This week’s parsha has always been one I’ve stumbled over. I know I’m supposed to revile the Moabite women who seduce the Israelites and cheer on Pinchas as he becomes a righteous zealot, skewering one of them and Zimri, gaining his descendants the priesthood. Still, just something seems off about it, particularly as it comes right before the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad standing up for themselves and successfully arguing for their inheritance.
I turn over the two stories in my mind like a worry stone, trying to make them fit together better. The previous parsha tells of how Bilaam, when he finds himself unable to curse the Hebrews, then turns to the Moabite and Midianite women and tells them to seduce the Hebrew men and lead them into idolatry. If he can’t actively curse them or destroy them physically, he’ll seek to destroy them spiritually through these women. We hear nothing, though, of the women’s response, only that they did go to the Hebrew men, thousands of whom gave into the temptation.
We also know that it is from the Moabite women that eventually Ruth, the righteous convert and forebear of King David will come.
I guess what troubles me is that I wonder what the circumstances were for these women. Did they go willingly, eagerly even, rubbing their hands together like evil villians, their eyes glittering at the opportunity to lower the Hebrew men? Were they zealots themselves, so wrapped up in their nation’s struggle that they were willing to do anything to win? Or, were they reluctant, coerced or forced? I can’t imagine most women would be eager to wander into the enemy’s camp. Death could have been just as likely as success on this mission and how awful could success for many of them have been? These seem like desperate acts by women more afraid of what might happen if they didn’t go and do as Bilaam had said, either because they faced some sort of punishment if they refused or because they genuinely feared that the Hebrews would destroy their people if they failed.
These women ultimately are punished for their deeds. Their courage was misplaced and they pay the price, along with the men who fell prey to them.
Then, just a reading or two later, we come upon the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad. In this story, a man has died without male heirs and his land is about to be given up when his daughters come forward to make a claim to it. They bravely argue their case in a time when it is rare to even hear a name of a woman mentioned in the Torah. In a surprise upset, they win their case and inherit their father’s land. These women may have been desperate as well. Being without an inheritance could have left them as homeless beggars. They waited until the right time and then bravely spoke up and their bravery was rewarded.
It seems like the Torah is trying to tell us something about how women should use their courage here and where a woman’s power lies. In the first story, the Moabite and Midianite women don’t wait until the Hebrew army is attacking and instead proactively come into the Hebrew camp. In fact, it’s after their act that Hashem commands Moses to wage war on the Midianites. By contrast, the daughters of Tzelafchad are praised in the Talmud for biding their time and only making their case for inheritance as the land is about to be divided up. The Moabite and Midianite women used what often seems like women’s most powerful weapon, their sexuality, against the Hebrews. It obviously worked well in the short term, as thousands of men later died in the plagues for having sinned with them, but in the longer term, the Torah seems to warn that this kind of power doesn’t serve women, but is turned against them. The daughters of Tzelafchad use reason as well as a heartfelt appeal. There’s never a mention of them acting inappropriately or brazenly. The end result is not just a win for them, but for all the women as inheritance rights are made so that if a man has no male heirs, his daughters will inherit, in all tribes and families.
We basically have two examples of women trying to wield power here. In one case, they are hasty and forceful, using sex to gain power. It’s a pretty common refrain we see in everyday culture today, particularly among the celebrities we’re taught to look up to and even sometimes among powerful women in corporate culture. While they aren’t as brazen as the Midianite or Moabite women, sex is used in advertising over and over to push us to value the material over the spiritual. The picture of a successful woman is inextricably tied to looking good, having a toned body under a sleek suit and a sports car to match. The message is that you must be sexy and attractive to men in order to be considered truly successful or powerful.
The other example is one of women who wield power in a much more subtle way, through their wisdom. They are patient and wait for the right moment to act. They wield influence rather than direct power. They don’t even attempt to force Moses or Hashem to their will, but yet they have influence that reverberates so high that Hashem even says of them, “The daughters of Tzelafchad speak rightly.” It’s rare we see such open praise from Hashem of any regular person in the Torah who wasn’t a prophet or King. Yet, even after they are successful and have been given such high praise, they recede back into the Torah and aren’t spoken of again. We’re left to assume they must have been content now and settled in their father’s land, perhaps marrying and raising children that blended into the history of the Jewish people. They don’t try to parlay their recent success into future political careers or reality TV shows or even the Torah equivalent as Korach might have.
Beyond my misgivings about what really led the Moabite and Midianite women to the camps of the Hebrew men, I can see how the Torah might be trying to tell me that Jewish women are called upon to rise above what society expects of women and not be fooled by the short term power that is gained by falling into what is expected.
It’s a good reminder as I grapple with what it means to be a woman in a male dominated field in an age of “leaning in.” Perhaps my sympathy for the Moabite and Midianite women comes in part from feeling like their plight is all too familiar to women striving and pushing to survive in corporate America, feeling like they have to put up with some of the worst treatment just to support their families and keep their people surviving. The daughters of Tzelafchad seem to point to another way with a lot less struggle and risk and a lot more sustaining success.
If I’m only wise enough to find it.