2/3 July: Pinhas : Shabbat comes in 9:00 pm, ends 10:25 pm
Parashat Pinḥas – ‘The plea of Tzelafḥad’s daughters is just.’ – Numbers 27:7
This week’s parashah sees a change in Jewish history. Up until this point, the inheritance system is based on the legal status quo of the ancient Near East: men inherit land from fathers and pass on to sons. In this portion, an injustice is noticed by five women, daughters of a deceased man named Tzelafḥad. The Torah takes the time to name these women (and women in Torah are often only named when they are considered key players in a text, unlike men, whose names often live on in lists of genealogies): Maḥlah, Noa, Ḥoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah. These women have realised that, under the current laws of inheritance, their father’s land will go to distant relatives and their father’s name will not live on. They approach Moses and the Israelite leadership and make their case.
Moses’s response is astounding. Instead of pressing on the pre-existing law, he takes this case to the highest authority he can: God. And the Divine immediately relents; the case of the daughters is so strong that not only are they granted their father’s land, but the law is shifted to account for their circumstances. Daughters can inherit land. Admittedly, this admission is granted only in specific circumstances, but it is nonetheless a substantial alteration of the cultural understanding of inheritance.
I’m reflecting, this week, on what this must have meant for the generation of change. They had inherited a cultural system that made assumptions about inheritance. And then along came five women, who stood up when they perceived injustice, and suddenly daughters could inherit land.
It is the challenge of each generation to live within cultural evolution. We have inherited a world with a great many virtues and a great many faults. But the virtues don’t exist simply in spite of the flaws; they exist because our forefathers and foremothers identified and repaired blemishes in their own surroundings. It is our challenge, just as it was theirs, to decide which parts of the world we are going to improve so that the coming generations don’t have to. In the words of Modecai Kaplan: ‘It is true that we are thrust into a world we did not make. But who makes the world into which our children are thrust?’