As I read this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, which describes the five daughters of Tzelofchad, I cannot help but think of a book I read years ago — something like “Women Don’t Ask.” I understand that there are several books with a similar title. To be honest, I do not remember which one I read. However, I do remember the premise: There is a gender divide regarding the practice of negotiation and by and large women just do not ask for something, even if they feel they deserve it.
When I read this book, I was negotiating my first rabbinic contract. The book focused on the long-lasting impact of a woman who asks for a higher salary both in her initial year and in subsequent years in asking for a raise. After all, the compound financial benefits of this first ask were important. The book was convincing in encouraging women to set aside their fears and doubts and … just ask.
Why does this seem so hard for so many of us?
Many of us have heard that women make about 75 to 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, at the rate we are going, it will take us until the year 2058 to close the pay gap. This means that each choice women make to ask for something now has a real impact on their future.
If there is a group of women in the Torah who know about the importance of these asks, it is the daughters of Tzelofchad. Raised in a world where inheritance laws dictated that only sons received the benefits of their father’s share of land, these five women advocated for their father’s land portion, because they had no brothers. I have always been drawn toward their story, as they seemed to be some of our first feminists. I cannot imagine what it took to ask for this land when the entire institution was working against them.
As we look closer, however, we realize that they did not ask. Instead, they told. They courageously and passionately shared: “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:4).
It is polite to ask for something. It expresses humility. It shows the other person that we do not feel entitled. We certainly do not want to appear as arrogant, so asking is sometimes the way to go. At the same time, asking shifts the locus of power. It allows for the possibility of a negative response when in fact we might deserve the affirmative. Sure, there may be times when someone cannot give us what we might deserve — perhaps their hands are tied or they may not have the resources to help — but to ask in circumstances when something should be a given — and can certainly be accommodated — is to undermine the very root of what it means to live in a world of justice.
The story of property ownership as outlined by the daughters of Tzelofchad is a story about justice. There was no reason why these women did not deserve to inherit their father’s property. There is no reason to ask for the property when it was clear that it was due unto them. And so they did not ask. Instead, they told Moses, as if it was a given. It was so much of a given, in fact, that not only were they granted the land, but a new law was created that gave the same protection for future generations!
The daughters of Tzelofchad encourage me to reframe the concept of what it means to say: “Women don’t ask.” Perhaps with a little change in punctuation — with the addition of a small comma — we can say “Women, don’t ask.” In doing so, we change this from a disheartening statistic to an encouraging source of motivation. When we feel that something should be a given — we might challenge our daughters by saying to them, “Don’t ask. Tell.”
And if we broaden this lesson to all forms of justice, we arrive at a motivating statement during this important election year. We should not ask for things like racial justice. We should not ask for gender equality. We should not ask for things like healthcare and PPE for our healthcare workers. We should demand these forms of justice as if our lives depended on it.
May we raise daughters who unabashedly express what they deserve.
May we educate our students to advocate for equality to all.
May we pursue justice as if it is a given.