When I was growing up and I expressed concern or fear of asking for something I wanted or needed, my mother would frequently respond, "If you don't ask, you won't get an answer. What is the worst thing that could happen? The answer will be no. What is the best thing that could happen? Of course, the answer will be yes."
I heard my mother's voice in my ears this week as the Supreme Court debated Windsor v. United States, and while reading the brief but important story about the five daughters of Zelophehad in the weekly Torah portion of Pinchas, that Jews read this week.
Zelophehad had no sons, and in process of another census among the Israelites, it was clear that there were therefore no male heirs to inherit their familial land. Women were not able to inherit property, and at least until this moment, no woman had ever challenged that status quo.
Enter the five daughters. The text tells us that Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah came forward, and stood before Moses, Eleazar the Priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly at the tent of meeting (27:1-2). It is a clearly an unexpected and dramatic moment, worthy of every leader's attention, worthy of being argued before the place of holiness and authority.
With determination the sisters make their case that their father died in the wilderness, but was not part of a rebellion. They know that the law prevents them from inheritance, but they plead that their father's name should not be lost just because he had no son. Their motivation is clearly not one of personal gain but in order to rectify an injustice in a system that seeks justice.
Moses takes the case right to God, who responds without hesitation that the daughters were justified in their appeal, and even more importantly, a new and permanent law is established that secures inheritance for any daughter in a family with no sons (27:6-8). It is called a holding and an inheritance.
If the daughters had never asked the question, there is little doubt that such a landmark change to biblical law would have taken place. The midrash imagines that the daughters knew that divine mercy is granted to every living thing, that divine love is eternal, and both transcend certain mutable norms of society.
When DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act) was passed in 1996 it was a discriminatory and unjust law that prevented thousands of lesbian and gay relationships from being seen as legal partnerships.
This week's Supreme Court ruling in Windsor v. United States promises to lessen some of DOMA's most damaging effects. By striking down Article Three of DOMA, the Court has enabled legally married same-sex couples to receive the same federal benefits, rights and responsibilities as married heterosexual couples.
When Edith (Edie) Windsor was forced to pay $363.000 in federal estate tax when her wife Thea Spyer died, her case challenged the constitutionality of DOMA. Edie Windsor, and the entire movement for marriage equality, represents our modern day daughters of Zelophehad. Before the highest court in the United States, the place of justice and authority, this ruling now enables legally married same-sex couples to receive the same rights as married heterosexual couples.
Like the ruling for Zelophehad's daughters, this too is a holding and an inheritance for all those who pursue justice.