Real Change in the Torah

The most effective and enduring changes create justice for all members of society.

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The story of Zelophehad's daughters invites us to reflect on the roles that family members and community play in one's life. Our freedom as women to make choices and demands stems in part from our Jewish heritage in which women such as Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah stood together to argue for equal rights, convincing leadership--human and divine--of the justness of their cause. Today our individual commitments and decisions from the everyday to the profound (taking a class at night, accepting a board position, making a career change) affect our partners and our children, regardless of who makes them. Likewise, our seemingly private decisions launch a whole range of new communal developments. For example, working and studying mothers and their partners require, and therefore initiate, new structures for childcare that were not available to the previous generation. Such choices compel (or inspire) others to "think outside the box" to accommodate new challenges.

Especially in egalitarian relationships, each person's words and visions, choices and decisions, actions and reactions, construct an unfolding dialogue, ever-growing and often life-changing in much wider circles than one would have envisioned. What began as a seemingly private demand by five sisters for their share of land became a new law to protect all women in unforeseen circumstances.

In parashat Mas'ei, at the end of the Israelites' journey in the wilderness, the amending of the ruling for Zelophehad's daughters (along with the concomitant change in inheritance laws in perpetuity for all Israelites, 36:8-9) teaches modern lessons for intertwined lives: in a society, community, or family, one person's needs and desires must be weighed against those of others. Final authority should not belong to one member only, nor should laws be made based on the interests of only one party.

The amendments in Numbers 36 also emphasize the need for lawmakers to look always at the rights of all citizens, and not just at the issues brought by lobbyists. The women's movement, like all movements of liberation, discovered long ago that the most effective and enduring changes are those that create justice for all members of society.

This observation does not negate the need to speak out for special interests. Just as the prayer of our matriarch Hannah became for the rabbis of the Talmud the model of how to pray (I Samuel 1:10-11; BT B'rachot 31a-b), so in their own time, the daughters of Zelophehad model how to be an advocate for one's own rights. Had Hannah not prayed or the sisters not spoken up, no change would have taken place. Speaking out opens up a public space where the diverse needs of community members can be examined in order to negotiate for equitable resolutions.

Because the original ruling given in parashat Pinchas benefited the daughters but not the tribe, the amendment here in parashat Mas'ei demonstrates how an idea may require fine-tuning even after it becomes law.

The ending of the book of Numbers sets the stage for processes of change, showing us that even within the Torah itself, lawmaking is an inexact science requiring flexibility to change as issues arise and society evolves. We honor the sisters' ability to speak up, and their grace to concede when their gain is shown to be against community interests. We are the inheritors of their chutzpah and their quest for equal rights.

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Rabbi Lisa Edwards

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Ph.D., is a rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles. She received ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994 and earned her Ph.D. in literature from the University of Iowa in 1984.

Jill Berkson Zimmerman

Jill Zimmerman is a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. She holds M.Ed. and M.A.H.L. degrees from HUC-JIR.