The Five Sisters

This is a strange moment we find ourselves in. I’ve enjoyed catching up with lots of Kavana folks since my return from Israel. It seems that – after 2+ years of pandemic time – many of us are finding ways to take advantage of this summer’s weather and rhythms. Overall (and even despite the heat), the Kavana community is actively soaking in summertime in wonderful ways: hiking and camping, visiting family out of state, traveling to exotic destinations abroad, boating and swimming in lakes, reading great books, enjoying beautiful sunsets. And yet, this summer, there’s an edge for many of us… an underlying feeling that all is not right in the world. By now, given vaccinations and boosters, we would have expected life in this Covid era to be easier; however, the new variant that’s emerged is spreading so quickly that positive Covid tests, disrupted plans, and the weariness of pandemic have become a way of life again… ugh! Socially and politically, the phenomenon is even longer term and more profound. Over most of the decades of our lives, many of us have had the sense that our society is progressing towards justice and equality (based on gender, race, sexuality, religion, and more). Now, though, we’re witnessing significant setbacks coming so quickly, and these connect to broader concerns about the future of our American democracy. What incredible dissonance we’re holding… beauty and disappointment and anxiety all at once!

This is a strange moment we find ourselves in. I’ve enjoyed catching up with lots of Kavana folks since my return from Israel. It seems that – after 2+ years of pandemic time – many of us are finding ways to take advantage of this summer’s weather and rhythms. Overall (and even despite the heat), the Kavana community is actively soaking in summertime in wonderful ways: hiking and camping, visiting family out of state, traveling to exotic destinations abroad, boating and swimming in lakes, reading great books, enjoying beautiful sunsets. And yet, this summer, there’s an edge for many of us… an underlying feeling that all is not right in the world. By now, given vaccinations and boosters, we would have expected life in this Covid era to be easier; however, the new variant that’s emerged is spreading so quickly that positive Covid tests, disrupted plans, and the weariness of pandemic have become a way of life again… ugh! Socially and politically, the phenomenon is even longer term and more profound. Over most of the decades of our lives, many of us have had the sense that our society is progressing towards justice and equality (based on gender, race, sexuality, religion, and more). Now, though, we’re witnessing significant setbacks coming so quickly, and these connect to broader concerns about the future of our American democracy. What incredible dissonance we’re holding… beauty and disappointment and anxiety all at once!

How to manage this dissonance is going to be a big, important question, not just for this summer, but for this chapter of life that we’re experience collectively. As I read this week’s Torah portion – Matot-Masei – with this notion in mind, a section of text jumped out at me, right at the tail end of the book of Numbers/Bamidbar, one that I’ve never focused on before.

In order for me to explain the section of text that’s capturing my interest right now, first we have to back up to last week’s reading in Parashat Pinchas. Perhaps you already know the story of the “B’not Zelophehad” from Numbers 27:1-11 (if not, you’re invited to click here to access that text in full). To summarize, a group of five daughters of a man named Zelophehad – their names are Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – come forward together to make a claim to their father’s land, in a time when there was no precedent for women to inherit land. They note that their father, who died in the wilderness, was a good guy (apparently he hadn’t participated in the rebellion against Moses’s leadership). Standing side by side, the five sisters make an impassioned plea to be able to inherit land, saying: “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!”

This extraordinary group of women, it seems, do everything right; in this particular case, a just outcome is achieved so smoothly that it almost feels miraculous! Moses takes their case straight to God, who responds with support for the women, and even declares a new law enabling daughters to inherit in any such circumstances. It’s a quick and unequivocal win. Later Jewish interpretive tradition celebrates these five sisters, with the Talmud (in Bava Batra 119b) lauding them as wise/chachamot, astute interpreters/darshaniyot, and pious/rachmaniyot. To this day, the B’not Zelophehad are held up as exemplars of effective, collaborative, feminist change-making. (Here’s an example of an empowering article written just last week that does exactly this!)

I, too, have always celebrated the swift victory of the B’not Zelophehad. But somehow, I’ve never paid much attention to the later installment of their story, which appears like a coda at the end of this week’s Torah portion, in Numbers 36. Sadly, there their story becomes more complicated, and their victory qualified and partially undermined.

In Numbers 36 (and again, you’re invited to click here if you’d like to read the section in full), it is a group of men with power – the all-male tribal heads of the clan – who “come forward” with a counter-claim against the sisters. It seems that they are threatened by the step towards equality that the B’not Zelophehad have made. The tribal heads’ expressed concern is that if these women inherit land and then marry out of their clan, the land apportioned to them will pass down through their husbands to members of another tribe, “thus our allotted portion will be diminished.” In short, these are men of privilege, scared of losing their power.

Moses, at God’s bidding, affirms that the case of the tribal leaders, too, is just. And so, the victory of the B’not Zelophehad is undercut by the “courts” of the day. Moses’s new ruling declares that inheritance cannot pass from one Israelite tribe to another. In order to preserve the status quo, Zelophehad’s daughters will now only be permitted to marry men from within the clan of their father’s tribe.

I have to wonder how Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah might have felt about this curtailing of their options? Here they are, five young women, advocating collectively for themselves – and for women of future generations – to have rights to inherit property. But in achieving this victory, they’ve inadvertently walked into the trap of a new restriction, one that limits their freedom about who they are eligible to marry. I wonder if this was a compromise they were happy to make, or whether Moses’s new rule felt deflating and disappointing, coming on the heels of their earlier win?

To us -- the future generation readers of Torah -- this may feel like a sobering end to the Book of Numbers, as on the path towards justice, we have just witnessed a big win, followed by a partial walking-back of the progress made.

Although it’s disappointing to think that the B’not Zelophehad’s victory was not as smooth, easy, and total as it first seemed in the first installment, this year, I’m appreciating the messy ending to the Book of Numbers. This is a reminder that I need to hear right now: that it’s not only true for us, but in fact true across time, that justice isn’t achieved in a straight line. There are – and always have been – zigs and zags, progress and setbacks, swings and backswings. This feels like important Torah for us to keep in mind at the moment, so that we can feel the forward momentum that is true, even in light of the setbacks and disappointments.

In addition, I am inspired by the group experience of the five sisters. They are in it together through thick and thin… while boldly bringing their case before Moses, and also (presumably) while learning of the counter-suit against them and making the decision to accept husbands from within their own clan in order to preserve their land holdings. Like them, we too must stick together through all the ups and downs of life… building the kind of community that can celebrate joyously in good times and also provide consolation and support through hard ones.

In that vein, we cordially invite you to join together in community this summer, from tomorrow night’s Shabbat in the Park (in the Magnolia neighborhood – see below!) or Saturday’s Partner Hike & Torah event (in NE Seattle) to any of the many other gatherings listed below. We can’t promise that life won’t have dramatic swings and backswings, but we can promise that it will be better – healthier, sweeter, more meaningful, and more supportive – if we, like the five sisters in our parasha, strive to weather the vicissitudes of life and hold the dissonance together!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum