Women’s History Month continues to be an important way to bring attention to the achievements and issues pertaining to women and girls. There are many ways to honor the women of the past and present who have made strides, often against many odds, and this is more than a performative experience for students. Adults of all ages also need to be reminded that women have faced challenges and have done so much over time.
One can approach Women’s History Month in a variety of manners: learn more about women in various fields (the sciences, the arts, business, sports, leadership positions, etc.) and women’s special interests (in health, legal standing, etc.). Join panel discussions, visit museums and online exhibitions, and participate in activities geared toward celebrating the month. Take your pick, there will be much to explore.
You could also examine the concept of sisterhood. (As the mother of two daughters, I’m particularly invested in that one.) Sisterhood can be seen as bringing together women who are friends, not just siblings. The concept of women joining together and becoming empowered through this unity is a powerful theme; women mentoring each other, marching in groups, and educating one another may seem idealized at times but is a wonderful goal set.
Sisterhood has certainly been a theme in literature and the arts. Often positive, sometimes negative, famous sets of sisters have delighted readers and audiences for generations. The sisters of Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, All of a Kind Family, and many other book series that have been inspirational to many.
And sisters in the Torah also have a place in our survey.
Let’s compare and contrast Leah and Rachel versus the five daughters of Zelophehad. While people are much more familiar with Leah and Rachel, the perhaps, more obscure five daughters speak with one voice. These two sets are an interesting contrast of style and goals.
As an adult, I have become a bit fascinated by the five sisters we read about in only two brief chapter sections of the Torah (first in Pinchas, later in Massei). I hadn’t known about them as a youngster because they weren’t the Matriarchs nor Miriam, they aren’t featured in holiday readings like Esther for Purim or Ruth for Shavuot, and they didn’t have featured roles in haftarah readings such as Deborah, Hannah or Yael.
Yet they spoke with a unified voice and mission, on a legal and financial matter. They are powerful, they set a precedent, they have dignity, and embody rights and justice. When I first encountered them, I thought of the five sisters in the beloved All of a Kind Family children’s novels. (And I wondered if there was some kind of connection between both sets.)
The daughters of Zelophehad were, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Reading about their interactions with Moshe, I wonder why they aren’t more well-known to the general public. They have a short story, and their petition is linked to the property of their father, who died in the wilderness but was not considered to be a rebel. Yet they are featured in a Torah portion named for a man. We learn the names of all five so they are viewed as individuals as well as a group.
Their story and their unity are a sharp contrast with the better-known saga of Rachel and Leah. These two sisters end up having the same husband, Jacob, and there is frequent competition and heartache between them. Their stories are largely about their bearing children (or lack of it), and, as read today, there is much to cringe over.
The two sisters vie for the time and affection of one man, their shared husband. One sister knows that she is the favored spouse, and one sister knows that she is more of an MVP for having so many children. They measure their clout by how many children they bear (especially boys). Yet they both want to accompany Jacob and get out from under their father’s control, so at times, they agree with each other. Overall, by our modern standards, it must have been awkward and painful on many occasions. And even by their own standards, it was far from ideal.
Even though Rachel and Leah are prized among our matriarchs, if we are hyper-focusing on the bonds of sisterly unity, then the five daughters of Zelophehad do seem more appealing and have a more modern stance. At least on a superficial level, I’d want my own daughters to be more like the Five Sisters than the Two Sisters. (And more like the supportive five sisters of All of a Kind Family, who navigate life in New York City.) These women were considered wise, pious, well-spoken, confident, assertive, as well as diplomatic.
A quick search online shows that these five sisters have garnered their share of attention as the subjects of essays and intellectual discourse. They may not be as well known as Leah and Rachel, but they have impacted Jewish women’s history and ancient history as well. We certainly shouldn’t discount the deep importance of Rachel and Leah to Jewish history, however, their struggles show us how it has never been easy to be a woman and probably won’t ever be.
Last year when I read the initial Torah segment about these five sisters, I thought of the hit dance song “We Are Family” performed by Sister Sledge. This song from 1979 is more than a fun pop song that was a smash in dance clubs; it’s been played for WNBA games and women’s soccer matches and at women’s rights rallies and marches. The buoyant music, positive message, and catchy lyrics have become iconic. The fact that it was sung by a pop group composed of actual sisters has made it even more special (and it wasn’t their only hit)!
Sisters in the Torah, sisters in the music industry, sisters all over the world, and all throughout time have faced challenges as well as victories. Here’s to an enlightening Women’s History Month for us all!
Ellen Levitt is the author of the three books in the series The Lost Synagogues of New York City (Avotaynu) and 3 other books. She has also written for various online and print publications, including the New York Times and New York Daily News. Ellen is a longtime member of the Flatbush Womens Davening Group. She and her husband and children reside in Brooklyn, NY.