Five Inspirational Women

Shabbat Service

I have anticipated this very sermon for many years now.  The first sermon I would deliver, not as a student rabbi, or a rabbinical student, but as an ordained rabbi serving my congregation.  I’ve thought for a few months now, about what I would say on this evening, what message I wanted to deliver.  How I could show the congregation, who I am as a rabbi?  How I would be able to adequately convey my passion, my drive, my deep commitment to Judaism – my inspiration to become a rabbi?

Since I cannot answer all of these questions and share everything in just one sermon, I decided I wanted to introduce you to five special women in my life…and I’m not talking about my grandmothers, mother, aunts, sisters and niece.  I’m talking about five women who serve as role models, and inspiration to me as both a rabbi and as a Jew.

I met these women only a few years ago, and I’ve wanted to learn more about them ever since.

So who are these 5 women?

Their names are Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.  Some of you might know them from this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas.  You might know them by their collective Hebrew name “B’not Zelophehad”, or “the daughters of Zelophehad”.

Their amazing story unfolds in the Book of Numbers in just 11 short verses.

The text opens by mentioning the five daughters by name – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.  Their father has just died.  According to the existing Torah law, only sons could inherit their father’s land.  But this man didn’t have any sons; he only had the 5 daughters.  The daughters, recognizing the law, and feeling dissatisfied with receiving no inheritance from their father, go before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the entire community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to challenge the system that was clearly set to discriminate against them.

They speak out, saying, “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves against Adonai in the company of Korach, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons”.[1]

They continue:

“Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son?  Give us, therefore, a possession among the brothers of our father”.[2]

You heard correctly, five vulnerable women, whose father has recently died…approach the entire community, in public, and challenge the law!  But they do not just challenge the law, or complain about the law, or even demand that the law be changed.  The talmudic sages pay them one of the highest compliments in Judaism: they called them wise.

The daughters banded together, granting each other strength and solidarity.  They did not act in a hierarchical manner.  In fact, we do not even know which of the sisters was the oldest.  Their names are mentioned in three occurrences in the Torah and each time, in a different order.  An ancient midrash teaches that the five daughters each spoke, saying five different things, “The first said: Our father died in the wilderness. The second said: he was not of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against Adonai.  The third said, but died for his own sin.  The fourth said: And he left no sons.  The fifth said: Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan.”[3]  

The daughters were also intentional about the way in which they presented their request. They presented the matter in a non-threatening way, saying: “Let not our father’s name be lost”.  Their concern here remained the same as the male concern of continuity, rather than the empowerment of women’s rights as we think of them today. The ancient rabbis comment about the impressive intentionality of the daughters of Zelophehad.  The Talmud teaches, “The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women…they were righteous.  They were exceedingly wise, since they spoke at an opportune moment.”[4]  Indeed the daughters were strategic about bringing the matter up at the appropriate time.

Finally, they utilize language that reflects both a deep respect for the law, and also expresses their challenge.  They utter the words, “lama yigara shame-avinu mitoch mishpachto ki ein lo ben.” WHY should our father’s name be lost to his clan, just because he has no son?”  They do not say, “Our father’s name should not be lost because he has no son.” But rather they frame their challenge as a question.

We have much to learn from Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza.  Like these five women, we have the capacity and ability, and perhaps even responsibility, to stand up for what we believe is right.  We cannot stand idly by…we are called by our tradition to stand up and take action.  The daughters of Zelophehad stood up for their rights and in so doing, extended justice beyond their own generation.

Their story concludes:

“Moses brought their cause before Adonai and Adonai spoke to Moses saying:

The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly; you shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers; and you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them.  And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a man dies, and he has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter”.[5]

Not only do the daughters change the law for generations to come, but God has also called their actions “right”.  Indeed they contributed to make their society, their world a more just place to live.

This is the only law in the entire Torah that is proposed by people.  The daughters of Zelophehad offer us an important message: holy chutzpah can change the world.[6]

So why did I want to introduce you to these five extraordinary women during my first sermon here at Chicago Sinai? The truth is, I’ve had this sermon inside of me for a while now, and I feel blessed to be able to share it with you during my first sermon at Chicago Sinai.  Because for me, this story sums up true leadership and true personal responsibility. It serves as a model for the way in which I hope to be able to contribute to making the world a more whole place to live.  I come to Chicago Sinai with excitement to engage in this holy work together.  Our job is not always to complete the work, but we must never shy away from playing a part.

The daughters of Zelophehad prove that our tradition is not set in stone.  We are part of a continuously evolving story; A story that we all share, but one that I felt moved to teach and pass on when I chose to become a rabbi.  Because for me, being a rabbi is all about knowing where we came from, what our tradition teaches, and sharing that tradition with the community.  But simply sharing the tradition and teaching our ancient texts is not enough on its own.  Together, I hope that we can also take action.  We must stand up for what we believe is right. We must contribute to the ongoing task of making the world a more just place.  We, like the daughters in our text, have the ability to know what is right, and speak out against what is wrong.  When we truly come to understand our own capacity and responsibility to change the world, to shape history, and make this world the kind of place we wish to leave to our own children, we pay tribute to those ancient daughters; Mahlah, Noah, Hogla, Milcah, and Tirza.

Their story is our call to engage in holy chutzpa together.

May this be God’s will. Amen

[1] Numbers 27:3

[2] Numbers 27:4

[3] Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers 27, 773.

[4] Talmud baba batra 119b.

[5] Numbers 27:5-9.


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