This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, begins in the aftermath of one of the most X-rated acts in the entire Hebrew Bible. An Israelite man, Zimri, has sex in the Holy of Holies with a Midianite princess, Cozbi, before a crowd that was at once both wailingly mournful and shocked. For this, G-d rewards him with a covenant of peace. As for Pinchas’ zealotry–let’s just leave it with the idea that centuries of Jewish sages and thinkers have pondered his act, and his reward for it, a topic for another day. The point is that this reward for zealotry opens this week’s parasha, or weekly Torah portion.
After this incident, a census it taken. Within the context of the census, somewhere in the middle of the portion, we receive the first telling of the story of the daughters of Zelophchad. In summary, the father of the five sisters–Mahlah, Chaglah, Noa, Milcah, and Tirzah–has died. He didn’t participate in the rebellion of Korach, rather, as the girls declare, “He died of his own sin.” Tradition teaches us that it was Zelophchad who was stoned to death for chopping wood on Shabbat, but no matter. For our purposes now, it is only important to know that he is dead. Based on discussions between Moses and G-d so far, women have received no rights of inheritance when they enter the Promised Land. It is this injustice that the five daughters address as they go together, as a unit, to take their case to Moses, the chieftains and the entire congregation.
“Should our father’s name be lost because he has no sons?” they ask. Given no answer to this rhetorical question, they then state their demand in no uncertain terms: “Give us our portion.”
Self-disclosure: My fascination with this story is such that I have written the first draft of a novel about the daughters of Zelophchad. (I know, I know…I’ll get back to it…) Why the fascination? First of all a question for female readers with sisters: Can you imagine agreeing with your sister(s) on anything long enough and fiercely enough to go before 613,000 people and Moses himself to make your case? If one or two sisters are difficult, can you imagine having four sisters?
Just saying, though that isn’t the point either.
Rabbinic tradition endows these five sisters with the traits of wisdom (because they chose to speak at the right time); intelligence (they knew how to craft an persuasive argument that could not be punctured, as least not by G-d, who ultimately agreed with them); and virtuosity (since they married men who were worthy of them).
Obviously, the demand for “our portion,” connects to the historical moment we experienced last night, as we watched the first woman in American history accept the nomination of a major party to become president of the United States. The fight for equal rights for women in politics, the pulpit and the workplace has defined and shaped my adult life and the lives of whole generations of women. Don’t even ask me how annoyed we sometimes become with young women when they take it all for granted. “They have no idea,” we say among ourselves, no idea how far we have come in one hundred years, in forty years or even the last twenty. Or how frustrating to have to fight the same battles, like the right to make choices about our own bodies! How maddening, the misinformed misogynistic hypocrites, who won’t regulate guns or pollution, yet constantly spend their days figuring out how to pick apart a woman’s constitutional right to choose. How infuriating, their assault not only upon our rights, but on our intellect.
In this holy work of literature, named men far outnumber named women. Which makes it all the more striking that six named women appear in this week’s Torah portion: the five daughters of Zelophchad–Machlah, Noa, Milcah, Tirtzah and Chaglah– plus Cozbi. Cozbi, too, had a father named Tzur. The incident of the skewering (literally) of Cozbi and Zimri (of the tribe of Shimon) came occurred as Moabite women infiltrated the Israelite camp and brought their cultic practices along with them. From Mespotamia to Canaan, cultic sex with a sanctified woman for the purpose of appealing to the gods was not uncommon, and in the Israelite camp, it became endemic. However, Cozbi was no cultic prostitute; she was, in fact, a Midianite princess. Moses’ own wife was a Midianite, and Moses’ relations with his father-in-law and brothers-in-law had been friendly, even helpful at times. So why would Cozbi the Midianite princess do what she did?
Aside from the sacrilege before the Holy of Holies, the problem with Cozbi was political. Her sexual relationship with Zimri potentially represented a sort of treaty between one Israelite tribe and a local tribe. Such arranged marriages between tribal leaders commonly occur to create a treaty by family bond. The tribe of Shimon was part of the the southern flank of the tent-nation, and a marriage with a local princess could have threatened to open the entire nation to infiltration. While the sexual act of Zimri and Cozbi in the Holy of Holies was a shocking profanation, it is also not unlikely that a high-level marital match between children of tribal leaders could be perceived as a deliberate weakening of the whole community by creating both a ritual power struggle and a vulnerability to attack. If Tzur, Midianite king and father to Cozbi, formulated an end game to infiltrate in order to attack, he deliberately placed his daughter Cozbi in the position of using her sexuality to gain political power.
For Hebrew pun lovers: Cozbi’s name in Hebrew is spelled כזבי–from the root כזב, which means, “to lie.” In what ways have women had to lie to themselves, their partners, or friends and family, when using sexuality to gain power? We have only to look at the outpouring of stories of the women who have worked at the Fox network to see what they lost in the way of either money or self-esteem and self-respect, by working in a culture of constant and sanctioned sexual harassment.
Contrast Cozbi’s use of her sexuality to gain power with the daughters of Zelophchad, who use of their wisdom, intelligence and virtuosity to create a righteous demand that not even G-d could deny. I have imagined the whole preparation scenes: five sisters, aggrieved at not only the loss of their father, but the loss of his protection. They look to a future with no inheritance, and so they determine that rather than using their bodies to get what they need to survive, they will use their five diverse brains. Surely of the five there must have been the Beauty, the Brain, the Party Girl with the biting sense of humor, the Lover who has already fallen in love forever and just wants out, the Special One who is deaf or blind or a diviner of water. Undoubtedly, they proposed amongst themselves many possible arguments: Who will say this? Who will say that? How will we approach? What tone of voice should we use? Shout, whisper, or sing? Should we cry? Make them laugh? Pout? Surely they said things to each other that were maddening, hilarious, sad, crazy. And just as surely, they filled their tent full of great ideas both subtle and in-your-face, and discussed late into the night issues of right and wrong and weak and strong. At the end of all the arguing, their plan succeeded. When they made their demand–give us our portion–Moses had no answer. He turned to G-d, and was answered: Their demand is just.
Yesterday, Hillary Clinton claimed her portion and in doing so, the portion of all women who have strived and somehow come up short because they were a woman. Coming up short has happened to me and more women than I care to discuss. One of my daughters sees gender inequality in her workplace to this day. After all this and all that, white male privilege has not gone away. Yet, watching Hillary claim what she has worked so hard to achieve, not just in this election cycle but over a period of forty-plus years, filled me with tears of satisfaction and hope: if she can claim it, so can I. If I can, so can my daughters, and so can anyone who works hard and never gives up their core values: justice, human rights, equal rights, or commitment servant leadership to create change.
Say what you will about Hillary Clinton–you can trash gossip about her marriage, bla-bla-bla parrot the same old Fox news bla-bla-bla about her emails or Benghazi; you can made snide remarks about her pant suits, or her charisma. I say that all of that pales in comparison to her consistency and endurance over so many years. Like the daughters of Zelophchad, she has never given up against the odds or because of the nasty and often untrue things people say. Instead of bitterness and cynicism (to which she would have every right and would not be convicted by a jury of her peers), she has endured her struggles and humiliations with a grace that has filled her with wisdom and intelligence, and yes, virtuosity. What she claimed last night is what she has earned.
Watch your step now. Beware the shards of glass all over the floor. I will sweep up the glass, then fly off on my broomstick. If you see me writing a message across the evening sky as Shabbat descends on your city, the words won’t say, “Boo!” Rather, they’ll say, “Don’t boo! Vote!”