Summer is a time for renewal of body and spirit. Many of us gather in places of family history and memory. As we sit together, we share stories, recounting the past and reflecting on the present. We may discover how choices and circumstances, along with physical and spiritual legacies, shape our lives.
An essential step in our healthy development is encountering and wrestling with our inheritance : as children of particular parents, raised in a particular community or combination of communities, as individuals with unique geographies and demographics. We may also consider what previous generations have bequeathed to us, the gifts — and burdens — of that inheritance, and the fact that often, our understanding of the past changes over time because of the complexity of what we have received. When we explore and re-evaluate our histories, we can decide what to pass on to those who come after us.
Parshat Pinchas explores both inheritance and legacy: the legacy of the Israelites' priestly leadership, of land and inheritance, of Moses' leadership and of the continually evolving relationship between the people and God. The portion includes a detailed census of the Israelites and the Levites as they approach the conclusion of their 40-year wilderness journey. In the midst of the accounting, God provides specific instructions to Moses about apportioning the land to each group, "according to the listings of their ancestral tribes." At the conclusion of the census, we read that God determines that all those named in the previous accounting "shall die in the wilderness." Caleb and Joshua, the sole survivors, will leave a legacy of faith in the future.
Then the Torah circles back to one family enumerated in the census, noting an unusual inclusion among the descendants of Manasseh: "Now Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons, only daughters. The names of Zelophehad's daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Those are the clans of Manasseh; men enrolled: 52,700." That these five sisters are individually named is an anomaly in the Torah. We are also reminded that these women are not "counted" as part of the tribe of Manasseh.
Chapter 27 illuminates why the sisters are important: they challenge Moses and ask that their father's legacy of land be transferred to them. "Moses brought the case before God. God told Moses that 'the plea of Zelophehad's daughter is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen." God articulates the daughters' case as a legal precedent.
Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, teaches: "This case is important in showing (among other things) women who challenge community practices" and who "thereby bring significant modifications to existing legislation in order to meet changing social needs."
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were women of audacity and vision who realized the power of their shared voice They not only challenged the status quo, but offered an appropriate and fair corrective to an historical injustice.
May these summer months provide opportunities for us to consider our own inheritance and legacy. May we also consider how we, like the women in the portion, can speak out and create legal and social remedies to give voice to the voiceless and challenge the injustices of our time.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected]