Earlier this week, I got a phone call from one of my college friends. We hadn’t spoken in a while, but we quickly fell into the exact sort of conversations we used to have over lunch, about psychology and society, and we ended up discussing the bystander effect. It’s so counterintuitive that the more people you have witnessing an emergency situation, the less likely anyone is to get involved. But that’s exactly what happens. We instinctively look to those around us for social cues, and often decide that it’s not necessary to get involved, because no one else is acting like it’s a problem.
In this week’s Torah portion, we hear about a man named Zelophechad (a lovely name really, number one in the baby naming books). He has 5 daughters and no sons. He dies inexplicably in the wilderness, and the question arises: who gets the tent? What about the ten goats and six camels? According to the Torah, there are 600,000 Israelite men, so when you add in the women and children, we’re talking about over a million people. Surely there must have been a family without sons before. Surely, this must have been a problem for other people, but it went unnoticed. This problem was systematically ignored.
We only hear about the inheritance issue in this Torah portion, because this was the first time someone actually did something about it. Rather than acting like passive bystanders, the five daughters of Zelophechad sprung to action and challenges the status quo. They organized a coherent argument, and brought their case before the most powerful people in Israelite society: Moses, the high priest, and the princes of Israel. After they presented their case, Moses spoke to God, who agreed to change divine law, so that Zelophechad’s daughters and any other women in this situation could inherit their father’s property. These five women stood up for justice and changed Israelite society forever. May we remember their story and follow their example, choosing to get involved and stand up for justice even if we have to be the first ones to do so.