This past week in our torah portion known as Pinchas, we met five heroes of our tradition: Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milchah, and Tirtzah, the famous daughters of Zelophechad. We carry them with us as our heroes in social justice, in standing up for what’s right, and, of course, as trailblazers in the fight for women’s equality.
When their father dies and leaves no sons, the sisters make an argument in front of Moses and in front of the entire community that his inheritance should be theirs.
They make a very clever argument in a very clever way. They make their case in public and in a sacred place, the opening to the Tent of Meeting with all of the leadership and community assembled. As we know from community organizing 101, it’s more difficult for those in power to refuse a request when asked in public. They argue that their father was worthy (specifically that he was not a member of Korach’s rebellious faction) and that if his inheritance did not pass down to them, that a worthy man’s name would be lost to the Jewish people. They articulate their request in terms of the betterment of the system at work and the community.
Whenever I encounter this vignette, I am pleased and encouraged, awed and inspired. Our tradition recorded women standing up for themselves with no dire consequences and for that, I am grateful as a woman and a Jew. However, there has always been a part of me and will always continue to be a part of me that wishes that they were empowered to simply stand up and shout, ‘This isn’t right!’ without needing to resort to appeasing the system and the male authority around them, without needing to make their argument in terms of their father’s name, but rather in terms of their own. While I relish the steps forward that this story presents, there has always been a part of me that yearns for a story where such clever strategy need not be employed in the fight for justice… that the push for justice would be compelling enough an argument.
Now I live in reality. I know that life is more nuanced than simply black and white, right and wrong. We live in a world of strategy and Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milchah and Tirtzah must have known that as well. They couldn’t rely on the people to come to the conclusion that the sisters were right simply because they were right. They needed to appeal to the community’s best interests. As we think ahead to the battles that must still be won in our fight for justice, we, too, know that strategy, and, in fact, some appeasement and, indeed, some concessions are a necessary part of the journey even when we know that the cause should be enough.
And so while I applaud our five heroes found in Pinchas for winning a battle for equality, for women, and for themselves, I await the story where a woman – or anyone – can stand up for what is right without the need for such clever strategy and appeasement.
Maybe, just maybe we’ll be that story someday.
Rabbi Jill Perlman is the assistant rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA. She is the proud mom of twin toddler boys, Lev and Eli.