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Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Parashat Pinchas describes yet another census of the Israelites, and this time there’s a fascinating twist. Five spunky women have the courage to challenge the status quo by insisting that their family name be included in the census.

The daughters of Zelophehad… 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…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 the Eternal. And the Eternal One said 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. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a householder dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter….’” (Num. 27:1-11)

The fact that this story is included in the Torah, which has such a patriarchal bias, bears powerful testimony to its importance in Jewish history. When these women stood on the principles of justice and civil rights to oppose the inheritance laws of the Bible, they put in motion a radical shift for the status of women in the ancient Tribe, with ramifications right up to the present day. Up to the point of this census, the biblical mandate had been that property should be passed down from father to son. Zelophehad’s five daughters rightly objected to the discriminatory nature of these laws and were determined that Moses should do something about it. Moses, the law-giver par excellence, was humble enough to know that the answer to Zelophehad’s daughters’ challenge couldn’t come from his own ego consciousness; he had to turn to the Divine within, open his mind and heart to his Higher Self, and be available to hear from that place whatever Truth was awakening. What he heard was the Divine voice standing by the side of the disregarded, the deprived, and the dispossessed.

These five women—Malah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah–were heroes who stood for women’s civil rights not unlike the suffragettes a century ago and the leaders of the Feminist Movement in our own time. Those who would flaunt the Bible to oppose women’s civil rights need to read this passage and refresh their memories about what God had to say about gender discrimination.

In our own day we continue to witness similarly courageous attempts to gain (or regain) equal rights by women and the LGBTQIA+ community, for example, who have been disenfranchised throughout history. They too have stood before the “priests” and the “chieftains” of the American “temple” of Congressional and Supreme Court legislation, and before us—the “whole assembly” of American public opinion—to demand equal access to basic civil rights: the right to body autonomy, the right to access the social and legal benefits of marriage and so many other societal rights regardless of sex, gender or sexual orientation still denied to them.  To some extent they have been successful, and, for example, marriage equality is now (for now?) the law of the land. The devil, of course, has been in the much-challenged details, helped by mistranslated passages from the Bible used to justify discrimination based on “religious” objection. Major problems remain as too many States of this Union enact increasingly exclusionary laws, and our seemingly ideologically Christian Supreme Court continues to unthread the legal fabric of our nation.

We, as members of spiritual and religious communities, have a responsibility to speak out and let our Bible-thumping fellow citizens know that Torah can also be used as a force for understanding and inclusiveness. Without disdaining religious fundamentalist perspectives, we must offer an alternative to the rejection, exclusion, and condemnation that they claim to find in the Bible. Perhaps we need to point more forcefully to Zelophehad’s daughters and to Moses, here, distrusting the voice of accepted tradition and turning to his inner Higher Self for guidance. Higher consciousness, we find, is always more inclusive, more tolerant and embracing. Tapping into the Wisdom at the center of our being, let us stand alongside our beleaguered compatriots to ensure—on the day of this nation’s celebration of Freedom and Independence—that we continue to strive for a more perfect Union wherein all discriminatory laws are revoked once and for all. How could we do otherwise? After all, we are all Zelophehad’s children.