Author's Note on Parshat Pinchas

Author's Note on Parshat Pinchas

Date: July 10, 2020
18 Tammuz 5780

In Parshat Pinchas, we read the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad.  In short, their father died leaving no sons.  The laws of inheritance as they were then in effect meant that the daughters would be dispossessed of inheritable property.  Claiming that it was unfair, the daughters approached Moses and asked whether there was an exception by which they could retain their inheritable share. Moses brought the case to G-d and G-d approved the daughters’ request.  The daughters could inherit from their father.

Interestingly, right after the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, G-d reminded Moses that he could not enter the Promised Land due to what happened at Mei Merivah (the Waters of Strife). When reading the Torah, the inclination is to separate these two narratives.  First, we read the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad; then we stop, shift gears, and return to the transition of leadership from Moshe to Joshua. 

One of the lessons from the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, however, also provides an insight into why, immediately after the story, G-d reminded Moses of what happened at Mei Merivah.  The two stories bear some interesting similarities and connections. 

At Mei Merivah, Moses was confronted by a rebellious group of challengers.  It was hot and the people demanded relief from their hunger and thirst. The challengers mocked Moses for speaking to the rock when no water came out.  The pressure was on, what could Moses do?  He took the bull by the horns, as it were, verbally lashed out at those who challenged him and struck the rock.  Water came out; but G-d was not pleased.

When the daughters of Tzelofchad approached Moses, the Torah emphasized that it was not just five unnamed daughters who came forward.  It was Machlah, No’ah, Chogla, Milka, and Tirtzah.  Five intelligent women who stepped forward by name – this was personal.  Not only that, they confronted not just Moses but also Elazar (the priest) and the entire community at the entrance of the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting). 

The conversation was not “Hi Moses.  We have a question for you.  We were just wondering whether it might be OK if we inherit the land since we don’t have any brothers.  No big deal; just wondering.”  Instead it was “Why should our father’s name be deprived of perpetuity among his family because he has no son?  Give us a possession among our father’s brother.  What do you say to THAT?”  Admittedly, I added the last part; but you can almost hear the confrontation in reading the words that were recorded in the Torah.   The pressure was on and Moses was once again put on the spot.

Surely Moses could have figured it out on his own.  The problem of inheritance, while novel at the time, did not seem to be so tough that Moses could not have given them an answer.  Instead, he said “Wait.  Let’s all calm down.  Let me bring your case to G-d, the final arbiter, and let’s see what he says.”  G-d gave the answered that the daughters’ claim was just and a new law was decreed. 

But that was not the end of the story.  The real end of the story comes next when G-d reminded Moses of the incident at Mei Merivah.  It is as if G-d was telling him “See how with the daughters of Tzelofchad you defused a volatile situation and demonstrated true leadership?  You don’t have to know it all; you don’t have to respond immediately and risk making the wrong decision or saying the wrong thing as you did at Mei Merivah.  Sometimes it is better to step back.  Think it through.  Go back to the sources and check with a Higher Authority.  They can wait.  The strength in your answer lies in its truth; not in the speed with which it is given or the forcefulness of your delivery.”

Sometimes we, too, are confronted with challenges.  People demand an answer.  They NEED to know and they need to know NOW.  At other times, we are the ones demanding an answer.  We are the ones who need to know NOW.  We need to remember that the best answer is not always the first answer. In an era of 24 hours instantaneous information flow, where answers are expected almost before the question is asked, the Torah is telling us to think through what we say and what we do before we act and before we respond.  Yes, the world will go on either way.  But to avoid the “Waters of Strife,” the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad reminds us that we need to dial it back a bit, take our time and be deliberate in our judgments.