This week’s Torah Portion, Pinchas, tells the precedent-making story of Zelophehad’s daughters. It reads:
“The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite 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. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Lord, 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 kinsmen!”
Moses brought their case before the Lord.
And the Lord 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.
“Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, and he shall inherit it.’ This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with the Lord’s command to Moses.”
The case was precedent setting in its day because the rights to land ownership were reserved for men. While this apparently gives them freedom and equality with men, history teaches that while they owned the land, they were restricted to marry only from within their tribe so that the land inheritance would not pass to another tribe.
What was the daughters’ motivation? Was it exclusively to acquire land or was there more to their thinking? The medieval midrash compilation teaches:
“When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said, “God’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of mankind. Mankind favors men over women. God is not like that. His compassion extends to men and women alike.” (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas, 27; Sifri27:1)
During this week when Elena Kagan is seeking confirmation as the 112th Supreme Court Justice of the United States of America, the legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters stands proud because God’s compassion extends to men and women alike in both the secular and religious worlds. Far be it from humankind to favor men over women when God does not.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)