Here is an adapted version of my D'var Torah at Manchester Reform Synagogue on 16th July 2022 - parashat Pinchas. A snippet of some Jewish leaders who have created societal change.
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In the past few weeks we have heard the story of five women who came together to address an injustice in their family unit. The story of these women is repeated twice in the Torah perhaps as a reminder that we too can utilise our power and create change in the most trying of times.*
Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Michah and Tirzah (the Daughters of Zelophechad) challenged the inheritance system which discriminated against them. Their father died and with no sons, his property and inheritance would go to a distant male relative, leaving the daughters vulnerable and destitute. They approach Moses to make their case. He then goes to God and God rules in their favour and, in so doing, initiate a radical law for generations to come that brotherless daughters can inherit parental property. One fascinating side point, as the WRJ commentary notes, is that two of the daughters’ names, Noah and Choglah, appear on an ancient clay fragment referring to areas of considerable size in northern Israel – perhaps allowing the possibility that this story reflects the lives of some remarkable women.
It is unique in the Torah to hear of a group of women acting together in this way – it is almost unheard of. Yet the acts of coming together to create change and speak to power are not new to Judaism or the ancient Near East. Let us explore three such examples.
Abraham as Agitator
Abraham is an agitator and an effective and powerful leader of change. Known as the first Jew with his commitment to monotheism he has a clear vision. Described in the book of Genesis as ‘ha-ivri’ [Genesis 14:13] – the border crosser, the wanderer - he encapsulates much of the Jewish spirit – that of the wanderer, living in the wilderness, a seeker, the persecuted, living on the margins – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.
He encapsulates the power of being a minority – of having been persecuted. Just like a canary in the coal mine often the outsider is the first to see the warning signs and to speak up.
Abraham took his duty towards seeking justice seriously and was known to never stand by the blood of his neighbour [Leviticus 19:13] (expect when he nearly sacrificed his child Isaac – but let’s leave that for now!). Abraham the agitator, deep in relationship with God, is able to agitate and question God. When God decides to destroy the immoral towns of Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham says – but what if there are 50 righteous people – would you still destroy the place? No says God. 40? And so on. [Genesis 18:23-33]. Here’s a model of someone who is in relationship with those in power, unlike the prophets who often acted alone and were unable to make change without followers or key strategic relationships. Instead of standing alone on his soapbox, Abraham asks the hard questions, is heard. Similarly the daughters of Zelophechad asked the hard questions and, due to their relationship to Moses and their strategy they too were listened to.
Moses as Organiser
Our second example of Jewish activism again takes us in the ancient text of the Torah and to a story and time which has shaped our modern world – Moses and the Exodus. Like the prophets, Moses was an unwillingly leader – not me, he said. Unsure with his speech impediment he tried desperately for God to choose another leader to go against Pharoah – to no avail. But perhaps the reluctant leaders are the best!
As the writer Elliot Ratzman comments in this article – when the Israelites left slavery and the dictatorship of Pharoah, towards liberation, they did not spontaneously rise up – they had to be organised and mobilised. Moses manipulates resources and evokes miracles. Using bargaining skills he negotiates between a belligerent Pharoah and an angry God. He leads a traumatised people. He was not great speech maker, like the pharaohs, but understood the politics of the place (he’d grown up in the palace as part of the royal family) and could utilise his role as an outsider – an insider outsider. He persevered and organised – built the relationships and understood his role in the community of obligation.
The story of the Exodus, and the role of Moses, are reasons why liberation theology was born. This story speaks to all those who are oppressed people and says– change can happen, you do have power. As Gustavo Gutierrez wrote, a renowned liberation theologian: ‘the promised land is not simply a new country, it is also the gift of a radically new situation’ and ‘poverty is not a fate, it is a condition; it is not a misfortune, it is an injustice’. The Exodus story and Moses as organiser allows us to realise that we are all part of bigger systems that exist on injustice. This story enables us to see what is possible and to break out of the boxes that keep people oppressed and persecuted.
The Kosher Meat Riots
In the Lower East Side in 1902 we can see an example of Jewish activism at its finest - utilising all of the strategies we've explored with Abraham, Moses and the daughters of Zelophechad.
Through their relational power they went door to door to recruit and build their collective power. Through talking about their lives and their hardships they drew attention to their plight in trying to feed their families as the cost of meat soared. The spoke to power and agitated by stopping synagogue services and accosting people exiting shops. The were radical agitators and organisers who showed the world what can happen when people come together in such ways.
You can read more about the campaign here.
Jewish activism and change makers shape our Jewish world today. And perhaps, as we look around our society in these turbulent times we may wish to reflect upon what we look for in our leaders. Within our Jewish stories and history we have so many example of change makers from the women of New York standing up for their families, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who understood that prayer had to be subversive and active, the Daughters of Zelophechad who had the courage to state their case, Abraham who agitated and Moses who organised, to name just a few. Through them we see the power of communities, and people, coming together to enact change. This is why our community (Manchester Reform Synagogue) is part of Greater Manchester Citizens alongside trade unions, schools, universities, mosques etc who campaign on issues like the real living wage, hate crime, clean air and transport. Coming together, across difference, is deep within our Jewish souls. May the deeds of all our ancestors influence our own actions and inspire us to act together effectively and strategically.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – and may this be God’s will. Amen.
*Numbers 27:1-11 and 36:10-13. Also see Joshua 17:3-6