Moses Brought Their Case
In this week's parsha an unusual case of inheritance arises. Zelaphchad, of the tribe of Menashe, had five daughters but no sons. Inheritance goes from father to son, not to daughter. So these women, fearing their father's inheritance would be transferred to relatives outside the immediate family who had sons, approached Moses to ask what the law is in this case. Moses was stumped; he didn't know the halacha in such a case. So he turned to Hashem for direction. Let us look at a Rashi here.
Rashi points out that Moses is subjected to a bit of poetic justice.
"And Moses brought their case before Hashem."
Moses brought their case - RASHI: He forgot the halacha. Here he was punished for 'assuming the crown' (assuming to be the final judge) by saying, "The matter that is too difficult for you, you may bring to me" (Deut. 1:17).
THE BASIS FOR THE DRASH
This drash connects our verse with Moses' statement in Deuteronomy 1:17. Can you see why this connection was made?
Hint: See the complete verse in Deuteronomy.
UNDERSTANDING THE DRASH
An Answer: In Deuteronomy 1:17 it says:
"You shall not show favoritism in judgement, small and great alike you shall hear. You shall not be fearful before any man, for the judgement is God's , any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I shall hear it."
Our verse says:
"And Moses brought their case before Hashem."
Both contain the common word "to bring" in connection with a case brought before Moses. In Deuteronomy, Moses says "bring it to me." In our verse it says that Moses (had to) bring it to Hashem.
This word association forms the basis for this drash. It points out how the Torah uses its words in order to subtly make a moral point: the poetic justice is brought home by the common word(s) "And they brought" and "And he brought." We are reminded about what the Torah says in this verse itself: "because [rendering] justice is God's alone."
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
The fact that Moses couldn't answer this question on his own, but had to ask Hashem, indicates that something was lacking in his ability to decide such questions. Moses was, after all, the ultimate interpreter of the Law, which he, alone, received at Sinai. On the basis of this unusual lapse of memory on Moses' part, Rashi (based on the Talmud in Sanhedrin 8a) interprets this as punishment for Moses' previous boasting, so to speak, about his ability to be the final halachic arbiter of "difficult matters."
Did you notice that the statement Moses made is quoted from Deuteronomy? It was for this statement that he was punished. What would you ask about that?
A Question: How could Moses be punished now for a statement he made later,in his final oration to the people? You see that quote comes from the Book of Deuteronomy.
An Answer: True, this quote comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, but it refers back to an event that happened much earlier, during the first year in the wilderness. See Exodus 18:24-26, where Moses heeds the advice of his father-in-law, Jethro, and delegates halachic authority to others. There it says:
"And Moses heeded the advice of Jethro and he chose men of valor ... and they judged the nation at all times. The difficult matter they brought to Moses and every lesser matter they judged themselves."
So, in fact, this actually happened much before the story of the daughters of Zelafchad when Moses forgot the law.
But, if this was mentioned earlier in the Torah, we can ask another question of Rashi.
A Question: Why did Rashi quote the verse from Deuteronomy, when he could have quoted the original source in Exodus?
An Answer: The verse in Exodus does not quote Moses himself, it is an objective statement that "the difficult matter was brought to Moses." The verse in Deuteronomy, on the other hand, is a direct quote of Moses and thus shows for what he was held accountable. And in that quote we have the word that is similar to the word in our verse - "and they brought."
A DEEPER LOOK
Considering Moses' various opportunities to answer halachic questions posed in the Torah, we can ask a more basic question on this comment. Can you recall other instances when Moses was asked a question of law? If you can, What is your question?
A Question: During the second year that Israel was in the wilderness, Moses was asked by some men who were impure, whether they may bring the Pascal offering (Numbers 9:8). He had to turn to God for the answer. He was also asked what the punishment was for the "gatherer of wood" on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). Here too, Moses had to wait until God told him the appropriate punishment to impose. Why didn't Rashi comment on these cases as instances where Moses was punished by forgetting the law, as Rashi comments here?
Do you see any meaningful difference between those cases and ours?
An Answer: The two other cases where Moses was asked to decide a legal question, involved rare and unusual circumstances. The case of a man "gathering wood" or the situation where a person became impure before Passover are not everyday occurrences and thus it is not to be expected that Moses might be familiar with them. But the laws of inheritance come up whenever someone dies, which is a common occurrence. We would expect Moses to be knowledgeable of such laws. The fact that he was not, indicated a lapse in memory and thus Rashi saw this as a punishment.
Another possible explanation can be gleaned from Rashi's comments on verses 3, 4, 6 and 7. From his comments we see how well reasoned and intelligent the daughters were in presenting their case. On verse 4, Rashi says, "this tells us that they (the daughters) were learned." On verse 7, he comments, "This tells us that their eye discerned what Moses' eye did not." In light of the daughters' halachic virtuosity, Moses' forgetting can be seen as even more embarrassing. So, in this case, more so than the other two cases, we can reasonably construe Moses' inability to answer the halachic question as a punishment.