There are many ways to affect change in our society, but a framing I like is reactionary versus systemic thinking. Reactionary thinking stems from the desire to do something - to alleviate the feeling of pressure we have inside of us when we wish to see a change happen, and to take the first action available. Reactionary thinking can be helpful in certain situations, and sometimes is the only solution, but systemic thinking is often the way true change is accomplished. By allowing that feeling of pressure within us to burn slow and low, and to work on the systems that have power to affect change in a strategic way, we are able to not only change the specific issue that we are focused on, but sometimes even the system that led to the issue in the first place, creating a robust and comprehensive change that can last. At best, a combination of the two works cohesively to push change from all directions, but they must be used thoughtfully.
A good, if imperfect, example is the difference between an executive order from the president, and a bill that passes through both chambers of the house. An executive order can be reactionary - it can be a quick fix, which can be equally easily undone later. The passage of a bill can be systemic. It takes hard, slow work to gather the votes and negotiate alterations, to get that bill through. Once codified into law, it’s hard to overturn.
This week’s portion concludes a story from last week’s, focused on Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson. The Israelites had been taken in by worshippers of the foreign deity Baal, and God was on the verge of killing them all with a plague. Pinchas zealously and reactionarily kills an Israelite leader performing idolatry with a Midianite princess, and in so doing, staves off God’s wrath.
The gruesome description of the murder, followed by God’s blessing Pinchas with an everlasting covenant of peace and the high priesthood, has been controversial in our tradition for a long time. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote “this atonement is worthy of continuing to atone forever,” meaning that God’s reception of Pinchas’ reactionary action was never to be repeated again. In this way, the rabbis turned Pinchas’ reactionary action into systemic change. It becomes a salvific, singular act that not only saved thousands of lives in his time, but continues to atone for us today without further bloodshed. God no longer sought to avenge misdeed with widespread death, and Pinchas’ new role as high priest transformed the human bloodshed to that of sacrificial animals.
The second story in our portion is one of systemic thinking from the outset. Five women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, often referred to collectively as the daughters of Zelophehad, seek to change a law in Israelite society. They have no brothers, and their father has passed away.
At their time, there was no way for their father’s property to transition to them because they were women, and so, they petitioned to change the law. Moses, for his part, doesn’t know how to respond - he takes the case to God, rather than weighing it himself. God, then, changes the law entirely, stating that the women’s case is just. God goes on to say, “Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a householder dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.”
This is a massive shift in Israelite society, providing a way for women to own property in their own right. As Dr. Tikvah Frymer-Kinsky noted, “The limitations of women’s property rights is the economic linchpin of patriarchal structure. The basic fact that women did not normally own land in ancient Israel made them economically dependent on men…but the daughters of Zelophehad - and the rule they initiated - let some women escape this dependence.” (The Women's Torah Commentary, CCAR Press, p. 983)
Our tradition lauds these women for their wisdom, their canniness in law, and their righteousness. This is, at least in part, because of their systemic thinking. They took a particular route to affecting this change, running it up through the layers of society, beginning with the congregation, then the leaders, the high priest, and then Moses. In doing so, they created change which affected the heart of society, making way for women who were to come after them as well.
These two examples are both useful to us today. Sometimes, like Pinchas, one needs to react quickly and decisively to affect necessary change, especially in moments of impending doom. Sometimes, like Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirzah, one needs to be shrewd, strategic, and thoughtful in their actions to affect change, working the system to make sure the change is not temporary, but instead alters the very system itself.
We stand in a moment that is extremely daunting. Over the course of the past 50 years, anti-abortion politicians and activists have methodically pushed towards the overturning Roe v. Wade by using all of the power and strategy they could muster. And, they are continuing to push, for they are not only anti-abortion, but tend towards anti-contraception, and anti-women’s rights in general, as has become clear through many state laws passed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling.For instance, in Missouri, a law has been passed that disallows pregnant women from becoming divorced. Further, 195 congress members just this week voted against a bill granting a guaranteed federal right to contraceptives, meaning the bill passed by a margin of only 33 votes.
Although it may feel like the kind of action we want to take in response is closer to that of Pinchas, for those of us who support individual choice when it comes to abortion, our work must lean towards the example of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirzah. We are dealing with the chaotic, confusing, and complex machinations of the American legal system, so we need to think long-term; we need to act with caution to make sure that any action that is taken brings us a step closer to our goal; and we need to look to those who have already been acting to protect the most vulnerable among us, such as those organizations partnering with In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda.
The best way, right now, that we can help is donating. The National Council of Jewish Women have set up a fund to support just this action, and they are very much in need of ongoing donations to fight this battle. It is certainly less cathartic than many other possible reactions to this continually unfolding reversal of hard earned rights, above and beyond that of abortion, but it is certainly the wisest course of action to take right now. If you’d like to learn more about how to get involved, please go to NCJW.org, and please, if you are able, donate to the Jewish Abortion Access Fund, which is supporting both on the ground care for those in need and legal fees for those working to do the necessary deep systemic change, available here: https://www.jewsforabortionaccess.org/fund.
May we each, in our way, contribute to the ongoing push towards a world that protects the rights of those most vulnerable; that provides care, compassion, and liberty to all those seeking equality before the law; that lives up to the promise of a God willing to change laws on behalf of women speaking truth to power for their rights - ken y’hi ratzon.