Money, Memory, and Motive: The Daughters of Zelophehad and Our Moment of Truth

daughters-tzelafchadIt is poetic justice that this week, which has witnessed the first woman to be nominated for the presidency by a major party, corresponds to the week when we read about the petition brought by the Daughters of Zelophehad. Numbers 27:1—11 tells the story of how these five women successfully sued for the right to be their father’s inheritors. Until Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha, and Tirzah spoke out, the practice of the people had been that if a man died without any sons his estate was to be given to his brothers. These five sisters have other ideas. They argue that in addition to the economic injustice of this policy, there are cultural and historic ones as well. “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 kinsmen!”

What motivates these women goes well beyond money. Of course, these five sisters are upset at the prospect being left out of the inheritance, but they are even more upset at the prospect of being forgotten. It’s not only about them. It’s about their father. Not only is it a matter of being written off financially, it’s a matter of being written out historically, lost from the record as if they never existed. Economic rights are a form of civil rights. We cannot maintain social equality while enshrining economic inequality. Monetary policy has moral consequences. A society that ordains the disinheritance of its daughters is a society that endangers the lives of men and women alike. Yes, the injustice they are decrying is about money but it’s also about memory.

The credit for the incremental progress exhibited in this week’s Torah portion belongs not to Zelophehad’s daughters alone. The text tells us that “Moses brought their case to God.” As the people’s chief magistrate Moses has the difficult duty of figuring out which cases merit God’s attention and which do not. Moses takes both women and the concerns of women seriously. Something that many of us struggle to do in our day and most people failed to do in his. The Holy One deserves some credit here too. It takes open-mindedness to consider changing the law and the courage of one’s conviction to do it. “God said to Moses, ‘The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.’”

Kein Teheye Lanu, So may it be for all of us.  Like The Daughters of Zelophehad may we have the courage to speak up. Like Moses may we show compassion to others and be ready to champion their cause. And if even The Holy One sometimes has to confront the painful truth that our thinking and legislating is imperfect and needs to change, then like The Source of Truth, may we find the humility and humanity to do so.

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