Parashat Pinhas

Friday, July 26, 2019 /23 Tammuz, 5779
Parashat Pinhas Numbers 25:10-30:1

Dear Friends,

It isn’t often in the Torah that females take center stage. Less often still do they leave Moses at a loss for words.

This week’s Torah portion features five sisters named Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah. They were the daughters of an Israelite man named Zelophechad, who had recently died.

The daughters hear that the land of Israel will soon be divided by Israelite tribe. Males of the age of 20 will receive their share. (Numbers 26:53) Since their father had no son, Zelophechad’s daughter worry that his name and his legacy will not be acknowledged. Courageously, they approach Moses, Eleazar the priest, chieftains and the whole assembly. They say “Do not 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 kinsman!” (Numbers 27:3)

Unlike Korach, who approached Moses with contempt when he had a complaint, these five pious women display the quality of wisdom, by approaching leaders at the precise moment when the decision is being issued, and as astute interpreters of the law, in the way they approach their case. (Bava Batra 119b)

Moses, the decisive leader arbiter, does not immediately reply. Instead, he brings his case before God. Many commentators see Moses’ silence as a failure of leadership. Numbers Rabbah explains that his lack of moral clarity about female inheritance was a punishment from God for his arrogance when he boasted, “The cause is too hard for you; you shall bring it to me, and I will hear it.” (Deuteronomy 1:17) As a result, God diminished Moses’ powers of judgement when the daughters of Zelophehad came to him, concealing the law from him. (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:12)

I read Moses’ silence not as a sign of weakness, but as a measure of strength. While, from a contemporary perspective, we might wonder why Moses didn’t immediately grant the sister’s claim, we must remember that male inheritance was normative in Moses’ time. Moses could have easily dismissed the sister’s claim, but instead he took pause. Rather than being defensive or closed-minded, Moses had the wherewithal to consider an argument contrary to his own thinking. He appealed to God for guidance, and immediately accepted God’s ruling that the daughters’ be granted their father’s share in Israel as an inheritance.

This small piece of Torah has two types of heroes. The first are Zelophechad’s daughters, who demonstrate that change is best achieved through rational story-sharing, and timely expressions of concern. The second is Moses, who teaches us that progress is made when we are humble enough to pause, and carefully listen to one another.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Cassi Kail