The Daughters of Zelophechad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah. So wise and righteous as to bring merit to their ancestors, says B’midbar Rabbah. Strong, empowered women who joined together to protest an unjust social order, writes Vanessa Ochs, professor at UVA. More righteous than the men of their generation we read elsewhere in B’midbar Rabbah. Able to affect durable, dramatic change.
Well, not so fast.
The empowered story we read in Parashat Pinchas is tempered by the end of this week’s double portion, Matot-Masei. The male leaders of Zelophechad’s daughters’ family clan point out that the geographic area of their landholdings will be diminished if the women marry outside the tribe. Moses recognizes this as just, and changes what was to be a law for all time. Yes, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah can rightfully inherit, and they can even marry whomever they please — so long as it pleased them to marry their cousins.
In the words of Rabbi Amber Powers in Torah Queeries, interpreting Torah through a so-called “bent lens:”
“The fight for justice and equality is ongoing and not a linear path… Like the heads of the family clan in this Torah portion, there may be times when we personally stand in a place of privilege and we would risk losing something if we supported another’s fight for change. Like the daughters of Zelophekhad, there are times when we will submit to a less than fully just solution as a compromise, a temporary measure, or because we have no choice. Nevertheless, we must remain clear about our visions of justice and equality and continue to work for their fullest expression in our communities and our practices.”