The daughters of Tzelophechad and I have a lot in common. Granted, my family name Salzman was easier to pronounce, though I bet we got it misspelled as often as Mahla, Noa, Chogla, Milcha and Tirza did. Ok, maybe not. But what we really had in common was that we all had only sisters as siblings. No brothers, none between us.
The story of the daughters of Tzelophechad is one often cited by Jewish feminist writers and thinkers. Here were five sisters whose father died in the wilderness. The community is getting ready to cross over into the Land, and Moses is busy divvying up the land itself, via sons and fathers. The sisters walked right up to Moses, and in front of God and everyone (literally) cried foul. “It’s not our fault”, they said, “that our Dad died and left no sons. He was a good guy, not one of the rebellious Korach crowd, and we deserve a holding of land.” Sure enough, God agreed with them. So, in a stunning reversal of land-inheritance policy, “if a man dies without leaving as on, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.” (Num 27:8)
Those sisters had chutzpah. So do my sisters and I. I like to think that, had it been the daughters of Richard instead of the daughters of Tzelophechad, we would have stood up to Moses and gotten the same result…or more! I have great sisters; and we are a formidable group. Just ask any of the many men who have tried (and the very few who stayed) to attach themselves to us. You get all three of us, get used to it. And you get Mom, too. Richard surrounded himself with uppity women; I think he liked it. Maybe not, but that first uppity woman he loved, my mom, didn’t give him much of a choice. He may not have been comfortable with it, but he loved us – of that I am sure.
There were a lot of women in our family, many of them uppity. My grandmothers both were working women outside the home; though not both single, they were both the breadwinners. My maternal grandmother, born in Chicago, graduated college, as did my mother. I had no idea girls weren’t “supposed” to say the Kiddush on Friday night. As each of us learned it, we entered the rotation to say it for Friday night dinner. It was a real shock to find out only boys were supposed to say it, but then there weren’t any boys around, so who knew? In fact, there were a lot of things I didn’t know girls weren’t “supposed” to do in a Jewish setting, and the ones I was aware of, like reading Torah, really confused and bothered me.
I remember being in the last year of Hebrew school and my very traditional teachers separated out the boys and girls; boys got to go learn more and we girls had to learn about being a wife and mother.
What? Huh? I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Um, excuse me, but I’d rather go with them, and learn what they’re gonna learn.” I didn’t, but ironically, those wife/mother skills didn’t get called upon for years after I picked up Jewish learning again on my own. (Yes, there are thems that say I never did learn those skills too well….that would be my husband and kids….but I digress.)
This upcoming week is my dad’s yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his death 24 years ago. This Shabbat I’ll be saying Kaddish (again, didn’t know women weren’t “supposed” to do that…who else would, a stranger?), reading the story of my Torah-sisters, Mahla, Noa, Chogla, Milcha and Tirza, and thinking of my now-sisters, Jan and Batya. Wow. If all seven of us had been around together, there’s no telling …..well, never mind, we’re working on it now. Richard – no, Dad – no, Abba couldn’t be prouder of us Salzman women than if he was Tzelophechad.