The Daughters of Zelophehad: Power and Uniqueness

Zelophehad's daughters call to us to take hold of life with our own hands.

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Daughters of Zelophehad

The Daughters of Zelophehad were forward-thinking,
modern women who went straight to the top.

Let's analyze what this text reflects about these women. First, note that these women know their law and history. They use the fact that their father was not involved in Korah's rebellion (Numbers 16) as evidence to support his--and their--claim to the land. They know that the continuity of family name depends on inheritance of the land; and they realize that the current law is not adequate, for it does not take into account the unusual circumstances of a man without sons. They possess the acumen to recognize this omission--in God's law! But because they consider God's law to be just, or to aim to be just, they show no hesitation in pointing out the unfair nature of the present situation with complete confidence and supporting their claim with compelling arguments.

How does Moses react? The following verse states: "Moses brought their case before God" (27:5). Moses discloses his inability to assess the claims of these sisters. He takes the case to God, who responds by unequivocally supporting the sisters' demand and even by promulgating a new and permanent law to secure inheritance for any daughters in such circumstances (27:6-8). Thus, the sisters' claim leads to the law of inheritance's being changed forever.

As stated above, a key to the sisters' success is their full awareness of God's laws and the people's history and story. They insist on change by engaging Israelite traditions effectively, something the rabbinic sages recognized when they described the women.

According to the Talmud (BT Bava Batra 119b), Zelophehad's daughters were wise (chachamot), astute interpreters (darshanyiot), and pious (rachmanyiot): "wise" because they spoke in the precise moment when the decision was issued; "interpreters" because they in essence said, "If our father had a son, we would not have spoken--because he would have the inheritance"; and "pious" because they did not want to marry men who were not worthy.

The achievement of Zelophehad's daughters was a landmark in women's rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now. In addition, however, the story of these five women offers a compelling lesson for all those who believe that their destiny is fixed or that divine justice has abandoned them. It encourages us to think differently--and provides a message of hope for all those faced with obstacles. Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad's daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands, to move from the place that the others have given us--or that we have decided to keep because we feel immobile--and to walk, even to the most holy center, to where nobody seems to be able to go.

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Rabbi Silvina Chemen serves Kehilat Beth El, the first Conservative congregation in Latin America, and she is in charge of the Schlichei Tzibur School, a national program of the Argentine Jewish Communities Association.