Parashat Pinhas

The Daughters Of Zelophehad And The Divine Right Of Ownership

Just as God advocated for the property rights of Zelophehad's daughters, we should work to create economic opportunities for those who have lacked them.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

Parashat Pinhas is a very numerical parasha, filled with census-taking and dividing ownership of the Promised Land between the tribes of Israel.

Among this naming and counting, a surprise pops up: In the tribe Menashe a man named Zelophehad had no sons--only daughters--whose names are listed along with the men. The significance of these named women becomes clear at the end of the chapter, when Moses explains to the newly counted tribes of Israel, that "among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names.

While Moses clearly states that all those named will be awarded land, the very next chapter begins with the plea of the daughters of Zelophehad: "Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!" Despite the law, these women still had to fight for what was rightfully theirs.

Moses takes the case before God, who immediately rules in favor of the women, saying: "The plea of Zelophehad's daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen." Thus, God sets the precedent that, "if a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter."

This new law allowing women to own land was radical. In biblical law, not only were women never able to own property, women were treated like property, transferred from their father's domain to their husband's. As in most ancient civilizations, biblical landowners were the only ones with power in the society. If you did not own land, you were, at best, dependant on someone else and, at worst, their servant or slave.

In our own time, ownership is the key to building wealth and succeeding financially. Whether it's a home, a business or a savings account, our economy rewards owners with access to credit necessary to participate in the mainstream economy. Those of us with ownership and credit histories take for granted that our personal capital can be used to buy an education, expand our business and fix-up our homes. The investments we make in our education, homes and businesses, enable us in turn to have good jobs which lead to more saving and investing. Thus, we are ever accumulating the resources needed to provide for our families and ourselves.

Today, much of the Jewish community is in the same position in which the Children of Israel were as they entered the Promised Land: just as the Israelites were sure to inherit land by God's decree, most of us have been born into an economic class marked by opportunity and ownership.

But what about those born outside this class who have been long excluded from the mainstream economy? How can people with few resources and no credit begin to build financial sustainability: people who would save money if they could buy a car to get to a job, or people who would be raising healthy families if they owned a decent home rather than paying high rents in crumbling neighborhoods?

The daughters of Zelophehad needed divine intervention to become property owners. Today, we have an obligation to act in the image of God to help the economically disadvantaged open the doors to economic opportunity.

One of the best ways to do this is by investing our resources in community development financial institutions, or CDFI's. CDFI's are banks, credit unions and loan funds with the primary mission of educating and providing financial services to under-served people and communities. People with less-than-perfect or no credit are able to borrow money and maintain checking and savings accounts at CDFI's, enabling them to build wealth and stability.

The several hundred CDFI's that exist around the country comprise an alternative financial industry supported by the government, private foundations, religious organizations and individuals that want to literally "lend" a hand.

Jews all over the country are beginning to invest in this way through Tzedec, a national program of The Shefa Fund. Nationally, Jews and Jewish institutions are realizing that investing in CDFI's provides the link that can tie people in poverty to the economic opportunities that have remained inaccessible to them for so long. Tzedec has already organized over $10.5 million for CDFI's by working with Federations, Jewish family foundations, synagogues and individuals.

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Kevin Haworth

Kevin Haworth is the author of The Discontinuity of Small Things, winner of the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers.

Abigail B. Weinberg

Abigail Weinberg, a social and economic justice activist, is the Congregational Liaison for the Midwest Region of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and a member of the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Havurah in Ann Arbor, Michigan.