The daughters of Zelophehad from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons" (1908)
The daughters of Zelophehad from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons" (1908)

In this week’s Torah portion, women stand up for their rights — and win

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 25:10–30:1

The women stood in protest. They were angry! Society’s laws were unjust, denying them autonomy. “Where is our freedom? Where is our right to control our own lives?” they demanded. Ruled by the laws of men, the women were not allowed to live with dignity and self-respect. It was time for a change — time to ensure that each person would be treated justly.

The daughters of Zelophehad — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah — came forward. They explained that the system of inheritance then in place denied them personal freedom. As women, they could not receive inheritance from their father’s estate. The existing laws of inheritance prevented women from living autonomously.

They brought their case to Moses, the high priest, the chieftains and the entire congregation. The men heard the pleas of these women. Perhaps the men were allies and upstanders? Perhaps they felt empathy and understanding, or at least sympathy, as they listened to the women describe unjust laws?

Moses took the case to Adonai. God responded with clarity, instructing that the laws must be changed. “The women speak justly!” God declared. In this profound moment, God insisted that laws must support and sustain the autonomy of all people in society equally. The injustice had to be corrected. What an important moment in our people’s history!

From ancient days, the Torah championed a semblance of equality that didn’t exist in other ancient societies. Our sacred stories were way ahead of their time. It is hard to imagine a better story of women’s empowerment, early feminism and progressive legislation than the one we read this week about five women who stood up to the ancient patriarchy. And the most important part is — without a moment of hesitation, God supports them.

Though this story took place many, many generations ago, we have not eradicated the inequalities and injustices that existed way back then. Despite all the years that have passed since the Israelites wandered in the desert, we have not built a society that guarantees dignity for each person. In fact, the recent Supreme Court decision denying access to abortion directly goes against what the five sisters were asking for: a right to self-governance.

Fast-forward thousands of years … to 21st-century America. Our society is looking more and more like the one where Zelophehad’s daughters had no personal autonomy — and no control over their own futures. Surely, if God were to weigh in on the current news, God would say, “Those who demand dignity for all speak justly!”

Our courageous ancestors — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah — inspire us today. Just as they ultimately inherited what belonged to their ancestors, we inherit what belonged to them: the vision of a more just world. Their vision changed their ancient society; it emboldens us to change ours. We will work to secure the freedom and autonomy each human being deserves. After all, that promise has been the inheritance of generations of our people.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.