Last night the Torah group met again. As I was driving home, very sleepy and relaxed, I looked up into a dark dark sky and was startled to see the full moon, seemingly much closer and larger than I have ever seen it before. It looked like a gigantic golden hole punched into the darkness, exposing the light underneath.
We have come almost to the end of Numbers, almost to the end of the Israelites long, circuitous journey through the wilderness, around in circles most likely. The stories now come in small spurts, cushioned in swaths of repeated instructions for ritual, unlike in Genesis and Exodus, where they could spread out and unabashedly exist for their own sake. Of these, the most interesting is the story of Zelophehad's daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They may be the closest thing the tradition has to civil disobedience.
Unsurprisingly, the ancient Hebrew inheritance law did not allow for women to inherit their family holdings. Instead, their brothers, husbands, uncles, etc. would take the land and other belongings and be responsible for housing and feeding these women at their own discretion. Unmarried or widowed women were the most vulnerable members of the society, and differed from the customs of other peoples of the area, who were more equitable in their views on gender and inheritance. So this story of five unmarried women who demand (yes, demand, not ask) to inherit their father's land because he had no sons is intriguing and interesting.
This came at the time when the people remaining from the various plagues were about to enter the land of Canaan, and a census was being taken. Generally, the census included only men, but these sisters were among the few women mentioned. The tradition says that their father, who, according to the sisters, was not among the various rebellions against Moses' rule and God's as well, since the two were virtually synonymous during the long trek to the holy land, may have been a wood-bearer who broke the law of the sabbath and was killed for this transgression. Yet the women dared to speak up. And they were not skewered, slaughtered, silenced, but instead, unaccountably, celebrated in Torah by having their story repeated three times in its various books. And more amazingly,upon being told of their demands, God instantly made a new law that women like these, in families with no sons, would inherit their family lands. Not only does this mark an important stride forward for women in the tradition, but a step away from the Mosaic handing down of the law toward humans using precedent to decide on their own what justice is.
It is actually not the first time that the underdog wins out in the Jewish tradition. Think of Jacob, stealing his brother's blessing and other examples where the tradition flouts primogeniture, the traditional mark of power. Those early patriarchs and matriarchs sometimes as well are more like Odysseus with their wily, deceitful ways than perfect paragons of piety. And notably, the people who have dealings with God were never afraid to speak up or even speak back to him, objecting against plans to slaughter all the people for various infractions. And generally, their objections are taken seriously, and quell God's anger. It's a tradition where rational argument wins out, and meditative planning takes precedence over rage.