Dvar Torah - Pinchas - Kathryn Teale
How often do we look around us and see inequity and injustice? Sadly, it is not hard to find examples. In the news just recently we’ve seen sexual harassment in parliament, the difficulty for rural Australians to access adequate healthcare, and ongoing discrimination against people of colour, and people with disabilities. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And yet, how often do we stand up and speak up about what we see, in order to try and effect positive change? I mean, literally stand up and speak about it, not just post about it to our echo chamber on Facebook.
If you’re anything like me, you know you probably should speak up more often, but it takes courage and commitment, and what will you do if people object to what you have to say? It’s a risk that we don’t always want to take. This week’s parashah is Pinchas, from Bamidbar, the 4th book of the Torah. In this parashah, God commands Moses to conduct a census of all the Israelite men over the age of 20. God then instructs that the land they about to occupy should be shared out among the tribes, with larger groups having a larger share, and smaller groups having a smaller share, based on the census numbers.
At this point, something quite remarkable happens. Five sisters, Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah come forward. Their father, Tzelof’chad, has died. He left no sons to inherit or perpetuate his name, and the portion of land which would have been his will be given to other members of his tribe. As women, the daughters are barred by law from inheriting property. While they could have simply accepted the status quo of patriarchal inheritance, they choose instead to stand up and speak up. We are told they stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains and the whole assembly at the entrance of the tent of meeting, explained their situation and said “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!”
This must have taken quite some courage, to challenge an existing law while standing in front of the most powerful members of the community. Their request could easily have been ignored, ridiculed or rejected. Moses could have simply restated the laws of inheritance and sent them on their way.
As it happens, Moses was clearly moved by their appeal and at a loss for how to answer them, so he brought their case before God. From this incident, we have a midrash which says that Moses provides a great model of leadership to the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court system which arose later, by showing that no-one should be embarrassed to ask for assistance in cases too difficult for them.
God responds by stating clearly that the plea of the daughters is just and they should inherit their father’s share. Not only that, but God goes on to say that in future, if any man dies without a son, his daughter shall inherit his property, and this expanded law will apply to all the Israelites. It’s an incredible outcome, above and beyond what the sisters had asked for.
I think this is what we see in the present day too – that inequity and injustice may exist for a long time, and it takes one brave person, or maybe a series of brave people, to stand up and speak up, to bring an issue to the forefront of public conversation before any change happens, and we move a step closer to a more just society.
I read a lovely drash about this parshah which looks at some of the lessons we can learn from these five sisters, as successful social change agents. Firstly, they take a risk in coming forth publicly and standing before the leadership of their people. When disenfranchised people come forward in our time, do we give them space to tell their stories? Do we listen? Do we believe them? Do we act in accordance with their testimony? Secondly, they stand together, rather than sending one to represent the rest, and they share the same message with the whole political body. There is strength in numbers. How do we create allies and build allegiances? How do we become allies, and help people bring important messages to those in power, in ways that leaders can hear?
And thirdly, they make a pragmatic demand. The daughters of Tzelof’chad were likely well aware of the many ways in which they were still not treated as the equal of men, but they made a specific request which was granted and which set a precedent for all future generations. As much as we’d love to, we can’t achieve world peace and an end to every sort of discrimination in one fell swoop. But we shouldn’t give up because we think change is too hard to bring about. Rabbi Tarfon taught “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist from it.” How can we make demands for implementable policies, and changes with real-life impact?
The actions of Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Tzelof’chad, serve as an enduring and inspiring example of what I see as a fundamental tenet of being a Jew: working to pursue justice as a means of tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. Who knows what amazing changes we can achieve, in our own time – if we are brave enough to stand up, and speak up, and be heard.