I could not help but feel stirred last night as I watched Hillary Clinton become the first woman ever to be nominated by a major political party for the office of President of the United States. As with Barack Obama’s nomination 8 years ago as the first African American ever to receive the nomination, Hillary Clinton’s nomination is another dramatic and historic step toward a nation in which any person, regardless of gender or skin color or any other marker of identity, can occupy positions of leadership. (Golda Meir, how did you do it, almost 50 years ago?!)
Which brings us to this week’s Torah portion – the timing is uncanny – in which the daughters of Tzelofechad approach Moses and demand their right to inherit a share of the Promised Land. I share with you here my teaching on this portion from a year ago, as it bears repeating on this historic occasion.
And I dedicate this teaching to my parents, Dr. David Kligler of blessed memory and Dr. Deborah Kligler Krasnow. My father was always completely supportive of my mother’s academic and professional career. He encouraged her to finish her dissertation before they started a family. My mother’s doctorate in Sociology, completed in 1953, studied the effect of working women on the family. When my brothers and I were still quite young, my father again encouraged my mother to enter the workplace, and she began a long and satisfying career, serving for many years as the highly respected Associate Dean of Albert Einstein Medical School. My mother never trumpeted her accomplishments, but she raised three staunch feminists simply by the power of her example. Mom, this is for you!
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 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!
Tzelofechad’s daughters reappear in the final verses of the Book of Numbers, on the banks of the Jordan, and are praised once again for their commitment and faith. On that note the Book of Numbers concludes. It is interesting to reflect that both at the beginning of the Exodus journey and now at the end women take center stage. The exodus from Egypt is insured by the brave women of that episode: the midwives Shifrah and Puah, Moses’ mother Yocheved and sister Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ wife Tziporah. And now on the cusp of the Promised Land Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah model the courage and faith that will be necessary to now cross the Jordan River.
Perhaps these women, whose appearance is so relatively rare in the Torah, appear at these key moments as the feminine archetypes and agents of choosing life, God’s greatest desire for humanity.
In addition, to me, the daughters of Tzelofechad represent the common person, the average citizen, the foot soldier, as it were. They have no special status. In fact, they are among the least enfranchised members of their society. Yet they approach the leaders directly, stand upright and without groveling before them, and declare their complete readiness and right to participate in the challenges ahead. They are empowered.
This is what we need to enter a Promised Land, to make a better world. Every person, regardless of public station, must view himself or herself as a leader. Each one of us must ask ourselves, “What is needed here, and what am I equipped to do to make it happen?” Each one of us must locate and act upon our own reservoir of determination and courage. We can no longer wait to be told what to do, and then to complain about it.
Moses will soon be gone, and the Children of Israel must finally grow up and take full responsibility for their destiny as a people. The daughters of Tzelofechad lead the way. And God enthusiastically approves!