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Tirzah, Zelophechad’s daughter, and the Plague of Darkness

We meet the daughters of Zelophechad again in this week’s Torah Portion, Pinchas, and watch as they convince Moses and God to overturn the prohibition against daughters’ inheriting land. We are fascinated by these courageous women and wanted to explore what experiences could have shaped them into the remarkable people we meet in our parashah. In this Midrashic Monologue, we focus on Tirzah, the youngest of Zelophechad’s five daughters, and listen as she recounts what she and her sisters experienced when the plague of darkness engulfed Egypt in the time when God and Pharaoh battled to determine the fate of the Israelites.

When everything went dark, the first thing I noticed was the screaming. All around me in the Egyptian shuk, shopkeepers were yelling and customers were screaming. Everyone seemed to be freaking out. As I often did in those days, I had been trying to convince some of the more compassionate shopkeepers to have pity on me, a poor slave girl. Not that I wanted to be pitied by others or leered at by older men, but I had parents and four older sisters to help feed. And, it beat trying to steal which had gotten quite a few of my friends in trouble. When everything went dark, the second thing I noticed was that everyone around me began stumbling and falling. People were tripping over each other, some bumped into carts, and a few just sat down in the middle of the pathway, weeping. It was as if all of them had been struck blind. So intense were their reactions that it took me several minutes to realize that I was watching them- that my eyes had not been affected by whatever sickness was bearing down on the Egyptians. 

As I looked around the shuk, I began to wonder whether their blindness had come from our God. The Israelites in the shuk were unaffected by the strange malady. I caught the eye of another slave girl, and we shared a moment of wonder as our oppressors were made powerless. I jumped when a man near me cried out, “My eyes, my eyes,” and then moved quickly away as a woman holding her baby wailed, “Help us. I cannot see.” The energy in the shuk felt like a swollen river about to spill from its banks. I knew things could quickly become dangerous. So I turned to hurry back to Goshen. As I made my way home, I realized that all Egyptians- not just those I had seen in the shuk- had been struck by this blindness. I passed someone mumbling, “It’s so dark. Everything’s gone dark.” I saw others holding on to the walls of their homes, trying to make their way to their neighbors. An older man tripped in the path before me, but when I moved to help him, he swatted my hand away, shouting at me that I was the reason he had been cursed.

How was it possible that I, and the other Israelite slaves, could see clearly- as if the sun was in her highest position- when the Egyptians were surrounded with darkness? It was beyond comprehension. It reminded me of a glyph I had seen in the stalls of someone walking on a sunny day. In it, everything was beautiful except for one cloud of rain over the head of the single person in the picture. That’s what I saw when I looked at my neighbors, my oppressors. Why could we see w they could not?  As I arrived at the boundaries of our camp, I recalled the last week filled with the blood in the Nile, frogs everywhere, and lice infecting just the Egyptians, I understood that this must be another of Moses’ - well, God’s - plagues. I ran the rest of the way, anxious to tell my sisters all that I had seen. When I arrived home, my sisters were gathered around the fire, talking in hurried and hushed tones. I tried to tell them what I had witnessed, but I couldn’t get a word in. We five sisters - Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and me, Tirzah - can get pretty animated when we are together. Each sister already knew about the darkness that afflicted only the Egyptians, and each was clamoring to share her opinion about what had happened. We kept interrupting each other- in the way that sisters sometimes do. The eldest, Machlah, an activist who always perceived things through the eyes of a passionate seeker of justice, declared that, “The Egyptian’s blindness is a physical manifestation of the blindness they had been living with for far too long. They have consciously closed their eyes, or put on blinders, to shield themselves from the horrors of the growing oppression, the enslavement of the Israelites, and the other crimes perpetrated in their name.” If Machlah could, I bet she would have marched right up to Pharaoh and spoken her truth. His power did not scare her. I pity whatever foolish people get in the way of Machlah’s righteous indignation. With the amount of power burning in her heart, I just knew that someday she would be the one to change all our lives for the better. My next oldest sister, Noa, always so introspective, suggested that, “The darkness is psychosomatic, some sort of malaise or depression, reflecting how the Egyptians have internalized their sense of guilt or sadness over the way they have treated their non-Egyptian neighbors and friends.” For Noa, the darkness had begun within the Egyptians and had grown so strong that it had escaped into the world around them. My middle sister, Choglah, the most spiritual of us five, told us that, “In addition to testifying to God‘s incomparable power, this darkness represented the pagan beliefs of the Egyptians.” She had long held that the Egyptian pantheon of false gods- including their human king Pharaoh- was nonsense. “After all,” she explained, “our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah and Isaac, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, believed only in the power of Adonai Echad, the existence of only one God. When the Egyptians turn away from their gods,” Choglah declared, “they would see clearly once again.” 

Milcah, the sister immediately older than me, urged us to take advantage of the darkness by stealing into the homes and shops of the Egyptians to “borrow” their valuables. Ever the strategic thinker, Milcah knew that once we left Egypt we would need gold and silver to ensure our safety. “Perhaps this darkness is part of God’s plan to ensure we do not emerge from Egypt as a free people only to be enslaved to poverty.”  Even Milcah was willing to show some religious zeal if it bolstered what she thought was the smartest, most practical plan.

And me, Tirzah, the youngest of Zelophechad’s daughters, what did I think? I had no great explanations or detailed plans. Instead, for me, the darkness was one of many mysteries that I hoped meant that our God would soon free us from our bone-crunching, energy-devouring slavery. 

I left my sisters inside to debate their explanations. Walking back outside, reveling in the power to see through the darkness and grateful to the God who had given it to me, I looked up to the heavens, praying, asking, begging, demanding that the God who had performed this miracle would release us from our prison so that we could go on to illuminate the whole world by shining God’s light into all existence. 

For more information about Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and me, Tirzah (the daughters of Zelophechad), visit the Jewish Women's Archive by clicking HERE.


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