I often think about the idea of legacy. What do I want to leave behind to my children and to the next generation? In the synagogue and nonprofit world, there is a growing shift for people to make contributions to these institutions in their wills. It is a meaningful way to not only sustain the future of these organizations, but to ensure that their assets will be shared with the places that they supported in life.
As I reread Parashat Pinchas, I began thinking about legacy giving not only in terms of the financial, but also in terms of the spiritual. Our Torah portion tells the story of the five daughters of a man named Zelophehad, who seemingly died during the long journeys through the wilderness. These women came before Moses, Eleazar the High Priest and the entire Assembly of Israel to make a legal claim regarding their father’s legacy.
Where did they do it? At the Tent of Meeting, essentially in front of the entire community. Why did they do it? Because Moses was in the process of apportioning the land of Israel to each of the 12 tribes, based not only on the size of the tribe, but also based on inheritance, which was traditionally patrilineal, provided only to male heirs. The daughters claimed that, since their father had no sons, they should receive their father’s legacy. “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:4).
Moses consulted God. God decided that women ought to be allowed to receive their father’s property when there was no male heir, thus revolutionizing the laws of inheritance. The Torah teaches, “If a man dies without a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter” (Numbers 27:8). Though not quite true egalitarianism, we are witnessing a watershed step toward equality.
So why was the plea of these women so effective? It boils down to legacy. A midrash in the Babylonian Talmud teaches that these women were successful because they embodied three qualities: wisdom (hachmanyut), the ability to expound the law (darshaniyut) and righteousness (tzadkaniyut). â€« The daughters of Zelophehad demonstrated wisdom and intellect with their timing, knowing exactly when to broach the subject with Moses. The midrash suggests that when the daughters realized that Moses was studying the laws of inheritance (legacy giving), they saw an opportunity to point out that women were excluded.
Moses consulted God, which resulted in a new law added to the Torah taking into account families with only female descendants. Then the daughters were able to expound the law (darshaniyut. And finally, they were righteous (tzadkaniyut) because they banded together in order to defend one another. Had one of them gotten married, the male spouse would have inherited the property. In order to strengthen their sisterly bond, they remained loyal to one another by not marrying until after the property was settled. These women embodied righteousness by putting their own desires on hold for the sake of their family.
The daughters of Zelophehad teach me that legacy is not only about what we receive from those who came before us, but what we leave behind for those who follow. In recent weeks and years we’ve witnessed watershed moments around race, gender and sexuality. The actions of the daughters of Zelophehad demonstrate the courage, faith and humility required to make substantive change not only in our lives, but for all life, now and in the future. These women used their wisdom and understanding of the tradition to act righteously toward one another, their communities and toward God.
The daughters remind me that being a part of the Jewish community requires that we are patient yet persistent in helping all human beings to experience the material and spiritual rights we deserve, as Jews and together with all people created in God’s image. May we be blessed to create a legacy inspired by the leadership and strength of these women. May their qualities of wisdom, understanding and righteousness be the core of our legacy, both in how we live and what we leave behind for others to remember and emulate.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.