I remember that a few years ago, back in 2019, the United Nations Economic and Social Council voted with 40 in favor, nine abstentions, three countries absent, and only two votes against, stating that Israel was the main obstacle for Palestinian women to develop, progress, gain self-confidence, and integrate into society's development. Israel was seen as blocking the development of Palestinian women. Astonishingly, they had disregarded all the patriarchal customs of the Palestinian state, all the policies of oppression against women that were present and still exist, of course, four years later in the Palestinian state. This vote happened precisely during the week when we read Parashat Pinchas, the same one we read this week. This Torah portion includes none other than the episode of the daughters of Tzelofhad.
Tzelofhad had passed away, and his daughters understood that they were not, and were not going to be, the inheritors of the land he was going to receive upon entering the Promised Land. Only men were to inherit the land; only men were going to receive a portion of the land upon entering the Promised Land.
The three daughters confront Moshe, telling him that it is an injustice for them to be left without support by the law. Moshe consults with the Kadosh Baruch Hu and receives the commandment to give them their portion of land, changing what was a tradition at that time.
Of course, within Judaism, we have, let's not be blind, countless situations in which women should have a better place. But we are talking about a Torah situation that occurred 3000 years ago, a tradition that at that time was inconceivable to change, and yet it was done to make room for the three women.
That is my pride in being a Conservative Rabbi, a movement that fights precisely for women to have a better place than what different societies in different times have assigned to them. A movement that strives to continue analyzing our customs and seeing what is not right in order to do what is right while still upholding, respecting, and maintaining Halacha, the Jewish law.
The Midrash Raba states that during that time, "Oto a dor haiu hanashim godrot masheha anashim portzim," which means that women were fixing what men were ruining. Notice that there is no woman involved in the episode of the Eguel HaZaav, the Golden Calf. According to the same Midrash, while the spies, called merraglim, whom Moses had sent to explore the Promised Land, discouraged the people with their pessimistic vision of the imminent conquest, the women maintained a respectful silence not out of modesty but because they disagreed with that vision. The men wanted a leader like Korah who would return them to Egypt, the land they believed flowed with milk and honey and offered delicacies, fish, and cucumbers to eat. The daughters of Tzelofhad demanded their portion of the land that the Kadosh Baruch Hu had assigned to this challenging nation.
Perhaps women at that time, and perhaps even today, who knows, had a clearer vision and a clearer commitment to where we, as a people, should be heading.
But there is something more. The previous Parasha and the beginning of this one bring us a very violent story. We read that in an extremely provocative act, an Israelite man and his Midianite companion presented themselves together, precisely when promiscuity with the Midianites had caused a plague to strike the people.
"And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand. And he went after the man of Israel into the tent and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman, through her belly. So, the plague was stayed from the children of Israel."
It is striking how the text presents us with this extremely violent situation, sanctioned by the Kadosh Baruch Hu by causing the plague to cease. And in the same section, it shows us a compassionate God who changes the law to grant social justice to the three women.
Perhaps it is precisely to show us that by nature, we are unjust. We can be extreme in our actions and even in our decisions when faced with the injustices of our society. Just as the Kadosh Baruch Hu changed the law to make it fairer, we can, with respectful attitude and proper study within the rabbinic framework, find ways to fulfill our halacha in a manner that in every era, in every generation, it will not be an impediment to a better life, but quite the opposite.
Rabbi Gustavo Geier