“Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah: five sisters, who united, were able to claim, with dignity and courage, a right that they deserved”
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week’s parashah tells us about a special situation that I would like to focus in this message. The Torah tells us that there were five sisters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, daughters of a man who was called Zelophehad. These five sisters approached Moses, Elazar the Cohen (priest), the chieftains and the whole assembly to explain their situation and to ask for a change in the law. (B’midvar 27:2).
What was their request? It is written in the Torah: “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (B’midvar 27:3-4). These five sisters are claiming the right to inherit the land of their father because he didn’t have sons.
According to the law of that time, only the male children could inherit their father’s possessions. When the father had only daughters, the land was lost. These five sisters came forward and defended their right to inherit their father’s portion of land.
The verbs that the Torah uses to describe their significant act are “Va tikravna,”, “came forward” and “va ta’amodna”, “stood.” Before they even opened their mouths, they came forward and they stood before all of the dignitaries of the people. Both verbs express audacity. “Karav” “they came forward” signifies intimacy, struggle, and sacrifice. “Standing” implies that they stood their ground “in the presence of all of them.”
In addition, they communicated their request without hesitation. They raised their voices, and in an assertive way they asked, “why should the name of our father be removed from the bosom of his family because he didn’t have male children?”
First, they questioned the law. Then they exclaimed, “ Give us holding among our father’s kinsmen!” They did not ask or beg, but rather demanded: “Give us.”
Someone who does not know the end of this story, may think that surely no one would have listened to them at that time. However, this is not true, so great was their determination and the reason behind their argument, that not only Moses listened to them, but also God himself listened to them.
It is written in the Torah that Moses didn’t know how to answer them so he asked God about this issue. God answered: “Ken bnot Tzelofchad dovrot” “They speak rightly, the plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just” (B’midvar 27:7).
This claim was accepted by God. and He was changed the law saying: “you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them”.
These five sisters set a significant precedent. Thanks to their request, the law was changed.
The sages of the Talmud also highlighted the attitude of these women. In the Talmud, Masechet Baba Batra (119b) claimed that the daughters of Zelophehad had three qualities:
-they were “Chachamot”, wise, because they knew how to express their argument at the appropriate moment, when the census was in process and Moses was engaged in the subject of inheritances.
– “Darshaniot,” critical thinkers, good interpreters of the law; knowing exactly how to handle their legal situation.
– and “Rachmaniot,” virtuous, since they were married to men worthy of them.
We may affirm that Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah wrote a new chapter in the history of our tradition. United, they were able to claim, with dignity and courage, a right that they felt they deserved.
We may affirm that they were among the first defenders for women’s rights, long before feminist movements emerged. I believe these five sisters teach us a great lesson for our time.
First of all, it is important to point out that they were united, they came forward to Moses and all the people, together. During the book of Bereshit, we can find many examples of siblings that deal with the topics of inheritance and favoritism, jealousy and lies. Here we find a radically different model of a sibling relationship: five sisters who unite to defend their rights.
Second, we may learn from this story that when you have a good argument and you present it in a smart way, you have a chance to succeed. God, Moses, and the sages agreed to modify the law of the Torah because their argument was reasonable.
Third, this story shows us how our tradition is willing to make changes in order to provide equity and justice among human beings.
In addition, it reminds us that the Jewish tradition is dynamic and that there were many leaders who were able to make changes in order to adapt our values to social transformations.
The action of these five women should serve as a model as we struggle for equality among human beings. Also, we should remember their courage and audacity as they fought for justice.
May God help us to follow the actions of these five women and have the courage to seek equity, justice, and freedom in our societies.
May God help us to be chachamim (wise people), darshanim (critical thinkers), and rachmanim (virtuous people), as the five sisters were in the past.