21 Tammuz 5773 / June 28-29, 2013
In this week’s portion, Pinchas, we find one of the earliest vestiges of what today we might call “equal rights.” Zelophehad was a man who left behind 5 daughters, but no sons. Traditionally, at the time, it was sons who inherited their father’s property (with the eldest getting special consideration). The Daughters approached Moses and requested to inherit despite being women. Moses consults with God who advises that their cause is just. Thus, from that point forward, if a man died with no sons, his daughters would inherit.
While nowhere close to approaching what we’d consider equality (that would be both sons and daughters inheriting – not just sons), contextually in the time period it made sense given that theoretically women were marrying men who would inherit from their respective fathers, ensuring that family wealth stayed in the family.
This may not be a popular line of questioning, but:
Why do inheritance rights continue to exist today? Should they? Is it fair/reasonable that if your parent(s) made a lot of money, that somehow you are entitled to it once they pass away? In an era where most people do not continue to work in their parents’ business / live on their parents’ property or in their home, does it make sense for inheritance rights to even exist at all? Should we all have to be self-made in some ways? How much should be taken in taxes, if any? (Many states have “death taxes,” in addition to the IRS usually collecting as well)
How fitting that this portion falls during the week when provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) were determined to be unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. Often missed in the hullabaloo of passionate responses to the Court’s decision is the fact that the lawsuit against DOMA was initiated as a result of inheritance rights. The plaintiff, whose wife had passed away and left her estate to her wife (recognized as such in the state they lived in), was required to pay a higher tax rather to the IRS than a heterosexual spouse would have been required to, by virtue of their marriage not existing in the eyes of the Federal government courtesy of DOMA. The Court ultimately decided that to impose a higher spousal inheritance tax rate on gay and lesbian couples by virtue of the Federal government not recognizing their marriages was discriminatory -- a victory for those of us who support equal recognition and equal rights for homosexual couples.
We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, that while we are not obligated to complete the work, neither are we free to desist from it.
While this week we celebrate a victory, there is much work still to be done in the fight for equality. Let’s get to it.