Telephone Torah Study: Five Bold Sisters Re-Write Torah
Zelophehad’s daughters challenge Moses and the Israelite leadership on unjust inheritance laws in Pinchas (Num. 25:10-30:1). Amazingly, God sides with the daughters’ case and for the first time Torah is re-written.
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I was recently called to jury service in Los Angeles. As imperfect as this complicated, human system of law may be, the jury selection made me proud to be an American, especially as the judge instructed the potential jurors about the meaning of “presumed innocent.”
At the beginning of jury selection, when the judge in the courtroom asked the thirty-four potentialjurors how many of us thought the defendant was probably guilty, a majority raised their hands. He told us this is a common answer and understandable, but explained that in the United States every judge, every jury, must learn to presume innocence. Of course, we can easily find reminders of the difficulty of presuming innocence—from Guantanamo Bay to political scandals to the halls of justice everywhere—especially when fear and anxiety play a role.
I can’t help but think of our right to a fair trial, “a jury of our peers,” and a presumption of innocence as we open our Torah scrolls this week to Parsahat Pinchas. The parashah is named for the grandson of Aaron who, in a short narrative at the very end of Parashat Balak, took the law into his own hands by running a spear through the Israelite Zimri and his Midianite paramour, Cozbi, for their public display of affection (Numbers 25:5-9).
“What a good idea,” God seems to say. Inspired by the zealous Pinchas, God says, “Assail the Midianites and defeat them” (25:17). God rewards Pinchas, saying, “I grant him My pact of friendship [literally, “covenant of peace,” b’riti shalom]. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time” (25:12-13).
I’m hardly the only Jew disturbed by the actions of Pinchas or by God’s approval of him. Rabbis of the Talmud have a long discussion (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a), concluding that had Pinchas brought his case to a rabbinical court, the court would have told him: ‘The law may permit it, but we do not follow the law!’ “1 Numerous commentaries also ameliorate the reward of priesthood that God bestows on Pinchas and his descendants, suggesting that perhaps God does so in hopes that demands of the priesthood will make Pinchas less violent, and (or) allow him to atone for the lives he took.2
The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manasite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. The stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Test of Meeting, and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against Adonai, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsman!” Moses brought their case before Adonai. And Adonai said to Moses, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsman; transfer their father’s share to them.”
God announced that because Phinchas had displayed his passion for God, God granted Phinehas God’s pact of friendship and priesthood for all time. God then told Moses to attack the Midianites to repay them for their trickery luring Israelite men to worship Baal-Peor. God instructed Moses and Eleazar to take a census of Israelite men 20 years old and up, and Moses and Eleazar ordered it done.
God told Moses to apportion shares of the land according to population among those counted, and by lot. The Levite men aged a month old and up amounted to 23,000, and they were not included in the regular enrollment of Israelites, as they were not to have land assigned to them. Among the persons whom Moses and Eleazar enrolled was not one of those enrolled in the first census at the wilderness of Sinai, except Caleb and Joshua. The daughters of Zelophehad approached Moses, Eleazar, the chieftains, and the assembly at the entrance of the Tabernacle, saying that their father left no sons, and asking that they be given a land holding. Moses brought their case before God.
God told Moses that the daughters’ plea was just and instructed Moses to transfer their father’s share of land to them. God further instructed that if a man died without leaving a son, the Israelites were to transfer his property to his daughter, or failing a daughter to his brothers, or failing a brother to his father’s brothers, or failing brothers of his father to the nearest relative. God told Moses to climb the heights of Abarim and view the Land of Israel, saying that when he had seen it, he would die, because he disobeyed God’s command to uphold God’s sanctity in the people’s sight when he brought water from the rock in the wilderness of Zin. Moses asked God to appoint someone over the community, so that the Israelites would not be like sheep without a shepherd. God told Moses to single out Joshua, lay his hand on him, and commission him before Eleazar and the whole community. Joshua was to present himself to Eleazar the priest, who was to seek the decision of the Urim and Thummim on whether to go out or come in.
God told Moses to command the Israelites to be punctilious in presenting the offerings due God at stated times. The text then details the offerings for the Sabbath and Rosh Chodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret.