"Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward . . . " (Num. 27:1). In that generation the women rebuilt the [moral] fences which the men had broken down . . .
It was thus [in the case of] the spies who uttered a slanderous report [about the Land of Israel]: " . . . those who returned and caused the whole community to murmur against [Moses . . . ]" (Num. 14:36). Because of them the decree [not to enter the Land] was issued, for they had said: "We are unable to go up . . . " (Num. 13:31).
The women, however, were not with them in [following the spies'] counsel, as it is written [in the passage] preceding this section: "For the Lord had said of them: 'They shall surely die in the wilderness.' Not a man among them survived, except Caleb son of Jephunneh [and Joshua son of Nun]" (Num. 26:65). [The text speaks of] 'a man' but not of 'a woman.' Why? Because the men had been unwilling to enter the Land. But the women came forward to demand an inheritance in the Land. Consequently the present section was recorded next to that [foretelling] the death of the generation of the wilderness, for it was there that the men broke down the fences and [then] the women rebuilt them.
My four-year-old niece, Noa, is named after the second of Zelophehad's five daughters, and her parents chose that name in order to bestow upon their daughter the moral fortitude of her biblical forebear. My niece's namesake helped to raze barriers to women's rights in the Torah portion we discuss this week, but this activism severely contrasts with the biblical sisters' more conventional role of raising moral fences in the midrash above. In that sense, this rabbinic text reflects many of the challenges we continue to face regarding gender and legal innovation.
In this midrash, Zelophehad's daughters figuratively rebuild fences, a metaphor for needing to clean up the mess that their male contemporaries had made due to their lack of faith in God. That rabbinic statement interprets the sisters' faithful beseeching of Moses to create a more equitable inheritance law as a direct reaction to God's punishment of the faithless former slaves who failed to believe in the Promised Land. While clever, this reading submits to a "zero-sum game" theory of social change, in which progress for one group inevitably comes only after great cost to another party.
However much the Conservative Movement has gained in its embrace of egalitarianism, we still have room for improvement. As our institutions have made major strides regarding equity and inclusion for women, gays, and lesbians, these gains have come alongside a decrease in boys' and men's participation in a host of Movement activities. As a rabbinical student and now as a rabbi, I have observed the tremendous power of single-gender spaces, of men and women learning and/or praying in separate groups. We must build similar fences to create safe space for our boys and girls to meet their unique needs while also teaching them the significance of a world without enforced barriers between them.