This summer, I visited Iceland, a beautiful and magical land. While I was there, I saw the Kerid Crater, which is a caldera: a volcanic crater with a lake inside. My family and I hiked around the edge of the crater and then down close to the lake. The perfect roundness of the crater-lake gave the impression of a circular container—a jewel box shaped by some immense hand— or else a massive eye looking up from the earth. My daughter and I sat by the lake’s waters and anointed one another, having the sense we were in a sacred place.
Later that summer, I grappled with a story that reminded me of the crater. In Numbers 27, five sisters—the daughters of a man named Tzelafchad—approach Moses with a question. Their father had daughters, not sons, and it seems this means his family will receive no land allotment in Canaan. The daughters ask that they be given land allotments: “Let our father’s name not be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Numbers 27:4). Moses takes their complaint to God and brings back an answer: the daughters have spoken rightly, and will receive a land allotment as they request. However, they must marry men of their own tribe so that the tribal land is not lost— if the women married men of another tribe, their heirs would belong to that other tribe and so the land would change its tribal designation. Thus, patriarchy is mitigated but not ultimately contradicted—the women become heirs to their father, but primarily for their father’s sake, not their own.
Yet there is an egalitarian shift even in the way these women’s names appear in the text. It is rare to see the name of even one daughter in biblical lineages, never mind five. Yet the daughters’ names appear in multiple places: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. These names can mean forgiveness, movement, partridge, queen, and desire. In another translation, all the names relate to movement: “dance,” “moving”, “circling,” “walking,” “running.” In the Bible and in other texts archaeologists have uncovered, all five names appear as the names of villages in ancient Israel. This suggests that these five women were honored by their clans as founding ancestors. The names appear in different orders in different places, suggesting no one sister was more important than the others.
The rabbinic tradition understands these women as wise and knowledgeable in argument and suggests all kinds of reasoning they might have used to support their case. One midrash (interpretive legend) suggests that the daughters say to one another: “While human beings value men more, God values everyone equally” and thus conclude that God may hear their case. Yet most rabbinic commentators depict the women as concerned for their father’s honor and hasten to assert that the women are not asking for land on their own behalf. Contemporary readers, however, often see the daughters as proto-feminist innovators who seek rights they have not yet been granted—as the beginning of egalitarian activism in Jewish tradition. For example, the poet Elizabeth Aliya Topper writes: “They are pious and wise/and they call us to action:/to move from the place/of injustice and bias/and pave the untrodden way.”
I wanted to make some meaning out of the listing of the five names, and so I conducted a search of the sources, and found that the kabbalistic tradition sees a hidden secret in the naming of these five women. An eighteenth-century text called Nachal Kedumim, written by the kabbalist Hayyim Joseph David Azulay, suggests that the five daughters of Tzelafchad relate to the five feminine aspects of the divine, known as the five gevurot or strengths. The other five of the ten divine aspects are the masculine powers, the five chasadim or generosities. In the kabbalah, the masculine is identified with love and “outflow” and the feminine with severity and “containment” which is somewhat reversed from modern gender stereotypes. Together, these two sets of five form the ten sefirot or divine facets.
The five gevurot or feminine powers are the five sefirot of Binah, Gevurah, Hod, Yesod, and Malkhut—which I would translate as: creative knowing, boundaried strength, humble grace, intimate connection, and grounded being. (Note: Yesod is not always considered a feminine aspect, and in fact often represents the divine phallus, but for purposes of dividing the ten aspects in half, it is considered feminine rather than masculine, as a conduit between male and female.)
While I use the kabbalah as a spiritual tool with a bit of caution, given that I don’t generally buy into its complex gender and sexual polarities, I do find it a rich source of spiritual imagination. I wondered what would happen if, in honor of the five sisters, I meditated on these five divine aspects as a set of attributes of God/dess. When I did, what I discovered was a variety of spiritual containers: a bubbling cauldron-like container for creative knowing, a strong-walled container for strength, a vast oceanic container for grace, a long telephone-cord-like container for connection, and so forth. Each container, as I entered them one after another, seemed to offer me a different opportunity to fortify, relax, or expand my boundaries. This mystical teaching has given me a new way to appreciate the five daughters who stood up for themselves, who reached for new boundaries, and to whom God/dess said: “Yes.”
The caldera I saw this summer was a crater that had provided a container for rainwater, and had become a wondrous round lake ringed by cliffs. The water by itself was powerful, but it was the size, shape, majesty and strength of the container that made the lake as awe-inspiring as it was. That magical site, and my experience of the five gevurot, are leaving me with a new sense of the power of taking shape, of recognizing our form and substance. Only when we take our right shape can we hold all we were meant to hold. This is also the lesson of the five daughters of Zelophehad.
Rabbinic and Kabbalistic References:
Midrash Aggadah, Numbers 7:1
Midrash Tanhuma, Pinchas 7:1
Nachal Kedumim (Azulay) on Numbers 26:33
Sifrei Bamidbar 133:1
Tamara Cohn Eskenazi. “Pinchas: Legacy of Law, Leadership, and Land,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, eds. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Elizabeth (Aliya) Topper, “Call to Gather,” from Parasha Poems.