SERMON:  Parashat Pinhas, July 6, 2018

I want you to take a breath, close your eyes if that’s comfie for you…Take another breath. Now I want you to think back on a time in your life when you knew you needed to tell someone something you knew they didn’t want to hear, a time when you needed to speak up and speak your truth even if is wasn’t easy.   Maybe it was about your relationships.  Maybe it was about social justice.  Maybe it was about who you are as a person.

  • How did you work up your courage to speak?
  • How did you prepare, if at all?
  • How many times to you try to say something before you did?
  • What were you afraid of?
  • How did it feel when you finally spoke up?
  • Did it feel like there was a spiritual component to speaking your truth?

Open your eyes.

I’ve had a few of those moments in my life, but tonight, I want us to look at one of those moments in this week’s Torah portion. PINCHAS. After Pinchas, the son of Aaron, skewers two people involved in hanky-panky in the Tabernacle, after Moses and the other leaders just stand and watch passively, weeping, but doing nothing; and after that, there is a new Census; and after that, the land they are going to occupy is divied up by lots;  but before Moses lays his hands on Joshua and makes him the new leader- stuck in there, almost hidden, is a story that is easy to miss when your eyes are rolled up in your head from the endless list of the census –

Let me read it:

תִּקְרַ֜בְנָה בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָ֗ד בֶּן־חֵ֤פֶר בֶּן־גִּלְעָד֙ בֶּן־מָכִ֣יר בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁ֔ה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹ֖ת מְנַשֶּׁ֣ה בֶן־יוֹסֵ֑ף וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ שְׁמ֣וֹת בְּנֹתָ֔יו מַחְלָ֣ה נֹעָ֔ה וְחָגְלָ֥ה וּמִלְכָּ֖ה וְתִרְצָֽה׃

וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֜דְנָה לִפְנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֗ה וְלִפְנֵי֙ אֶלְעָזָ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְלִפְנֵ֥י הַנְּשִׂיאִ֖ם וְכָל־הָעֵדָ֑ה פֶּ֥תַח אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר

The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, 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 LORD.

And the LORD said to Moses,

כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃


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 man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.

 In a book where women are rarely named, and most the matriarchs, here we have five women named, women that come up through all the princes of the people, through the all male space to the all male space of the Tabernacle, and without being invited to, they speak up. They speak up with confidence, with calm, with a great argument, and with justice on their side.

In fact, the rabbis writing in the Sifrei on the Book of Numbers, tell us that as soon as these women heard the land was being portioned, they “gathered to make a plan.” Other commentary, like the Yalkut Shimoni, tells us that each of the daughters was wise and just, and that to show they were united, rather than asking one person to speak for them, each spoke a part of their argument. 

This is also one of the few passages where the Torah and the Rabbis agree that the women were far superior to the men around them. Yes, the Torah, so often accused of being the cause of the Patriarchy, here tells us that while the men were all whining and kvetching, openly agitating to find a new leader that will take them back to Egypt, and after the spies that go into the Promised Land come back with the most negative, fear-filled warnings,  The Five Daughters of Zelophehad showed just how defeatist and, well, chicken the men were.

The rabbis point out that they had faith when none of the men did, when even Moses was flailing – they showed both their faith in the future, and their self-respect by demanding their portion in the Promised Land. 

Why did they think the men would listen?  They didn’t.  I said they were wise!

No, here is how the Sifrei tells us the daughters decided to step forward:

They said, G-d’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of mankind. Mankind favors men over women. G-d is not like that. His compassion extends to men and women alike...”

Isn’t that what a  small but wise, even sacred voice in each of us says at such moments  -  “I am as good, as holy, as loved and as lovable as any, and I am a child of God and have a right to my portion”?

There is SO MUCH to say about this story, and if you want to look at it in more depth, please come to Torah Study tomorrow at 10:30!

But I want to connect it to why I am a Reform Jew, why I believe in Reform Judaism, and why I am so glad to be your new rabbi.

As some of you know,  one of the classes I have taught regularly is the Introduction to Ethics.  When we study ethics and religion, we always read Plato’s Euthyphro.    In this dialogue, Socrates is hanging around the court house trying to figure out how to avoid being exiled for corrupting the youth of Athens when we runs into Euthyphro, the high priest of Zeus who is there to accuse his own father of a crime.  Socrates asks him what has become known in philosophy as “Euthyphro’s Dilemma.”   Plato asks -(in Monotheistic translation)  Does God love what is good, or is something good because God loves it?  In other words, is something right just because God says so, or it something right because it is right, and God recognizes this and puts it into law.  What comes first:  GOOD or GOD?

It is one of the big issues in religious ethics, and it divides two MAJOR approaches to religion.  One is called Divine Command, which means that we as humans can’t really know right and wrong, and so we rely on God’s commands to tell us.  If God says it’s right, we have to do it, and if God says it’s wrong, we must not do it or face God’s wrath. The other is called Divine Perfection, and it argues that God gave us the intelligence, the empathy, and the capacity to know right from wrong ourselves, and to get better at knowing it over the centuries. 

Biblical religion and some forms of Orthodox Judaism are clearly Divine Command.  God says you can’t wear a wool/cotton blend, and so you can’t. But Judaism early on moved strongly toward Divine Perfection, and we can easily forget that modern rigid forms of Orthodoxy are reactions to modernity, growing out of the turmoil of the Enlightenment just as Reform Judaism did, but I believe Reform Judaism is in many ways much truer to our tradition.

In one famous Midrash, the rabbis decide that even if God calls out from heaven “this is wrong”, we don’t have to accept that because God gave us the ability to work it out on our own.

Humans are, by nature,  ‘meaning makers.’  And Jewish tradition is a profound mirror of what it means to be human. We see this very clearly in another commentary on these bold, proto-feminist daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

In the commentary of the Sfat Emet,  Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter who lived in the second half of the 19th Century, he argues that this moment when the daughters speak up is THE MOMENT where Judaism turns from Divine Command to Divine Perfection.  In their terms, it is where the revelation at Sinai ends and the oral law and rabbinic interpretation begins, AND THESE WOMEN ARE THE REASON. 

The Sfat Emet tells us that until this moment, law was about whatever God said to Moses, no questions asked.  Moses himself was not able to think past the literal approach to the laws God gave him.  But these daughters because of their direct experiences, saw that there was a big problem with the law as it was given, that there was injustice in it, and so they stepped forward and demanded justice.  They demanded the law be changed.

And look at God’s Answer!

Ken B’not Tz’lof’chad Dovrot:

“The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters" is just:

God changes the law upon recognizing that these women understood justice better than God had in this moment.  They knew it because they had lived it.

Reform Judaism  is often criticized by more traditional movements for ignoring Jewish law, for changing it, for ordaining women, for ordaining LGBT rabbis, for not focusing on kashrut –  but I think here, in the Daughters of Zelophehad we see just how old the urge to have our tradition match our direct experiences is.

Reform Judaism is rooted in the need for justice, for TIKUN OLAM. We focus on the ethics of the great Hebrew Prophets more than the minutiae of practice.  So did these women!  And so here at my first service here at this Reform Temple, I want to invite all of us to take up the mantle of these women, to be daughters of Zelophehad,  to step forward, to speak the truth of our lived experience, and to create a Jewish life that is joyous, wise, just, and spiritual.  Like the daughters we remember that to step forward in truth and in justice is to repair the world.  Together, let’s step forward to create the sacred community we know is possible, with God’s help. 

Ken Yehi Ratzon