Picture the scene which is set in this week’s parasha. You are in hills east of the Jordan river, surrounded by the tents and banners of the ancient Israelite camp. A crowd has assembled - in fact the entire people. Assembled are the most senior, fronted by Moshe himself.
You then see five women approach - the Hebrew is וַתִּקְרַבְנָה, literally “they drew close” . They are sisters. Perhaps their heads are held high, or perhaps they tremble. Maybe a bit of both. They address Moshe: “Our father died and he has left no sons. Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”
These five women who are named Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Tzelofechad, are struck by the unfairness of the Biblical inheritance system, which allowed sons to inherit but not daughters. In a situation like theirs, their family name and land would disappear into oblivion.
Moshe takes this question to none less than God, and God responds saying that the sisters’ case is correct, and that they should inherit their father’s land. It is a model complaint - respectfully brought, treated seriously, the request granted without condition. What is it about the request - other than its innate reasonableness - which led to such a smooth and uneventful course?
While the sisters are keen to point out to Moshe that their father did not die as part of Korach’s band of rebels, the comparison between these women’s claim of unfairness and that of Korach himself is a compelling one. British born Israeli philosopher Tanya White suggests that our story is in fact a “subversive sequel” of the Korach story. The sisters “draw close… before Moshe” וַתִּקְרַבְנָה - to be understood as respectful consideration of all sides of the argument. Meanwhile Korach “rises up before Moshe” - the Hebrew is וַיָּקֻמוּ - reflecting a confrontational and aggressive approach.
One way to see this story is as one of justice breaking through, despite human prejudices. My favourite commentary on it, a midrash from the Sifrei, has the following beautiful line: “Human creatures have greater compassion for males than for females. But the One who spoke and the world came into being is not like that. Rather, God’s mercy extends to all, to the males and to the females”. So on one level it is a story of the triumph of justice through God’s eyes, and a reminder to continually reset our human compasses, to continually question our priorities and biases.
However another approach is to say that sometimes it’s not the message but the medium which matters in making change. Korach’s case for democratising holiness could potentially have been a reasonable one, but his aggressive approach belied his malicious intent. In contrast, the daughters of Tzelofechad drew close - respectful, full of integrity and open to their plea going either way.
Our world really needs both of these aspects - we need justice and equality for their own sake. But we also need to pursue this through diplomacy, respect, and fearless “drawing close”.