Popularized by Harry Belafonte in one generation and by the Grateful Dead in another, the song “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” comes to mind for me as we read Parashat Pinchas, which contains the transformative and important story of the daughters of Zelophechad. Starting in biblical times, even in a patriarchal society, women were able to raise their voices, thereby bettering our communities with their knowledge and approach to problem solving as well as creating greater balance between the realms traditionally ascribed to each gender.
Zelophechad dies, leaving five daughters and no sons. The laws of inheritance stipulated that only sons could inherit land. Zelophechad’s daughters, recognizing this injustice, bring their case before Moses, who in turn brings the case before God. In this parasha, we are offered two different models for how to solve problems, one that could be described as traditionally “masculine” — Pinchas’ — and one that could be described as traditionally “feminine” — Zelophechad’s daughters’. These traditional assignations, of aggressive behavior being the domain of men and of cooperative negotiation being the domain of women, can be a helpful starting place for learning from this parasha, even though today we have a more balanced and complete understanding of human nature that recognizes that both men and women have the full range of human qualities and abilities.
The daughters of Zelophechad break the mold of their time by not accepting a law that was unfair. They are models for us of how to make change in society through strong oral arguments and peaceful legal challenges. As the Torah says, “God spoke to Moses saying, ‘The daughters of Zelophechad have spoken correctly…’ ” (Numbers 27:7). Rashi, quoting Midrash Tanchuma, interprets this to mean that “their [the daughters’] eyes saw what even Moses’ eyes could not.” This is a striking comment, as Moses is known to be the most insightful legal interpreter. Yet, in this instance, it took a different perspective, offered by the daughters, to understand that the rules were not fair and needed to be changed. I can imagine, in a midrashic way, that the men of that time were none too happy with the decision. Perhaps they may have said, “Women don’t get to decide the rules; that is a man’s job!” Or, “If women are able to change this rule, maybe they will change others, too, and we will lose our power!” Those in power never like to cede it to others, or even to acknowledge or consider differing points of view, but this is also a pretty “masculine” attribute. The role of women and, more importantly, the traits and perspectives traditionally associated with the feminine are needed today more than ever.
The daughters of Zelophechad are models not just for women and girls today, but for all of us seeking to figure out how to transform our world from one of domination, exploitation and violence to one where we can share resources, find common solutions to our problems and embrace, rather than conquer, the other. And while I am not wont to quote a Chabad thinker very often, in part because of the strict gender duality that I typically find there, I found an article by Chana Weisberg on this parasha interesting. She writes, “There comes a point when humankind is ready to make a transition from male to female values — from authority to dialogue, from dominance to persuasion, from control to nurture.” We are out of balance today, and that is a worrisome place to be.
In our kabbalistic teachings, we learn that a primary task of humanity is to bring about the integration of the masculine and feminine energies in the union of God and the Shechina, and that the attributes of both, joined together, are needed to heal and transform our world. As we seek to mend our fragile world today, to increase justice and opportunity for all, I pray that the wisdom of the daughters of Zelophechad can guide us down the path of tikkun (repair). As the song goes, “It ain’t me, it’s the people that say, men are leading the women astray…” As we continue to empower women’s voices and women leaders to be equal in influence to men’s, we will all benefit from the union and balance that results.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement.