Pinchas: The Daughters of Tzelofechad

Vatikravnah B’not Tzelofechad…

The daughters of Tzelofechad came forward… (Numbers 27:1

We encounter a remarkable passage as Sefer B’Midbar, the Book of Numbers, draws near its conclusion. The forty years of wandering have passed, and the Children of Israel are approaching the banks of the Jordan River. Miriam and Aaron have passed away, and Moses knows that his own death is approaching. A new generation has arisen during the decades of wandering, and they are preparing to claim their inheritance, the Promised Land. Soon the manna will cease to fall and the cloud of glory will cease to guide them. The Children of Israel will need to claim the land and then work the land with their own efforts. They will need to follow the commandments without Moses to instruct them. Are they finally ready?

The daughters of Tzelofechad, descendants of Joseph, step forward. Their names are Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. They stand before Moses and all the chieftains and leaders of Israel and they say: “Our father died in the wilderness and left no sons. Shall he lose his inheritance of the land just because he has no male heirs? Give us a holding!”

The daughters’ plea is unprecedented, and Moses does not know how to rule, so he inquires of God. “And YHVH said to Moses, ken b’not Tzelofechad dovrot! – The daughters of Tzelofechad speak rightly! – transfer their father’s share to them.”

I – along with countless other commentators – am struck by several elements of this passage. This is one of the rare passages in the Torah where women take center stage. And, these women take center stage with force. The language of the Torah emphasizes their assertiveness: Vatikravna, they drew near; Vata’amodna, they stood before the leadership at the Tent of Meeting; and they said “T’nah lanu achuzah”, “Give us a holding!” (This is the command form of the verb – they are not asking, they are demanding!)

Equally unusual is God’s response to the women’s demand: “ken b’not Tzelofechad dovrot!” – “The daughters of Tzelofechad speak rightly!” Avivah Zornberg, in her new book Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, points out that this is the only time in the entire Torah when God enthusiastically affirms the words of any Israelite. The Children of Israel make many demands on their journey: T’nu lanu mayim! – “Give us water!” (Exodus 17:2); T’nah lanu basar! – “Give us meat!” These demands are accompanied by weeping and moaning, and always by a desire to go back to Egypt. God never affirms their demands, but rather criticizes and bemoans their constant complaints. The tone of Tzelofechad’s daughters demand is clearly different: give us the Promised Land. The daughters are not whining in victimhood, they are claiming their power, and God can finally say “ken!” – Yes!

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