There was once a Jewish bubbie who was standing with her little grandson by a beautiful seashore. As they stood admiring the water, a huge wave came out of nowhere and carried her grandson into the ocean. The woman turned her face to heaven and called out to God. She screamed of the injustice of the moment and the cruelty of Divine Decree. She cried, she begged, she bargained and she demanded that her grandson be returned to her. Within minutes the wave returned, but this time it deposited her little grandson on the beach to stand beside her again. The Jewish bubbie looked at her grandson speechless for a full moment, then turned her face to heaven again and called out to God: “He was wearing a hat.”
It is the embodiment of chutzpah and we love it!
The blessings God gives us are never enough. We are grateful for what we have and then we always return to ask for more. It is not us being selfish, it is us being biblical.
In the Torah portion this week, parshat Pinchas, we meet the 5 daughters of Zelaphchad who come to Moses with a petition for fairness. It is not another Israelite who has treated them unfairly, it is God. The daughters present a case that their father has died leaving no sons and now there is to be no land inheritance in Israel since the laws of the Torah only grant inheritance rights to a male. It is an astounding moment of courage since they are challenging within a legal system that has not yet proved itself open to a challenge of any kind.
The courage they find sits on the relationship described to us between Jacob and God. When Jacob flees his brother Esau to go live with his uncle, he dreams of God who reiterates covenant to Jacob. According to God, Jacob is to make God his God and in return God will give him the land of Israel, many children to fill the land and God will not leave Jacob while he is on his journey. It’s beautiful, it’s spiritual…but it’s not enough.
Jacob responds in the morning with a vow. He states that if God will watch over him on the journey and give him food and clothes and then return him safely to his father’s home, then God has a deal!
It is biblical chutzpah. It pushes on covenant so we (the party of the first part) advocate for what we know we need from God (the party of the second part) who is in a position to grant it. Partnerships mean both parties give and both parties receive. It won’t work if I’m not clear on what I expect or what I am able to give. Jacob taught us to push on God and the daughters of Zelaphchad model to us that anyone has the right to demand what is right. They are women, not recognized by inheritance law, standing with no power and no rights but it doesn’t matter since we are focused on these women – their show of power.
So, isn’t it interesting that within the same portion is a woman named Serah that no one pays any attention to? She is the daughter of Asher, the granddaughter of Jacob and she is listed in the census recorded in this parshah. She is the only woman in the list and she is counted because she’s still alive. Shockingly, she is also listed among those who entered Egypt with Jacob as well as those who came out of Egypt with Moses. She will now be around to enter Israel with Joshua…who is this woman?
The Torah gives us no details, but the midrash fills us with images. She is the one who gently broke the news to Jacob that Joseph was still alive so Jacob would not succumb to emotional shock. She is the one who confirmed Moses was the leader when the elders weren’t sure and it is she who found Joseph’s bones so Israel could leave Egypt. Later, she settles an argument in the rabbinic academies about how the Red Sea split since she alone witnessed it.
She is the embodiment of Jewish history from the time we became a nation until… forever, since according to the Sages, she is one of the few people to never die. She is subtle and nuanced within any text that alludes to her but she is the constant, the foundation and the endless future.
The daughters of Zelaphchad are the power of the moment but not all Jewish expressions must contain such power.
A student of mine, a Jewish bubbie, told me that she was at the Kotel in Jerusalem with her grandson who was around 4 at the time. They stood together and her grandson asked for a book to hold. Of course, he couldn’t read yet but everyone was holding a book so she happily handed him her Siddur. He held it, and then started mumbling something. This Jewish bubbie leaned down slowly to hear her grandson’s prayer and here’s what she heard him singing:
“Spiderman, spiderman, does whatever a spider can.”
Not all powerful Jewish moments are modelled on the daughters of Zelaphchad, some of them are the humble whisperings of Serah, who shows us the power of our history, our spirituality and our continuity.