Fueled By Just and Only
Lessons from the Daughters
With email being the major form of my professional communication, I have taken on different habits over the last number of years to help my email efficiency and mental health! I have removed it from my phone which helps from feeling responsible to respond at all hours of the day. I have stopped responding “sorry for my delay” and switched it to “thank you for your patience.” A recent addition to the hopper has been limiting my usage of “just” and “only.”
I found that it diminished the message I was trying to get across. It felt limiting, as if “just wanting to check in” was seen as an inconvenience. Or by saying “I only need a few minutes”, I was apologize for a need that I had. Learning to cull these types of words from my vocabulary has been tough as they’re so ingrained in messaging culture, but it has been freeing and empowering.
A little word like these two can hold immense power. We see the same thing in what at first seems to be a few throwaway sentences of genealogy in this week’s portion, Pinchas.
In 23:33, we read the following:
וּצְלׇפְחָ֣ד בֶּן־חֵ֗פֶר לֹא־הָ֥יוּ ל֛וֹ בָּנִ֖ים כִּ֣י אִם־בָּנ֑וֹת וְשֵׁם֙ בְּנ֣וֹת צְלׇפְחָ֔ד מַחְלָ֣ה וְנֹעָ֔ה חׇגְלָ֥ה מִלְכָּ֖ה וְתִרְצָֽה׃
Now Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons, only daughters. The names of Zelophehad’s daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.
We’ll get back to this crew shortly but note the use of כִּ֣י אִם־בָּנ֑וֹת, only daughters. There’s something potentially demeaning in that. It certainly fits the patriarchal context from which it came but in our eyes, it stands out.
Contrast that with 23:46 where we read:
וְשֵׁ֥ם בַּת־אָשֵׁ֖ר שָֽׂרַח׃
The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah.
First off, it’s noteworthy that women are getting referenced here at all. Second of all, Serach’s reference comes without any qualifiers. She’s not “just” or “only” Serach. She is Serach. What gives?
Those aforementioned daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah play a significant role in this week’s portion. They demand their father’s territorial allotment since, as we now know, he had no sons. They are deemed righteous by God and Moses and their demands are met.
As you might imagine, it stands out in our tradition for being one of the rare times women’s voice are given so much power. A lot of ink has been spilled over how it came to be. What inspired them? Why did the Torah include their story?
One resonant teaching on what drove them comes from the Or Pnei Moshe, Rabbi Moshe Sofer Stam of Pshevorsk who lived during the 18th century. He sees that “just daughters” phrase and writes:
…when the text says they drew close (which is what precedes their demand), it is as if to say, now look what you've done.
Reading that “only” as a slight, the Or Pnei Moshe creates an awesomely cheeky and powerful interpretation. You can almost picture it when we read their narrative. The daughters of Tzlofchad come near…with smoke coming out of their ears after being disparaged as “just daughters.” Leave me out or diminish me at your own peril.
His opinion feels revolutionary given his own cultural context but then again so does this whole story. They are not the first women to have been inspired by their exclusion. Driven by many things but especially by their desire to not feel minimized by anyone else, they come to take what’s theirs.
Taking a lesson from them, we can all learn to limit the ways in which we diminish ourselves. For some it’s the way we communicate. For others, it might be how we physically walk through the world. Whatever it is, I hope that we all can continue to be driven like the daughters of Tzlofchad to fight for our self-worth and value in a world that tries to squelch it.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend!