I ask you in these times we live: How are we supposed to speak truth to power?
This week, we might do well to turn to our Declaration of Independence.
The Founding Fathers (yes, all men) really struggled with how to make their grievances known to the King. We’d already fought at Lexington and Concord, but before the vote on independence, the Continental Congress decided they needed a declaration “to place before humankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.” And the declaration itself was edited almost beyond recognition from Jefferson’s original draft—one representative actually wanted to delete referring toKing George as a tyrant because it might offend him! And the South required that the paragraph calling slavery an abominationbe removed before they would agree to vote.
So our AmericanRevolution therefore offers a few answers to my question.
This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, offers another. We read the beginning of the story of the five daughters of Zelophchad–Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milchah and Tirtzah. Five women with no male protectors, and no inheritance rights to their dead father’s portion in the Promised Land. These terse eleven verses have been expounded at length in the Talmud, by the medieval commentators and of course by feminist interpreters.
27 The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family— son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph— came forward. … They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against יהוה, 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 a holding among our father’s kinsmen.” Moses brought their case before יהוה. And יהוהsaid to Moses, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them…This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with יהוה’s command to Moses.”
First, only 36 women arenamedin the Torah, and five of them (14%) are these sisters. Not only that, but the sages of the Talmud described these sisters as wise, exegetes (able to expound on the laws), and virtuous(see especially B. Bava Batra 116-120).
They were definitely wise: they knew how to present themselves and their arguments in a clearly patriarchal world, so as to be heard. They could have claimed that we are all children of God, all with tzelem Elohim, the divine spark, and should all have equal rights. While I am fairly certain that most of us agree with that argument, I think we can acknowledge that in that time, they would have been discounted, maybe even laughed at, although this very argument appears in Sifrei, an ancient text concurrent with the Talmud. Knowing their reality, instead, they appealed to the men by bringing up the idea that their father should not be forgotten, a fear their audience could relate to. They also made sure Moses knew that their father was NOT a member of Korach’s crew, because that group have been personally offensive to Moses, and he might harbor animosity toward them.
But the content of their argument was not the only way they showed their wisdom, and their powers of exegesis. They also timed their request perfectly. According to the midrash, they came forward whenMoses was expounding on the very topic of inheritance.
They also came as a group of five, together, recognizing strength in numbers. They made five statements, one for each sister. You can also imagine the strategy session, with someone taking notes, “Ok, Hoglah, you’ll say this one, and Noa, you make this argument; Tirtzah, you bring it home with this last clear demand. No wavering or pleading. Demand what is ours!”
While they knew right was on their side, Abarbanel (1437-1508/Spanish-Portuguese) noted that the list of people they spoke to: Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains and the whole congregation means it is likely they had gotten a runaround…”talk to this person,” “Go talk to that person.”
And yet they persisted.
Here they were, unmarried, fatherless, brotherless women, surely at the bottom of society. They decide to speak up for themselves and for others like them. The voices of the vulnerable are always the hardest to hear, and yet the most important.
And they were not meek about it. They came forward together, to the front of the Tent of Meeting, before all these important men—not a place usually occupied by women. They stated their case. And they did not plead: they usedno petitionary language, “Oh, please, sir.” No, these sisters demanded: “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”
Let that be a lesson for us all. When we come with a reasonable demand to take care of the vulnerable, make your argument as persuasive to the audience as you can. Know before whom you stand, and tailor your argument appropriately. But don’t be meek. Don’t ask. Demand.
Moses didn’t know what to do with these five sisters, so he took it to his higher power. And God set him straight, telling him the five sisters spoke rightly. And so a new law was promulgated, right there in the Torah, written by and for women.
Even in the most patriarchal of societies, where the word of God is supposed to be inerrant, these five women forced a change. May we follow their example—putting forward as Jefferson and the five sisters did, the common sense of the subject, and then demand the assent.
Do not plead. Do not be meek. Come forward. Stand up. Make your voices heard.