Real Change in the Torah
The most effective and enduring changes create justice for all members of society.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women's Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
The last parashah in the book of Numbers ends with a second story about the five daughters of Zelophehad--Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. The first story, in Numbers 27, shows how the sisters demanded and received a promise--from God, no less--that they will inherit their family's ancestral land (since their father died without leaving a son).
Here in parashat Mas'ei, the daughters' male relatives challenge the women's inheritance right in order to protect ownership of tribal land. Moses responds al pi Adonai--"at God's bidding" (36:5), by amending the new law. The change requires women who inherit ancestral land to marry into a family of their father's tribe (36:6), thereby limiting these women's choice of spouses, but keeping the property within the tribe. The parashah and the book end by confirming that the sisters did marry accordingly.
This sequel in Numbers 36 appears to be a setback after the daughters' startling triumph in parashat Pinchas (Numbers 27), where they won significant inheritance rights for themselves and for their "sisters" in the future. The five sisters in particular, and Israelite women in general, walk away from parashat Mas'ei with less than they had before. As some scholars observe, when the sisters marry their first cousins, they essentially hand over their inheritance to the same men who would otherwise have inherited the land had the women never stood up for themselves (Hara E. Person, "Masa'ei: Boundaries and Limits," in The Women's Torah Commentary, 200, p. 327; and Jacob Milgrom, Numbers, 1990, p. 298). Moreover, in giving up some of their gains for the sake of larger familial and communal needs, they seem to perpetuate the all-too-familiar situation of women foregoing their own needs for the sake of others in the family.
Nevertheless, while the decree in this parashah certainly is a step back from the full rights given to the daughters previously, it is not a full retreat; they still end up with more than they had in the first place. To begin with, the sisters marry from a position of strength, not dependency. What would have happened to the sisters had they not stepped forward to ask for their inheritance? Given the frequency with which the Torah reminds us of our societal obligation to care for widows and orphans, we can guess what might have happened to Zelophehad's daughters had they remained landless. Furthermore, the daughters' actions and triumph eliminate a whole category of dependent orphans (the girls and women who until then did not inherit).