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Torah Commentary
Pinchas (June 29, 2013)

Sherry Nehmer,

The Real Housewives of Moab

IN THE TIMES the other day there was an article about how the phenomenon of the “Real Housewives” franchise has spread to other countries, resulting in the shows “The Real Housewives of Canada,” “Real Housewives of Greece” and “Real Housewives of Israel,” among other new locations. The article notes that while the Canadians were “slightly more polite” and the Athenian matrons more obsessed with clothing than their Orange County, New Jersey or New York counterparts, the Israeli women as a whole were more intense, more obsessed with opulence and more opinionated than other “Housewives” around the globe. “What? I’m going to give Iranians a living?” one exclaims, when offered a high-end piece of marble for her countertops. “So they can build a nuclear weapon and drop a bomb on me? I don’t want it!”

Are you surprised? I’m not. For generations we Jewish women have had things to say and have said them loudly.

This week’s parashah, Pinchas, features a few of these contentious ladies, both in major roles and as bit players. The portion is named for Pinchas, the zealot who skewers two people in flagrante delicto and thus ends a plague visiting the Israelites, who have been consorting with Midianite women and worshiping their god. Now, keep in mind that Moses also is married to a Midianite woman, but apparently the issue here is that these Israelite men are so weak of character that they immediately start worshiping foreign gods because the women seduced them into doing so. Sounds rather like the entitled Housewives and their hapless hubbies who clutter our TV screens today:

“Honey, I want to remodel the house, go to Phuket and buy a diamond tiara! Pleeeeeeeease?!!!!”

“Yes, dear.”

The skewered couple is Zimri, no common sinner but a prince of Israel — the leader of the tribe of Simeon, in fact — and Cozbi, a Midianite woman with a good pedigree of her own. Their lustful act is seen as an “in your face” rebuke to Moses, who has ordered the Israelite men not to bed these women because God is not pleased.

Zimri is a prince; possibly he thinks himself important enough to be above the law. And Cozbi, the daughter of a fairly important man herself, acts every bit the Real Housewife, using her charms on an important bigwig for personal gain (and notoriety). She’s bold enough to go along with maximum exposure in front of the meeting tent. (In a modern setting, the two of them would be going at it on the dance floor of a nightclub in full view of everyone, followed by Cozbi demanding jewelry and Zimri punching a photographer.) Be that as it may, the two of them make a big splash in public, thumb their metaphoric noses at Moses, and then slither off to their own quarters to make whoopee. It’s as big a gesture as throwing over a table.

Unfortunately, enter Pinchas, who didn’t get a copy of the script. The result is “lovers on a spit,” the end of the plague and a priestly upgrade for Pinchas. Such is the fleeting fame of “The Real Housewife of Midian.”

But later in the portion — after so much counting and so many numbers, I began to think the fourth book of the Torah was based on this one chapter alone — we encounter women of an entirely different character. These are the Five Daughters of Zelophehad (a catchy name for a spinoff?), and they have something on their minds and aren’t afraid to say it.

These five daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, are the only children of their deceased father. By the laws of Israel, daughters don’t inherit property. But that doesn’t stop the Fab Five. Up they come before Moses, the priests, the chieftans and the whole assembly, in front of that same Tent of Meeting defiled by Cozbi and Zimri, to sue for their right to inherit their father’s property. They’re smart women, and they come prepared. They point out that dad died not from rebelling with Korach et al but only “from his own sins” while wandering in the desert during those 40 years. If they don’t inherit, the property will be lost to other tribes. Their case is so good that Moses takes it to the Supreme Judge. And God agrees; the women will inherit.

Now that surprised me.

There are stipulations, imposed by tribal leaders who don’t want their tribe (Manasseh) to lose land. The girls may marry anyone they wish…as long as they are also part of the same tribe. It seems a workable compromise. And so the gutsy Real Daughters of Zelophehad use their wits and skills at debate and take on a patriarchal system and come out the winners. No sexual hanky-panky, no screaming, no overturned tables or zealots with spears required.

And if their success was a result of logic, it still comes down to a decision by God, one that has been recorded for the ages, and one that I find wonderfully surprising amidst all the smiting and submitting that befalls so many women of the Bible. The women of this chapter run the gamut from skewered seducers to successful sisters, and while the latter episode may not make for exciting television, it’s pretty gripping Torah. It’s an early example of women asserting their own rights, in a society where that was certainly not the norm.

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