Parashat Pinhas

To See With The Heart

The daughters of Zelophchad teach us to see people not as objects in our lives but as subjects of their own lives.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

In a remarkable story, the Torah relates the courage and the integrity of five women, known collectively as the daughters of Zelophehad. What makes this story remarkable is not only that the heroes are women, itself a rarity in the biblical age.

What makes this tale truly astonishing is that it represents the earliest revision of biblical law. Here, within the Torah itself, God revises an earlier piece of divine legislation because of an overriding moral imperative.What a magnificent precedent to set for later generations in their dealings with halakhah (Jewish law) as well.

The tale is worth the telling: According to a law already established in the wanderings in the wilderness, men alone were permitted to inherit their parents' property. At the time, no one had objected. Neither Moses nor any of the 70 Elders saw a problem with that procedure for transmitting parents' holdings in the Land of Israel. After all, it was universal custom for men to own and inherit property, to handle finances, and to run the economy--both of household and of communities. Women lived in the generosity of powerful men. Alone among the children of Israel, the daughters of Zelophehad pointed out that they had no brothers. If the law were rigidly followed, their father's family would be completely dispossessed!

Moses, responding to their complaint with characteristic modesty, promised that he would ask God what should be the law. And God acts in a very Godly way, taking the side of those who have been wronged, those who have been overlooked. Our God is passionate about human dignity, and, as a result, intervenes and changes the law. The daughters of Zelophehad do, indeed, inherit their father's land. Why hadn't Moses, or any of the other Elders, been able to point out this legal injustice on their own? What special trait allowed the daughters of Zelophehad to notice an injustice and to speak out?

The medieval Bible commentator Rashi (11th century France) explains that the story teaches us that "their eyes saw what the eyes of Moses did not see." In this regard, our own eyes generally resemble Moses'. Most of us go through the rounds of our lives without truly seeing. We are understandably wrapped up in prosaic issues of our own, so we fail to take the time to see other people as people. Instead, we wind up treating other people like objects--a butcher is a source of meat, a teacher provides our children with skills, and so on.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.