’t be passed down to the next generation. Why should they be left with nothing? And why should their father’s possessions be swallowed up by the tribe as if he had never existed? Moses asked God what to do, and God Godself said that Zelophehad’s daughters were correct. “If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.” (Numbers 27:8) This ruling was nothing short of revolutionary at a time when women’s desires were controlled by their fathers and then their husbands.
This ruling was a great step forward for women’s rights, but with progress comes controversy. The Talmud indicates that women, including these five sisters, could marry anyone they desired (Bava Batra 120a). In this week’s Torah portion, however, the chieftains express their displeasure with this decision. If the women marry someone from a different Israelite tribe, their portions of land would be inherited by a new tribe, which was unacceptable. The land was broken apart by tribe, and the status quo must be maintained. Moses concurred. To inherit their father’s land, these women must marry within their tribe. Otherwise, their rights of inheritance would be forfeit. (Numbers 36:1-9)
The women did not have full inheritance rights after all. Inheritance was contingent on the identities of their husbands. While this was disappointing, it made sense for the time. Zelophehad’s daughters had done their part to move society forward, and they understood that they had no choice but to comply with Moses’ request. Each of Zelophehad’s daughters married within the tribe of Menashe, as directed, and they inherited their father’s land.
While the story comes to a peaceful conclusion, it doesn’t feel very reassuring. The chieftains stripped the women of some of their rights without even including them in the conversation. They ruled that all women who inherit land need to marry within their tribe. Interestingly, even as these guidelines are set, the Talmud explains that they knew such rules would one day be unnecessary. There would be a time when tribes didn’t break up the land, and women inheriting property could marry anyone they wanted. (Taanit 30b)
The book of Numbers concludes with the story about Zelophehad’s daughters to underline the importance of progress. They describe a community striving to push forward the goals of justice, even when they are up against societal pressures that made this work challenging. Throughout the Israelites’ forty years in the desert, they had grown as individuals and as a people, but there was much more work to be done to create a just, morale, and equitable society.
The Torah may be a book filled with commandments, but it is also an advocate for continual progress and change. May we follow its courageous example and continue to do the hard work of self-introspection and moral advocacy. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “the moral ark of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It does, but only if we bend it.
Rabbi Cassi Kail