“I am Zelophehad’s daughter”

This past Tuesday, I was officiating the Bat Mitzvah of a young woman from New Jersey.  Brook, a nervous teenager, was accompanied by her parents, siblings, and grandparents.  The Bat Mitzvah was a wonderful success as she chanted and read prayers with ease.  Towards the end of her service, a group of tourists walked in, and sat down smiling.  They and I then received a special gift, which was an unexpected “closing song” moment.  Brook had decided that she’d like to play her saxophone to the tune of Hatikvah to end her Bat Mitzvah.  I was thrilled.  I had everyone gather in close, including our new friends, as we experienced something new.  I was almost positive that no one in the history of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas had ever ended a Bat Mitzvah by filling our historic halls with the sound of the saxophone.  History was made and the moment reminded me of why I love my job as a Reform rabbi.  I get to experience our movement, ever changing, progressing, being added to.

Perhaps another rabbi in another movement would have said, “No! No musical instruments!  The Temple has not yet been rebuilt!”  But I said, “A Saxophone?  Cool!  Let’s do it!”  When Brooke finished playing, everyone clapped, the family hugged one another, the tourists hugged the family, and everyone yelled mazel tov. THIS was a moment of Judaism.  It is our understanding of Judaism that allowed this situation to happen.  In fact, everything about this situation happened with thanks to the idea of progress. For example, for generations only men were given the honor of becoming a child of the commandment, until it was decided that women could as well, and the Bat Mitzvah was created.  The first American Bat Mitzvah occurred in 1922, and a few decades later, the first Bat Mitzvah occurred here, at The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas.

For centuries, Torah readings only occurred on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.  These were the “market days,” the days in which a minyan was possible because everyone was out already.  Of course, this tradition eventually became law and so now synagogues around the world only have Torah readings or B’nai Mitzvah on those days.  Here at The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, however, we were receiving requests for B’nai Mitzvahs on other days of the week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  We had a choice: we could say no because the law is the law, or we could reinterpret the law based upon the needs of the community.  We saw that because of our 10,000 tourists each year and because of a seven-day-a-week cruise ship schedule, every day is a market day.  And thanks to this interpretation, we can have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah on a Tuesday.

The blessings within our religion are built upon progression, upon meeting people where they are.   Reform Judaism knows that tradition is important, but by no means is it binding and immovable.  Some may call this reckless, asking “who are you to change history, to change the law?”  Well, the answer comes in our parsha this week, Ma’asei.  The last parsha of the book of Numbers, Ma’asei tells the story of the daughters of Zelophehad.  In our previous parsha, Pinchas, the story begins, and in this week’s parsha, it ends.  Dedicated Israelites, the daughters—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah—come before their leader, Moses, with a problem.  Their father has passed away while wandering the wilderness, and he has left no sons, no heir, to carry on his clan’s name, no one to claim his property.  In other words, living in a patriarchal society, the daughters of Zelophehad come forward telling Moses that the law that is in place means that all of Zelophehad’s  kinsmen, his holdings, his properties, will be lost simply because there is no male heir.  There are, however, five daughters—five very capable daughters—who come to the leader to challenge the law, so that they can take possession of their father’s holdings and carry on the family name. It is a critical moment. Moses can reject the claim outright, but he does not.  Instead, he takes the case before Adonai, the ultimate judge.  And what does God say?  Does God say “This is the way it’s done!”?  Does God say “The law is the law!”?  No.  God replies to Moses: “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.  Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.”[1] Thus, in this week’s parsha, God adds to the ruling from a few chapters ago, stating that the daughters of Zelophehad may marry anyone they wish within the clan of their father’s tribe, so as to not pass inheritance from one tribe to another.  The tribe’s inheritance is protected, and daughters who inherit those shares preserve it and keep it in the family.

Look what has happened here.  Don’t dismiss it so easily, friends, as just another story.  Instead, the Torah is showing us an instance where the law that was in place, the tradition that was in place, the culture that was in place, needed to be changed.  And not just in this instance, but in the future as well!  In a tribal patriarchal society, the law was changed so that if a man dies without leaving a son, his daughter becomes the property holder.  Imagine that!  Can you imagine the uproar?  “A woman? But that’s never been done before,” the critics must have cried.  “What next? Leaving the property to the man’s pets?” the slippery-slopers must have yelled.  “Who are these daughters to even suggest change?” the older tribal leaders must have murmured.

But it was so.  In the wilderness, a law was changed, tradition was changed, society was changed.  No lightning bolts descended from the sky, no one left the Israelite tribes, and no one stopped donating money or gold or whatever they donated at that time.  Society showed that things were changing, a situation appeared in which the law no longer fit, and it was changed.  As Reform Jews, we follow in the steps of Zelophehad’s daughters.  They had the courage to stand up when something didn’t work right, and change it.  And so we have continued, honoring our daughters as they become Bat Mitzvah, officiating ceremonies on a Tuesday, and yes, even listening to the sounds of the saxophone echo in our historic sanctuary.  Each day I serve as a Reform rabbi, I am happy to know that I am part of a movement of progression, of change.  Our institutions and our unions all watch the world shift, and as it shifts, so do we.  When we do so, we do not leave anything behind, rather we adapt and create a Judaism that works for everyone.

So, when another Jew comes up to you, railing against Reform Judaism and its progressive values, asking “who are you to change history, to change the law,”  you can proudly look that person in the eye and say, “I am Zelophehad’s daughter.”

[1] Numbers 27:7-8


One Comment Add yours

  1. denalangdon66@gmail.com says:


    Sent from my iPhone



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