Blogging the Torah: Parashat Pinchas, Whose Seed is it Anyway?


This post is dedicated to my teacher, my friend, Hazzan Faith Steinsnyder.

If royal watchers were Bob Dylan fans, they might be singing “The Times They Are A Changin’.” The Parliament has passed a law allowing the monarchy to be passed down to a royal daughter who is the first born, even if she has a younger brother. So if Kate and Will have a baby daughter and then a son, the daughter would become the Queen and she would change centuries of tradition by being next in line. Personally, I don’t think Queen Elizabeth is going anywhere soon. But I’m glad that this tradition has been set to rest. Or has it?

Just last week, the NY Times reported that the British inheritance laws that we all learned about by watching Downton Abbey are still in effect. (Who says that television isn’t educational?) As you may recall, Lord Grantham ends up in a pickle when his lone male heir dies on the Titanic. (Shades of Upstair/Downstairs? I digress.) He needs to dig up a male heir as he only has daughters. Thankfully the dead heir has a brother (I think he’s a brother) who falls in love with one of the Grantham daughters. Don’t bother figuring it out; he was killed in the closing moments of the last season. Thankfully, he produced a male heir first.

Back in the real world, it seems that these rules still apply, despite the new Kate and Will law. A lone daughter cannot inherit title or castle. And as you can imagine, there are some British women who are not very happy. At this point, I bet you are wondering what this all has to do with the Torah portion.

In Pinchas, this week’s portion, we hear the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. Zelophehad had five daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Micah, and Tirzah, all of whom are actually named in the Torah. (Numbers: 27:1-11) Just before this family’s story, a census is taken and we hear that there are no sons in this family. When the census is concluded, God tells Moses to apportion the land according to the census – the males in the census, that is. Well, it seems that papa Zelophehad was no longer with us and I’m sure the daughters were saying, “Hey, what about us?” and other choice words. How would they survive? So the women did an amazing thing. They petitioned Moses, Eleazar the priest, all of the priests, and the entire community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The fact that they left their house and went to the Tent of Meeting without a male is a big deal. That these women would petition Moses and the community was a first.

They explained that their father died in the desert and he wasn’t part of the Korach rebellion. He wasn’t an outlier. Why should their father’s name be wiped out just because there is not male heir? The women request their father’s portion. Moses brought the question before God. And God spoke to Moses saying that they should have a portion alongside that of their uncles. And with this, the law was changed. Although it was a minor change. It was only if there was not male heir, and the land was supposed to stay within the tribe. But still, it was a Biblical bit of feminism. And in the royal world, it seems to have stopped there.

In the case of Parashat Pinchas, this is the financial inheritance that may be passed down after one’s death. But we have all learned that there are many other things that we can inherit. I only need to look in the mirror every morning and see my mother’s face to remember that. And as those of us who have had the honor of learning from a great teacher, we know that we inherit knowledge and skills, imgressome of which we cannot even comprehend until years later. One only needs to look at the faces of the Village Temple Bar and Bat Mitzvah students when Cantor Steinsnyder is working with them, or they are on the bimah by her side to know that this is true. They look at her for assurance and she is beaming when they lead us in prayer. I have had the honor of not only being one of Cantor Steinsynder’s students, but watching her with her young charges. She guides, she points, she is patient, she is supportive, she glows. In short, she is a teacher, she is a mentor, she is a giver, she is a cantor. And as her tenure at the Village Temple comes to an end, she will be greatly missed by her community.

In Pirkei Avot, Joshua ben Pirach-yah taught:

Aseh l’cha rav, u-kinei licha haverah

Select a master-teacher for yourself,

Find a friend

I have found both. And that is the most precious gift of all.

About Gail F. Nalven

Jewish Educator, Rabbi, Tefillah Leader, Songleader, Teacher, and Freelance Jew
This entry was posted in Music, Spirituality, Teaching/Education, Torah, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Blogging the Torah: Parashat Pinchas, Whose Seed is it Anyway?

  1. Gail F. Nalven says:

    I was honored to be asked to present this dvar Torah at Village Temple this past Shabbat eve. It was great to be able to add an update about another inheritance case with a royally named plaintiff, Eddie Windsor. Eddie Windsor was not so different from the daughters of Zelophehad. She appealed to the highest court of the land for inheritance rights from her spouse, Thea Speyer, and she won. And like with the daughters of Zelophehad, the decision has far reaching implications for generations to come.

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