In the desert, the Israelites encounter transformative dilemmas that teach them how to be a free people. This week, two stories demonstrate for us two distinctive ways to be agents of change.
First, we meet Pinchas, who was “zealous for his God.” (Numbers 25:13). After witnessing an Israelite man commit a sexual sin with a Midianite woman, Pinchas flies into a righteous rage, killing them both with one thrust of a single spear. God rewards Pinchas’ vigilantism by bestowing a covenant of peace upon him.
Later, we are introduced to 5 unmarried sisters – Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – whose father died without any male heirs. Moses and the elders, who are divvying up the land of Israel among male tribe members, are petitioned by these sisters for their father’s portion. Moses confers with God, who rules “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just,” (Numbers 27:7) and commands the inheritance laws be changed to include daughters.
College can feel like the desert; we spend years sorting out how to shed the rules and assumptions of the homes and societies we come from, and gradually become self-defined, independent adults. Sometimes, we encounter strangers from other places whose morals differ from ours. Other times, we speak up when practices within our community feel unjust.
When faced with these challenges the Torah reminds us to that it can be necessary, even holy, to become enraged and take swift action. And, that if you want to fix systems rather than individuals, it requires and brave individuals willing to engage the system and set precedents.
Rachel Nilson is Assistant Director at San Francisco Hillel.