In a chorus of kvetches, the plea of five women rises above the din


Numbers 25:10-30:1

I Kings 18:46-19:21

If I asked what the Israelites did the most during their 40 years in the desert, the most common answer would probably be, “They complained!” The Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness were marked by incessant kvetching and lamenting — about the lack of water, the lack of variety in their diet, and their fears about settling the land of Canaan.

 be, “They complained!” The Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness were marked by incessant kvetching and lamenting — about the lack of water, the lack of variety in their diet, and their fears about settling the land of Canaan.

Against this backdrop, it is remarkable that one of the most significant stories in the Book of Numbers is a complaint brought by the daughters of a man named Zelophehad, from the tribe of Manasseh. Their claim, unlike all the others, is considered just and even praiseworthy.

Here’s the story: In Numbers 26:33, the reader learns that Zelophehad had five daughters — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah — but no sons. In the next chapter, the five daughters followed protocol by coming to Moses at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, where important communal functions took place. They tell Moses that their father died in the wilderness, leaving no sons. At that time in biblical history, property was passed only from fathers to sons.

The daughters say, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsman.” The traditional commentators look favorably upon this complaint — perhaps because, after so many stories focused on envy, restlessness and immorality, here come five daughters who simply yearn for a family home in the Promised Land.

Moses’ response in this case is intriguing because it is different than his responses to other complainants.

Two Torah portions earlier, in Numbers 20, Moses reprimands the people for their complaints of thirst at Kadesh. Then, toward the end of Numbers, when the tribes of Gad and Reuben ask to settle outside of the Land of Canaan because of the abundant grazing land for their cattle in the regions beyond the borders, Moses loses his temper. In Numbers 32, he angrily chastises the two tribes for being just like their faithless ancestors, who were condemned to die in the desert. It is only after Moses has heard a fuller explanation from the tribes that he learns that their intention is very different. The tribes will help settle and subdue the Land of Canaan, and only when every Israelite is settled will they go back to the territory beyond the Jordan.

While in Numbers 20 and 32 Moses gives quick and harsh responses to the people, Moses handles the situation with the daughters of Zelophehad with calmness and grace.  Moses hears the women present their case fully, and only after taking counsel with God does he render judgment. Moses decrees that the women can inherit their father’s land.

Ultimately, in Numbers 36, these gains are modified. Some of the family heads from the tribe of Manasseh are concerned that if daughters are allowed to inherit property and then marry outside of the clan, the property will transfer to the tribe of the husband and Israelite lands will be diminished. After this complaint, Moses again takes counsel with the Eternal and answers that the plea of the leaders is also just. In the end, Moses directs that women can inherit property if a man leaves no sons, but the women must then marry within the tribe.

While women earn the right to inherit property if there are no sons, their personal rights are weighed against the ancient Israelite value of peace between members of the clan. Peace and harmony among members of the tribe trumps personal interests. How alien that idea must seem to so many of us today, when our culture encourages self-gratification.

But perhaps we have much to learn from the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. Ultimately they are seen as praiseworthy, not only because of the purity of their motives, but because of the reasonableness with which they presented their case. And while they must have been less than wholly satisfied with the outcome, they accepted that the good of the community is a higher ideal than the good of the individual.

Rabbi Daniel Feder
is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at [email protected].