The story of the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27:1-11) has all of the earmarks of a Jane Austen novel: the disenfranchisement and injustices borne by women surrounding the question of inheritance rights; the formal but respectful articulation of the grievances of those women; the dramatic and triumphant vindication of their plight and plea.
The story starts out revolving around the issue of land allotments in anticipation of the Israelites settling the land of Canaan. The idea of owning property, of having something permanent that would endure into the future and could be handed down from generation to generation was a central value. But it applied only to men.
Zelophehad died leaving no sons. His five daughters — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah — approach Moses and present their case. Moses refers the question to God. God responds affirmatively to their request: “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just.”
The words of God are powerfully articulated. The expression of affirmation, the Hebrew word kein, which in today’s vernacular is the simple and unequivocal “yes,” is the first word of the verse. It is followed by their identities, b’not zelophehad, “daughters of Zelophehad,” and concludes with the verb dovrot, “speak.” Literally: “Yes, the daughters of Zelophehad speak.” Concise and poetic, it is stated without ambiguity. And it comes from the ultimate Authority.
We can have little doubt as to the importance of this tale. Particularly in the modern era, these five women will be a source of strength and inspiration to those who espouse a liberal and progressive interpretation of Judaism.
To be sure, while hardly a reversal to the male-dominated emphasis of biblical Judaism, this story is nevertheless a dramatic affirmation of the voice of the woman in Torah. Unlike the previous challenges to Moses, especially those in this Book of Numbers, the daughters of Zelophehad are not dissenters or rebels, they merely seek a redress of legitimate grievances. It is little wonder that these five daughters will become role models for the modern Jewish woman.
Because of their situation and subsequent plea, the daughters of Zelophehad effect a reform, an adaptation to the Halacha, “law,” as dictated by shifting realities. More than simply seeking clarification, they bring about change.
May we all be blessed to have dear ones who will do for us what Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah did for their father, Zelophehad. What’s in a name? A life.
Rabbi Steven Kushner is spiritual leader of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.