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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Microfinancing Zelophehad's Daughters


Dvar Torah For Parshat Matot/Masei and Second Week Of Tlata D’Puranuta 5770/2010.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad that we read in last week’s Torah portion, comes back to haunt us this week in an inverted way. Recall what we learned in Parshat Pinchas. As Moses is preparing the Israelites for entering and conquering the promised land, five women –the daughters of a man named Zelophehad- approach Moses with an unprecedented concern. The inheritance rules given to the people by God privilege sons over daughters. Only sons inherit their fathers’ estates. But the daughters pose a unique problem: they have no brothers to inherit their deceased father. Is it fair that his property and legacy should be lost because they, his descendants, are forbidden from inheriting him? This is one of four “on-the-spot” cases that are brought to Moses and God in the book of Numbers, generally as complaints, because they present the potential for injustice and unfairness. God addresses the daughters’ complaint by ruling that in a case of a man who has only daughters, his estate reverts to them upon his death. At the very end of Parshat Masei that we just read, the leaders of Zelophehad’s tribe approach Moses on the eve of entering the land of Canaan and press the matter of his daughters’ inheritance in the other direction: if these five women, and other women in the tribe, inherit their fathers’ estates then marry out of the tribe, the tribe’s property holdings will be diminished. Once again, God engages in an on-the-spot ruling that the daughters are only to marry within the tribe itself, so that the tribal property will be maintained. The book of Numbers ends with the five daughters marrying their cousins within their clan.

As I have mentioned in the past, these two stories about Zelophehad’s daughters fascinate me because they show us how even God, as it were, has not anticipated each real life situation of injustice encountered by the Israelites that requires rectification. Even God has to be moved by the complaints of human beings who see an injustice being created inadvertently. Back in Genesis, Abraham challenged the Judge of all the earth to act justly by distinguishing the righteous from the evil citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah before punishing the cities. Here in Numbers, the same challenge to God to rectify potential injustices is brought up, howbeit on a smaller scale. Continuing this theme of human beings alerting God to potential injustices, note of course that God only modifies the ruling about the daughters’ inheritance rights with respect to their marriages after their tribe complains.

As I noted last week, this is not the feminist text that some would like to read it as. The daughters do not press their case with Moses as an issue of fairness to women: “Why should we not be able to inherit like the men? Aren’t we as good as any brother?” They pose their question to Moses in order, ostensibly, to achieve justice for the memory and honor of their deceased father. Further, what we would think of as the ultimate injustice –that daughters were not allowed to inherit equally with sons- is never really addressed in this story at all. Nor is it ever rectified in later Halakhah, even though in much of the ancient world women did inherit equally with men. Nonetheless, as the basis for a discussion about Judaism and women’s empowerment, our story is remarkable, given the boldness of these daughters in even making their case before Moses and God. I believe that this is the only case of bold women pressing God directly for justice in the five books of Moses. Generally when biblical female characters advocate for themselves or for others, they do so surreptitiously, well behind the scenes, and as it were, behind the backs of God and men.

What more can we take away from this unique story about the proactivity of Zelophehad’s daughters? Is it there to teach us more than what we have analyzed? Though what I am about to say is admittedly a midrashic stretch, I think its spirit has a basis in the bold spirit of these women as narrated by the Torah. I imagine the following scene. Zelophehad has died, as the Torah tells us in Numbers , ch.27, because of his sinful behavior, something that his daughters make very clear to Moses and the community. Later rabbinic commentators identify Zelophehad with the man who was put to death for violating Shabbat, a story found back in Numbers , ch. 15. The daughters pick up from shivah, grieving, distraught, and humiliated. They are now tainted as a family by daddy’s public behavior and execution, they lose pedigree that will help them to find husbands, and worse yet, they have no property rights. Soon enough, the males in the family will grab everything, leaving them even less empowered than they already are. Surely, the God who commanded their community to love one’s neighbor and to protect the orphan and the widow would not want them to lose their one source of empowering livelihood—the ancestral property of their father! With that land, they can grow their own food, make money, and support themselves. However, no matter how just God may be, the men in the community are very set in their traditions, especially when it comes to women inheritance rights. The daughters huddle one night. “Look, we know what we need to have happen here, but if we argue this with Moses in our own behalf, he’ll never go for it. He simply lacks God’s expansive vision for equality and justice, as great a man as he is. Besides, the community overall will have too many problems with this. We need to frame this demand of ours as being about daddy: how can the community allow his name to be utterly obliterated just because he was unlucky enough to only have girls?” The next day, they call out Moses and the community. God, Who wants these women to have real earning power, but Who also knows that even He can’t change a community’s attitudes over night, gives Moses the ruling. A man dies, leaving only daughters? Let them inherit his property. Yes, Zelophehad’s tribe will come back and complain about the negative effects this may have on their property holdings, but God will deal with that later. For now, five women have taken one small step forward in preserving their family’s livelihood with God’s backing. This is my modern midrashic take on the story.

In a world very much controlled by a male power structure, the daughters needed courage, ingenuity, and a lot of help from God to secure their father’s property for their well being. We should not think that the reality for women is all that different in many parts of the world today; if anything, it has always been much worse for women and their children, especially in vast parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, than it had ever been for them in the times of the Torah, a book that does care deeply about loving one’s fellow human beings. In their powerful book, Half the Sky, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn describe the hideous treatment of women in a good part of the developing world today. They are often viewed as subhuman compared with men, they have no real access to health care, no political rights, and most of all they lack the two things that actually give them status in their largely rural communities: property on which to grow crops, and resources to make money by starting their own modest businesses. The authors advocate strongly for an empowerment tool for these women –and many poor men as well- that is both simple and very Jewish: microfinance, which is the brain child of Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus, a Pakistani economist. Yunus realized that the best way to empower poor women economically and emotionally is to give them small loans to build businesses, grow food, or stabilize their families so they can build their earning power. Since the time that he developed this practice through his Grameen Bank, microfinance has “gone viral”. Its benefits to poor but proactive women are obvious: like Zelophehad’s daughters, they don’t just get hand outs from government or private sources, they get tools for taking care of themselves and their families in the dignified form of loans that they can pay back after making money. With increased earning power, their status in their villages and towns increases –thus bettering their lives with the men among whom they live. Its benefit to you and me, Western benefactors, is the incredibly small amount of invested –not donated- money it takes to help them. My family recently made a modest investment with Kiva, a major, reputable clearing house for microloans, to six entrepreneurs and business groups in Africa and Asia, many of whom are women or made up of women. Together with others around the world, we are lending them amounts, which to Westerners, are very low, but to them will make all the difference between chronic poverty and self subsistence. This kind of lending also gives them the ability to contribute to their nations’ emerging free market economies, something that can only make them stronger. Finally, in case this was not clear, microfinance is exactly what our teacher, Maimonides, was talking about when he taught that the highest level of Tzedakah is when you lend money or give a job to a needy person. By doing this, you are restoring his or her independent earning power and dignity.

One of the best things to do during these three weeks of contrition and sadness leading down to the Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning and fasting, is to do mitzvot that help others, thus contributing to the redemption of one small piece of the world. I strongly recommend that you think about the traditional mitzvah of microfinance as one way of making a difference in the world. and American Jewish World Service’s website at can tell you more about how to do this. The daughters of Zelophehad could easily have despaired themselves into a cycle of endless poverty and misery, following the death of the most powerful male in their lives. Instead they took a small but significant action, with God’s support, an action that provides us with an empowerment model for all people –women and men- throughout the world today. We have a positive role to play in helping the modern day daughters of Zelophehad. Let us do our best to play that role.

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