These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Stand Tall

Posted on July 16, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

Tonight I am writing to you from my backyard in Toronto. It’s not exactly Jerusalem, but the weather is pleasant as the sun sets and the birds are chirping. Literally. I can’t really tell if I’m ‘acclimatized’ to Toronto – not just in the meteorological sense – but so far, so good. Now and then the Jerusalem Blues resurface. But keeping busy helps and being with family and friends that I’ve missed is really a treat!
This week I want to dedicate my dvar Torah in honour of my grandmothers, Freida Frankel (Grandma) – of blessed memory – and Sylvia/Sirky (Bubby) Wolynetz — may she live a long and healthy life. My Grandma was one of the most tenacious women I know! Not only did she have wit and a sharp intellect, she had a very strong sense of what was right and pursued it until the end. My Bubby is one of those women who lights up every room. Even if she’s having a rough day, she will always manage to cheer herself up with a upbeat tune and see the good in others. But more than anything else, both of my grandmothers are models of female Jewish leaders who serve as foundational pillars for their family and demonstrate ongoing dedication to their community.
You will soon see why I have chosen to honour them this week….
This week’s parsha, Parshat Pinchas, certainly has its fair share of drama. The beginning of the parsha recounts the story of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, who zealously killed an Israelite man and Moabite woman who committed idolatrous sexual acts before the entire congregation. (There is much to be said about whether or not Pinchas was justified in killing these individuals, but I do not want to address those questions here.) And if that wasn’t racy enough, the Torah begins to describe how the Land of Israel will be divided upon the people’s conquest. Now, you and I both know what happens when Jews need to divide resources among themselves: someone is always disturbed. But the band of individuals who request a re-allocation of land for their families are not, in my opinion, simply kvetchers (Yiddish for “complainers”).
Five daughters from the tribe of Menashe, Machla, Noa, Chogla, Milka and Tirza, appeal to Moses and Elazar (the High Priest) to be assigned a piece of land in Israel. The Torah describes the plea of these women as follows:
א וַתִּקְרַבְנָה בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד, בֶּן-חֵפֶר בֶּן-גִּלְעָד בֶּן-מָכִיר בֶּן-מְנַשֶּׁה, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹת, מְנַשֶּׁה בֶן-יוֹסֵף; וְאֵלֶּה, שְׁמוֹת בְּנֹתָיו–מַחְלָה נֹעָה, וְחָגְלָה וּמִלְכָּה וְתִרְצָה. 1 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Menashe, of the families of Menashe the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.
ב וַתַּעֲמֹדְנָה לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה, וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, וְלִפְנֵי הַנְּשִׂיאִם, וְכָל-הָעֵדָה–פֶּתַח אֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד, לֵאמֹר. 2 And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying:
ג אָבִינוּ, מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהוּא לֹא-הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל-ה’, בַּעֲדַת-קֹרַח:  כִּי-בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת, וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לוֹ. 3 ‘Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons.
ד לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם-אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ, כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן; תְּנָה-לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ. 4 Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give us a possession among the brethren of our father.’  (Numbers 27:1-4)
What is striking to me is the blatant honesty and dignity that these women exude. They know who they are, from where they come, (“our father….was not among the company that gathered against God”) and what values matter to them. They are very aware of the circumstances in which they find themselves and precisely identify the problem (“he had no sons”). But they are not complacent. They demand change.
As I read this text, I wonder if these women were looking to make this request with the sole intention of ‘rocking the boat’ and disturbing social constructs ‘just because’. But as I read the rest of verse 4, I am convinced that their intentions are noble. These women are not looking to separate themselves from the community and make trouble, they explicitly state their desire to live “among the brethren of our father”. They want to continue to be part of their (father’s) community. They want a change in their status so that they can be effective members. They want to contribute. They want to be empowered.
I admire these women greatly and look up to them as models of women who raise their voices when they see injustice in their society. They are not willing to accept the status-quo. But they do not simply stomp their feet. They march. With dignity and perseverance.
As for my grandmothers, they do not march. They lead. I thank God for granting me a Grandma and a Bubby who energize, who persist, who hope. Alongside the women in the parsha, my grandmothers have taught me this: when women stand tall before their leaders and community, they can change the world.

Shabbat Shalom,
A related addendum on this subject.