There is a fascinating sequence of events in this week’s portion that is analyzed by the Medrash and expounded upon by every major Torah commentator.
At the beginning of Chapter 27, the daughters of Zelophchad appeal to Moshe. Their father died in the desert, but he was not amongst the insurgents who rebelled against Moshe during Korach’s uprising. He died of his own sin and left no sons. The daughters want an inheritance in the Land of Israel.
Moshe did not remember the law and consulted with Hashem. He advised Moshe that Zelophchad’s daughters had a valid argument. They were entitled to a portion of the land that had been allotted for Zelophchad.
The ensuing section of the weekly Parsha has Hashem reminding Moshe that he will not enter the Land of Israel. Immediately a conversation follows. In verses 15-18 Moshe pleads to Hashem, “the Lord of all spirits and flesh to appoint a man over the assembly who will go out before them and go in before them; so they shall not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
Rashi quotes a Medrash that links the two episodes. He explains that after Moshe saw that Zelophchad’s daughters were entitled to inherit the Land, he felt that the time had come to ask for the torch of leadership to be passed to his own children. This does not come to pass. Hashem tells Moshe to bestow authority to his own disciple, Joshua, who ultimately leads the Jewish Nation into Israel.
Many Biblical commentators are puzzled by the connection of the request of Zelophchad’s daughters and Moshe’s request. Why did the former prompt the latter?
Second, were Moshe’s sons worthy of leadership or not? It seems that only after Moshe saw that Zelophchad’s daughter’s inherited did he say, “the time has come that I shall ask for my needs.” Why would the episode or conveyance of land to Zelophchad’s kin affect Moshe’s opinion of his own children’s leadership abilities?
The pious and humble Tzadik, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan of Radin, known as the Chofetz Chaim, was once riding a train to Radin. He wore a simple cap and traveled alone, and hardly anyone knew who he was. A middle-aged Jew sat down beside him and asked him where he was going. The Chofetz Chaim answered softly, “to Radin.”
The man was excited. “Do you know the saintly Chofetz Chaim? I am going to Radin just to see him!”
The Chofetz Chaim was unimpressed. “M’nyeh,” he shrugged. “I don’t think he is so saintly.”
The visitor was so appalled that he slapped the old man and left his seat shouting. “How dare you make light of the leader of our generation!” A week later the man came to the humble abode of the great Tzadik. Lo and behold, the old man from the train was sitting by the table in the dining room. The man collapsed in shock.
He could not stop apologizing for the incident on the train when the Chofetz Chaim halted him.
“Do not worry, you taught me a great lesson,” said the sage. “One may not even slander himself.”
R’ Mordechai of Czernobel (d.1837) explains the connection. Moshe was concerned that the very sin that prohibited him entry into the Land of Israel would also prevent his children a chance at inheriting leadership.
When Hashem told Moshe that Zelophchad’s daughters shall not suffer for any past misdeeds, he reconsidered his own situation. He realized that his problem and sin had nothing to do with his children. They should not suffer from his humility and self-effacing.
We all may get down on ourselves at one time or another. But our children look up to us. We must show that we have confidence in ourselves. The qualities that they believe we possess are those that we must pass on to them.
Mordechai Kamenetzky – Yeshiva of South Shore
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.