Our parashah introduces the five daughters of Tzlofchad, who petition Moshe to be allowed to inherit a portion in the land of Israel after their father died leaving no male heir. Moshe takes their case before God, who rules that “the plea of Tzlofchad’s daughters is indeed just” (Numbers 27:7), and they should receive a hereditary portion of land among their father’s clan. While the valor and eloquence these daughters demonstrate in the biblical text is laudable in its own right, the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash shower them in praise, offering them as a timeless example of what it means to speak out against injustice and stand up for ourselves.
The Talmud in Bava Batra, in the context of the laws of inheritance, declares that “the daughters of Tzlofchad are wise, they are interpreters of verses, and they are righteous” (Bava Batra 119b). The rabbis then proceed to demonstrate how the daughters displayed each of these virtues. First, they were wise in that they presented their case before Moshe at an auspicious time. They waited until Moshe, who was in the midst of teaching Torah to the people, came to the laws of levirate marriage, in which a man dies leaving no son to inherit him and his brother marries his widow to perpetuate the name of the deceased. It was then that they interjected, making their case about perpetuating their late father’s name. The daughters knew that to effect change, it is important to wait for the right moment to come forth and speak up; getting the timing wrong may mean losing the chance of being heard. And so they patiently waited until Moshe was most likely to be receptive to their plea. The daughters’ patience is also evident from the Talmud’s discussion of their righteousness, which the rabbis attribute to their willingness to wait to get married until they found suitable partners. According to the Talmud, none of the five daughters married before age forty, at which point they were blessed with many children; here, too, they recognized the value of waiting until the time was right.
As the daughters of Tzlofchad knew, successfully effecting change is not just about auspicious timing, but also about arming oneself with knowledge so as to make an informed case. The rabbis in Bava Batra, in explaining how the daughters were “interpreters of verses,” relate that they were sufficiently well-versed in the laws of inheritance that they could say to Moshe, “If our father had a son, we would not have spoken up.” They knew the law, and they knew how to make a reasoned argument invoking the language of the law. And they knew that if the law seemed unjust, then it ought to be questioned and reconsidered. According to an early midrash, the daughters, upon first learning the laws of inheritance, took counsel with one another, saying,
God’s compassion is not like that of flesh and blood. Flesh and blood creatures have greater compassion for males than for female. But the One Who spoke the world into being is not like that, rather, His mercy extends to all, to the males and the females, as it is said, ‘The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is upon His works’” (Psalms 145:9) (Sifrei Bemidbar 133).
Tzlofchad’s daughters recognized that while human beings living at particular historical moments may be guided by the prejudices of their era, the eternal God extends compassion to all creatures regardless of gender. This source, from the early centuries of the common era, seems almost anachronistic in its feminism. And while it is perhaps anachronistic, too, for the daughters to quote from the book of Psalms, this midrash further underscores their learnedness, as well as their faith that God’s law must be just.
The daughters of Tzlofchad also succeeded because they knew to root themselves in tradition. They were not the first to appeal to Moshe because they felt excluded by the law; earlier in the book of Numbers, a group of individuals who were impure and hence unable to offer the Pesach sacrifice approached Moshe to ask, “Why should we be excluded (nigra) from presenting the Lord’s offering at its time with the rest of the Israelites?” (Numbers 9:7). Here, too, Moshe appealed to God, resulting in the institution of Pesach Sheni one month later as a way of including those who could not bring the Pesach sacrifice in the month of Nisan. The daughters of Tzlofchad use the same term (yigara, 27:4) to ask why their father’s name should be excluded from his clan, perhaps as a way for these learned women to remind Moshe that there already existed a precedent for amending the law.
The daughters’ respect for tradition is evident, too, from their frequent invocation of their father’s name in petitioning Moshe. Their request is not about them, but about their veneration of their father, whom they reference repeatedly: “Our father died in the wilderness… Let not our father’s name be excluded from his clan… Give us a holding among the kinsman of our father (27:3-4). The midrash (Numbers Rabbah 21:10) states that the Torah’s account of their petition follows immediately on the heels of the Torah’s mention of the death of the generation of the spies at the end of chapter 26 to underscore the contrast between the men who did not want to enter the land and gain possession of it, and the women who demanded a portion in it. And so Tzlofchad’s daughters approached Moshe out of respect for tradition, respect for their father, and a deep love for the land of Israel.
The daughters of Tzlofchad, who appealed to Moshe out of concern for their father’s legacy, left an indelible legacy themselves. The Talmud (Bava Batra 119a) teaches that the portion of the Torah concerning the laws of inheritance was supposed to be written by Moshe, but on account of their appeal, the daughters merited to write this portion instead. They thus had a hand not just in shaping the Torah’s legislation, but also in recording that legislation in the Torah, where their names—Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza—are perpetuated. May we be guided by their example in our own efforts to ensure that those who might otherwise be excluded succeed in finding a place and a voice in our tradition.