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For Parashat Devarim, the question is, what are the generational traumas that we need to face in order to move forward?

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Bnot Tzelofchad unsatisfying victories

In this week’s Torah portion, we have what is often lauded as the first overtly feminist, or at least proto-feminist action taken in Torah. I realized that I’ve never drashed directly about it, though I’ve referenced it off-hand. Committing to a closer reading this year, I realized that it’s because it brings up some feelings for me, somewhere in the range of discomfort, or at least dissatisfaction. I’ll be curious about what you think.

First, some backstory: a census is taken in Parshat Pinchas, for the purposes of apportioning the land that the people are about to enter. After listing all males over the age of 20 by their clan and their tribe, Chapter 26, verses 52-55, teach: “Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, “Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment. The land, moreover, is to be apportioned by lot; and the allotment shall be made according to the listings of their ancestral tribes. “

Here is the default: the land will be held by tribes, apportioned based on the numbers of adult males in each one. After listing the number of Levites, who because of their Temple service will not receive a share of the land, the flow of instruction is interrupted, at the beginning of Chapter 27, as five women raise their voices. The story spans 11 verses:

1The 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. 3They stood before Moshe, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, 3“Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against יהוה, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. 4Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kin!” 5Moshe brought their case before Hashem. 6And Hashem said to Moshe, 7“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. 8“Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a householder* dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. 9If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. 10If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. 11If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, who shall inherit it.’ This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with יהוה’s command to Moshe.”

Of course this is considered a feminist text: five women stick together and speak up to power – and they win their case!

And yet – Rabbi Ethan Tucker put it well in his essay, “Equality Without Adjuncts?” If we read the text closely, the daughters’ claim “is not a feminist claim, but the dutiful objection of faithful, patriarchal daughters. They are concerned not for their own inheritance (they don’t say, נגרע למה”/Why have we been left out?”) but for the erasure of their father’s name from the annals of Israelite inheritors (יגרע למה נחלתו מתוך אבינו שם”/Why should our father’s name be left out from his inheritance?”).”

It is notable that they don’t make a claim that women should inherit equally with men, only that to preserve the name of the patriarch, daughters should inherit when there are no other options. And that is the victory that they win: daughters inherit when there are no other options.

This is perhaps why I always feel somewhat dissatisfied reading this text: we are left with some increased autonomy for women – when it serves the larger needs of patriarchy. The women make their case – but only appealing to the logic of a patriarchal system. They do not shake the foundations of that systems. And what alternative do they have? There is no existing outside of that system.

Fortunately, midrash comes to the rescue. There are two that I find very compelling.

An ancient midrash from Yalkut Shimoni[1], starts out by imaging the daughters, as written, dutifully concerned for their father’s memory. It says that the daughters even suggested to Moshe that their mother perform yibum – the Torah mandated marriage of a childless widow to her husband’s brother, so that she could bear progeny in her deceased husband’s name. Moshe tells them that is impossible – only when a husband died without any children, literally “without seed” is yibum permitted. The daughters respond with a coup de grace: “Moshe you, are contradicting yourself! Either we are not “seed” and the obligation of yibum applies to our mother, or we are “seed” and can inherit the land ourselves.”

According to this midrash, the women play by the rules, and subvert them: Stuck with the potential contradiction, Moshe and Hashem concede that they are indeed full people.

But Sifrei Bamidbar, another ancient Midrash, makes a more breathtaking claim[2]:

“When the daughters of Tzelofchad heard that the land was to be apportioned to the tribes and not to females, they gathered together to take counsel, saying: Not as the mercies of flesh and blood are the mercies of HaMakom. The mercies of flesh and blood are greater for males than for females.

Not so the mercies of the One who spoke and brought the world into being. His mercies are for males and females (equally). That One’s mercies are for all! As it is written (Psalms 145:9) “Hashem is good to all, whose mercies are upon all creations.”

What I love about this ancient midrash, written by men, is that it imagines Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah reasoning together – correctly­ – that their patriarchal society is flawed, and that they must appeal directly to God. This midrash concedes that God, in the ideal society that S/He envisions, values and cares for men and women equally, even though humans fail to uphold that standard. Thousands of years ago, the male authors of this midrash had their own discomfort, their own insight that something was wrong with the distinctions made in their own society, and were willing to quote Psalms to prove that the Divine ethic is different.

Perhaps it could not have occurred to the daughters to ask for more, living as they did among “flesh and blood.” And we, too, live among “flesh and blood.” To the extent that Torah is a mirror, I am left with the challenge that this parashah and its midrashim bring up for me: what are the aspects of patriarchy and misogyny that I have so internalized that I take them for granted even when I think I’m challenging patriarchy? What are the ways that my imagination of what is possible is limited by what I know? And how can I get closer to the divine ethic described in the midrash – of a world in which all receive equal justice and mercy?

