Between the Lines—Pinhas

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

Sifre Numbers, 133

ספרי במדבר פיסקא קלג

קלג) ותקרבנה בנות צלפחד, כיון ששמעו בנות צלפחד שהארץ מתחלקת לשבטים לזכרים ולא לנקבות נתקבצו כולן זו על זו ליטול עצה אמרו לא כרחמי בשר ודם רחמי המקום בשר ודם רחמיו על הזכרים יותר מן הנקבות אבל מי שאמר והיה העולם אינו כן אלא רחמיו על הזכרים ועל הנקבות רחמיו על הכל שנאמר (תהלים קלו ט) טוב ה' לכל ורחמיו על כל מעשיו.


When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the Land was about to be divided among the tribes—but only for males, not for females—they gathered to take counsel. They decided that the mercies of flesh and blood are not like the mercies of God who is everywhere. Flesh and blood is apt to be more merciful to males than to females. But God who spoke and the world came into being is different—God's mercies are for males as well as females, God's mercies being for all: "The Lord is good to all, and God's tender mercies are over all God's works." (Psalms 145:9)

The feminist in me adores this midrash: a tannaitic (first- or second-century CE) work acknowledging misogyny and extolling the women in this week's parashah who appeal to a gender-blind God for mercy. With ever-present news stories of the gender-based gap in wages and job retention, the plea of the daughters of Zelophehad is still relevant.

Beyond the feminist angle, however, is a gender-neutral truth. This midrash echoes in feel the line from II Samuel that leads the Tahanun section of the daily liturgy: "Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for great is God's compassion; but let me not fall into the hands of mortals." We humans are hard on one another—quick to judge and full of harsh opinions. In calling upon the "God who spoke and the world came into being," we appeal to one who is full of mercy for all, and remember that kindness and justice are not always, or even often, at odds.