“Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation, – in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.”
There are many situations in our lives where we are bound to the conformity of society and to decisions being made while our own voices are not being heard. This quote is from the Declaration of Sentiments from 1848, read and publicized in Seneca Falls, NY. It marks one of those moments. It is the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement at a time when women did not have the same rights that men enjoyed. this moment ended over 75 years later when the 19th amendment was passed in 1920. But throughout history, people faced similar situations – about the right to get married and the right to have children. All those who work three part-time jobs because they need to be able to survive with their family, but they have no healthcare benefits or minimal social security. How loud must the voices inside them be that they speak up? How loud do they need to be that someone else listens to them?
In the Book of Numbers 27, we find the story about the five daughters of Zelophehad. The daughters of Zelophehad –in case you are curious, their names are Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – are facing the consequences of a patriarchal system that governed their still nomadic society. They were the last heirs of the house of Manasse – one of the twelve houses, the twelve sons of Jacob, who would inherit the promised land in the Levant that we call Israel/Palestine today. Their father died on the journey from Egypt, leaving no male heir. But he had five daughters. And those five daughters would not receive an inch of Land on which they could dwell in the Land they were about to enter. At first, their inner voices may have been quiet. But the closer they came to the destination, the land of milk and honey, their inner voices to feel secure and give their children a place to live grew. Assertive, passionate, and self-determined as they were, they stood in the tent of meeting – the house of worship filled with men and raised their voices. They wanted to be heard. Their house of Manasse had a right to receive a portion of God’s inheritance – even though they had no male heirs. Perhaps there was a discussion; perhaps there was confusion, even anger. But these men listened. They did not come to preoccupied conclusions. Instead, they heard the women out and used their wisdom to discern as unusual the situation and the request may have been. They discerned.
Both the story of the daughters of Zelophehad and the story in Seneca Falls are inspiring moments that encourage us to listen and discern. In an unusual situation, pause and discernment can be helpful to realign our actions with our values. The daughters of Zelophehad initiated a moment of reflection and debate that caused a discernment together with God. A conversation with God becomes the determining factor for deciding whether the house of Manasse would receive a designated area of Land. But how do we discern the moves that lead us to speak up? How much must we see until we decide to make the decision to speak and follow the voice that is inside us – or even outside us? How loud must that voice have been inside the daughters? How loud must the voice have been inside Moses, inside those who published the Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls? How do you hear God calling you to do the right thing and how long does it take you to get there?
The other notion of both these passages is an encouragement to speak up when the voice inside you tells you that something is wrong and needs to be righted. The act of speaking up is courageous – indeed, it is in the situation of the daughters as much as for the women in Seneca Falls or Henry Gerber for LGBTQ rights in Chicago. It is also courageous to overboard the given status quo of the societal status by those making the decision. Such courage requires determination and faith.