These are not just questions for myself, but for all of us.

Shabbat shalom.

[1] Yalkut Shimoni Bamidbar 27:2

[2] Sifrei Bamidbar 133:1

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Abundance and Anxiety (July/August 2022)

Summer is such a glorious time in our region. The hot, late sunsets beckon us to picnics at rivers and reservoirs. My children go almost feral with the wealth of fruit available for the picking in the alleys. There is an abundance: of fresh produce, of sunshine, of hours of daylight.

Increasingly, summer is also a time of anxiety, a time when we are aware that fire might destroy everything.  We wonder whether shifts in the wind will cause wildfires to rip through and destroy places we love, or even just to cause smoke to hang heavy over this valley, choking us and forcing us indoors.

Our ancestors were no strangers to this combination of anxiety and abundance. Living in a land of mountains and valleys, near a western coast facing the Mediterranean Sea, they too were subject to seasonal rainfall. They too understood both the potential danger and the potential blessing of the dry months. The prayer of the High Priest every Yom Kippur included request that the coming year be both hot and rainy.

In our cosmic year cycle, summer brings the Three Weeks, a time in which the mourning for most of the famous Biblical and Rabbinic calamities that befell our people are condensed into an intensive period of mourning, bookended by two fast days. With the close of the second of those days, Tisha B’Av, we celebrate the waxing moon and the potential for rebirth, and embrace the joy that comes when we are willing to fully face our fear and sadness. Tisha B’Av is followed, less than a week later, by Tu B’Av, an ancient holiday associated with love and joy, of which the Talmud says, “There were no more joyful days in Israel than Yom Kippur and Tu b’Av.” This quote hints that the both the morning and the celebration point us toward the ultimate renewal that is possible in the season of teshuvah, when we release the wounds of the past year and cleanse ourselves to greet whatever is coming.

This season in our community, we have opportunities to learn and grieve, as well as to sing and celebrate together.  As you enjoy the abundance of summer and try to stay safe, I invite you make a little time for Torah, for lamenting, and for joyful song and gathering together.

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Losing sight of the pregnancy in abortion debate

The Register-Guard (December 2021)

Two years ago I underwent a harrowing medical condition. For nine months, my body housed a rapidly expanding uterine growth. It drained my energy, created arthritic symptoms in my joints and caused weight gain of almost 40 pounds. I expelled it from my body in a dangerous process involving 17 hours of increasingly intense pain. I required several weeks of recuperation.

I willingly put up with this—twice! I wanted the babies, and I love the children they are becoming. But as abortion is relitigated, and the issue remains framed as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” I feel perturbed.

We largely don’t talk about pregnancy when we talk about abortion — about lawmakers decreeing that other people’s bodies must house something that is excruciatingly uncomfortable and potentially mortally dangerous for nearly a year. In our society, this process coincides with lack of support for the well-being of those women’s bodies and insufficient time to recover from the physical exhaustion of pregnancy and birth.

When I recall this exhausting condition, I am pained at the idea that anyone who doesn’t want to be a parent would be forced to endure pregnancy.

I strongly believe in protecting innocent life. While my faith tradition doesn’t teach that human life begins at conception, I can respect that belief. I can even agree that in an ideal world, abortion would never happen outside of medical necessity; people would have the knowledge and resources to prevent unwanted pregnancy and every conception would be wanted.

The Bible demands that we all care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger: the vulnerable who tend to be invisible and neglected. But as a spiritual leader, I am also aware that it is easy — and even cheap — to demand that someone else do the caring. The harder and more important spiritual challenge is recognizing the obligations in our own lives to care for the vulnerable.

Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who spent decades working to ban abortion, wrote a New York Time op-ed in 2019 about his change of heart. He admitted that pro-life work often ends at birth, failing to provide any social or financial support for young mothers and children.

In his words, “I can no longer pretend that telling poor pregnant women they have just one option — give birth and try your luck raising a child, even though the odds are stacked against you — is ‘pro-life’ in any meaningful sense.”

Pregnancy is difficult enough when it is wanted, as mine were. In a society that fails to prevent sexual violence or offer even basic sex education, let alone health care, parental leave or other services, it is immoral to require women to just “take responsibility” for an unwanted pregnancy.

Those who refuse to advocate for welfare, guaranteed food, housing, child care and medical care for needy families are guilty of cheap caring when they simultaneously demand that women find room within their very bodies for fetuses they do not want.

It’s easier to demand another person put her own body at risk to nourish a life than it is to accept a personal share of responsibility for all the lives already here.

Her column will resume after she completes a five-month sabbatical in June 2022. 

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