"The daughters of Zelophehad came forward... and stood before Moses" Numbers 27:1-2

By Elaine Robinson, July 1, 2010

We read in this week's parashah that Zelophehad died leaving no sons. His five daughters approached Moses to ask if they could inherit the land of their father rather than it pass from their immediate family to a different clan. Moses enquired of God and was given the law for all time: if there are no male heirs, the women should inherit the land.

It is the method of the challenge that I find fascinating. The women had a legitimate request and wanted a ruling from Moses; they believed in the process.

According to the Midrash, the sisters had a deep belief in the justice of God and said to each other: God's mercy is not like the compassion of mankind. Mankind favours men over women. God is not that way, His compassion is on men and women alike (Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 27 Sifri 27.1).

These women were striving for truth and a higher good. They had a practical query that needed an answer and took it to Moses for a response.

The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, according to the Talmud (Baba Batra 119b) as not only did they seek counsel of Moses, they also considered the most appropriate time to present the petition to him.

So what do we learn from these women? That we must strive for truth and justice, and that we should do so at the right time and in an appropriate manner. This is an essential principle for social action: find the issue of inequality or injustice and look for the right response to the issue. Their behaviour is an enduring model for all time: take the issue to the decision-makers and push for legitimate change.

As Blu Greenberg once said, where there is a rabbinic will, there is an halachic way; it is a matter of choosing your battles and when and how to fight them.

Last updated: 11:21am, July 1 2010