Becoming in a broken moment: learning to take imperfect action

The daughters of Zelophad, in last week’s torah portion, Pinhas, come to ask Moses to change the laws of inheritance. They are daughters of a son-less father. Based on preexisting inheritance law, the portion of land due their father would flow into communal hands, as only sons were positioned to inherit. The daughters petition for a change: they desire to inherit their father’s portion.

They come before Moses, before the priests, before the whole community of Israel to make their petition. In a sense, they take their case all the way up to the Supreme Court. And no one knows what to do. There’s no legal precedent for what they are asking.

So Moses goes to G-d for the answer. What does this mean? If we were Bible literalists, we’d say, well, Moses goes to the mountain. Maybe he offers some yummy offering to invite G-d to draw near, like the Mesopotamian gods of olde, who would gather like flies whenever humans lit up the holy barbeque. Once around the fire, Moses and G-d talk through the case notes and G-d hands down a verdict to be implemented by Moses.

But for those of us who look to the Torah for spiritual meaning, not for literal narrative, what might it mean that Moses went to G-d for this answer?

The Yalkut Shimoni, a collection of rabbinic midrashim, writes that G-d’s mercy is not like the mercy of human beings. Human beings have more compassion for males than for females. G-d’s compassion extends to everyone.

What can we learn from this midrash? That Moses, in approaching G-d, worked to transcend the paradigms and frameworks of his time. Tried to get beyond his small mind, the mind that says only men inherit, only whites ride in the front of the bus, only heterosexual couples marry, all Arabs are terrorists, and Jews control the media. In approaching G-d, that universal application of compassion, Moses sought to unloose himself from the prejudice of his time and to seek a more expansive, a more compassionate understanding of justice. We could read the story of the daughters of Zelophad as showing us the importance of breaking with the conventions of the times to create new social structures.

For indeed, the result of the daughters’ petition was not simply that they, the five brave daughters of Zelophad, come to inherit their father’s portion, but instead resulted in a complete overhaul of the rights of inheritance. A new system of inheritance is introduced at the end of the story: if the man has no sons, then daughters inherit. If no daughters, than brothers. If no brothers, then nearest relative. 

But what is it that the daughters were actually claiming? They’re weren’t claiming a portion of land, as the Israelites were still in the midst of wandering in the desert. This was no territory grab. The only thing to claim there was shifting sand. They were in no-man’s land. Why don’t they wait til they get to their destination to claim their land?

I read their claim not as asking for a designation of a particular place on the ground, but for standing in the community. With their petition, they were claiming communal recognition. Equality.

A chasidic story goes:

Two men were fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership and bolstered his claim with proof. To resolve their differences, they agreed to put the case before the rabbi. The rabbi listened but could not come to a decision because both seemed to be right. Finally she said, “Since I cannot decide to whom this land belongs, let us ask the land.”. She put his ear to the ground, and after a moment straightened up. “Gentlemen, the land says that it belongs to neither of you – but that you belong to it.”

The story offers a paradox: that which we can see, that which is material, that which is right in front of us is that which we cannot claim. That which seems easiest to fence, to own, is actually that to which we most profoundly belong.

Instead, our portion, our standing, is ephemeral. It is gained not through title nor physical claim, but through the recognition by those who stand at our sides. Our “portion” is the experience of being recognized as a peer, as deserving equal rights, of being fully part of a community.

To be accorded a portion by those around us is a transformative process not simply for those who claim their portion, but also for those who break from previously held notions to embrace the standing of those previously marginalized. In that sense, in the process of claiming our portion of justice and equality, all of us — those with rights and those seeking rights — are in the process of becoming.

The transgender Jewish poet, Joy Ladin, said recently in an interview with NPR’s On Being:

I think all human beings actually are ratios of being and becoming and that, for most of us after childhood, we think of ourselves as mostly being with some becoming… And when becoming, you know, takes over, becomes a greater proportion, we think of that as a crisis…But I think, for trans people, I think that for me and I think for many of us, becoming is always going to be a greater proportion than being…I think I’m always going to have this sense of being as something that constantly involves becoming. And I think that that’s really the glory of the human race. I don’t think anybody should write us off. We’re not done yet.

Again: That’s the glory of the human race — that being constantly involves becoming, defying expectations, coming to experience each other, to build relationships with each other, in new ways.

Rather than offering us a story of land acquisition, land that will be partitioned by fences, ‘no trespassing’ signs, drones and guns, the daughters of Zelophad leave for us as an inheritance the portion of eternal potential transformation. Of becoming. Of not calcifying in a limited, too-human understanding of equality. We are offered in the story a reminder of the importance both of claiming and of recognizing the legitimacy of claims of others.

May we be courageous like the daughters of Zelophad and humble like Moses. May we recognize our moments to rise up and claim our portion, even as we open ourselves to discovering and transcending our limitations. May we, in the moments we lose our way, put our ear to the ground and remember where we belong.

By Jon Radoff (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

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2 thoughts on “Becoming in a broken moment: learning to take imperfect action

  1. Arielle,
    This was an eloquent, beautiful and deeply true piece of writing that moved me deeply. Thank you for sharing this story with us and a reminder of our role as “becomings” on this earth. Peace be with you, Caitlin

  2. Thank you for a lovely and thought-provoking article. Women in the Bible provide an excellent model for the behavior of marginalized social groups. Some stories, such as that of Zelophedad’s daughters, set a laudable example of courage in the face of systemic oppression. Others, such as Sarah and Hagar, demonstrate how people can turn against each other in order to gain advantage in an unfair system. Both sides of the equation, both the positive and the negative, must be considered: no group responds to oppression monolithically. Thank you again for this essay; I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

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