TEEmail_June 28_Denker

This Week In Torah

Shabbat Pinhas 5773

Numbers 25:10-30:1

Jeremiah 1:1-2:3



This week’s Torah portion opens with God awarding Pinhas, son of Aaron, with the dynasty of the High Priesthood in recognition of his having taken swift, decisive and deadly action against those who would defile God’s sanctuary or, for that matter, any part of the Hebrew’s camp with inappropriate sexual activities and combinations. Having grabbed your attention with that racy bit of violence, the text wends its way through some genealogy pausing to mention that Tz’lafhad of the Tribe of Manasseh had five daughters, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah (26:26). (I mention their names because most writers talk only of “The Daughters of Tz’lafhad” denying them their identities.)


Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah have a problem. According to The Law, only males could inherit the use of a portion of Israel as it had been assigned to each tribe, clan and family through a Divinely guided lottery. They appeal to Moses, who inquires of God, who, in turn, amends the law so that the daughters of a man who dies with only female offspring can inherit from him.  

Looks like one small step for five daughters, one biblical step for feminism? Not so fast!

The leaders of Manasseh realize that even God cannot avoid the law of unintended consequences. If Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah marry outside of their tribe, the land would, in the next generation, pass from one tribe to another in contradiction to the Divine sub-division. The solution: daughters who inherit in this manner are restricted to marrying within their tribe. Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were required to marrying their father’s brothers’ sons, patrilineal cousins (Numbers 36). So much for woman’s liberation in the Bible!

Confused? Welcome to the club. That is the club created by this past week’s U. S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage.

Just like God’s initial ruling in our Parasha, the Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act and, less directly on California’s Proposition 8, created a new set of legal contradictions and ‘loose ends’. As in the Torah, the laws of the nation, came into conflict with the rights of the tribes (read: “States”). And, by stopping short of declaring a ‘human right to marriage’ we continue to view our marriage laws in a biblical light, meaning that their goal is to secure and clarify property rights rather than the promotion of personal fulfillment and happiness. Echoing the proximity of Pinhas’ narrative, the American debate is distinct from and yet inextricably connected to moral judgments about with whom, and under what circumstances may you engage in a sexual relationship.  

Except for the notion of romantic love and individual rights (concepts largely absent in the Bible but well known to the Rabbis) the questions seem very much the same as they have always been. The lesson: for us, as well as for God, creation is very much a ‘work-in-progress’. Just as it was for Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – our world is a bit fairer and more just than it was a week ago, it is better, but not yet perfect. Our work, and God’s continues…

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Steve Denker