by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman
This week's commentary is dedicated to the memory of my beloved mother, Esther Bat Baruch, z"l, on the occasion of her first yahrzeit, 11 Tammuz. May her neshama have an aliyah and bring blessing to us and to all Israel.
Judaism has been responsive to women's concerns since its inception. Any alleged signs of discrimination had more to do with combating the cultural mores and social norms and customs of the general culture which the earliest Hebrews absorbed. But Judaism itself had always ascribed a high premium and an esteemed sense of worth to its women and their role as complementary and equal partners in creating a holy and wholly new kind of society.
Sandwiched in between the new census of Israel and the overview of the festivals along with the descriptions of their relevant sacrificial offerings is the fascinating narrative of the Daughters of Zelafchad - a petition over inheritance issues. Seemingly irrelevant contextually to the balance of the parsha, its placement nevertheless has a deeper meaning altogether above and beyond its inherent meaning.
Remarkably, up until the generation of the Exodus Israel's holy day was exclusively the Sabbath. The particulars of her observance emerged only after the revelation at Sinai. Heretofore its general observance adhered in pupa form, as our tradition teaches that our Matriarchs, the founding mothers of Israel, themselves kindled the Sabbath lights.
It was the members of the generation of the Exodus who were given a new history, marked by new festivals. Passover marked their liberation, Shavuot marked their mission, while Succoth recorded their Divine Protection and looked to a future time beyond history. It would be a time of eschatalogical redemption.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur would function as barometers, measuring the nation's fealty to its Divine Mission and enabling her to purge herself from sin, barriers to fulfilling her destiny. Men and women, as equal partners, would together serve Hashem and observe His festivals upon now re-entering the Land, just as they together had observed the Sabbath all along.
The daughters of Zelafchad are actually named. Twice. This is remarkable considering that the Torah explicitly leaves unmentioned the names of Mrs. Noah (we know her name is Na'amah thanks to the Midrash) as well as the daughters of Lot and Mrs. Lot their mother. Of course not every male in the Torah is explicitly mentioned by name either.
By actually naming the daughters- Machlah, Noa, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah, the Torah is not only giving them honor and prominence, but is also connecting all Jewish women to our festivals and traditions. In essence, it is a constitutional amendment of sorts to guarantee the rights of all the women of Israel for all generations, not just the specific daughters of Zelafchad.
While the American legal system was not inherently discriminatory against Jews, Jews still had to fight to assert their inherent rights in the new society in order to overcome the prejudices of those who held the reins of power. Likewise, Judaism did not inherently discriminate against women. But it was up to the women themselves to assert their rights.
The episode of Zelafchad and his daughters is but a microcosm of the larger struggle of the women of Israel to stand alongside their men as equal partners before G*d. The new era of entering the Land of Israel under Joshua's leadership would not be tarnished by reducing the value and worth of the Jewish woman. It might have been intuitive to blame all women and adopt a generalized misogyny, even towards Israelite women, on account of the seductions of the Moabite/Midianite alliance and the attendant plague. Thus their worth was explicitly affirmed.
The names of the daughters themselves are each intimately tied to the festivals themselves, as if to underscore their inherent connection:
Machlah is tied to Passover. Machlah means forgiveness, and only Hashem's mercy permitted His taking Israel up from out of Egypt in spite of Israel's degradation, self or otherwise.
Noa is tied to Shavuoth. It means pleasant or distinguished. The Torah's ways are pleasant. Israel is distinguished by her observance of the spirit and laws of the Torah.
Chaglah is connected to Succoth. Chaglah means "to encircle." We are encircled in our festival booths by the or hamakif, the encircling light, symbolic of G*d's Divine protection. The shorter word within the word, Chag, means festival. Indeed, when tradition mentions HeChag - the festival, she means Succoth, festival par excellence.
Milkah is connected to Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashana is the coronation of Hashem as sole ruler of the universe. Milkah is related to malchut, meaning kingdom.
Lastly, Tirtzah is connected to Yom Kippur. It is related to the word ratzon, which means "will" or "acceptable." On Yom Kippur, Israel's sins having been forgiven, her will and the Divine Will are now as one. Her atonement was accepted.
The new moon offerings are self-understood to be related to the Jewish woman. No elaboration was necessary.Walking figuratively hand in hand into their new land to create a new society under Torah, the Jewish man and Jewish woman would be partners working in harmony to fulfill the new Jewish mission of creating one nation, under G*d Who is invisible and indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.