This is an English version of the Hebrew dvar Torah that appears in issue 1276 of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly portion sheet published by the religious peace movement Oz Veshalom. It is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us eight years ago on 2 Av.
The Book of Numbers ends with the appeal of a ruling on an inheritance case: “The family heads in the clan of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, one of the Josephite clans, came forward and appealed to Moses and the chieftains, family heads of the Israelites” (Num. 36:1). The original case was heard a few chapters previously:
The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (27:1–4).
When Zelophehad’s daughters brought their case before Moses’s court, he did not know how to rule. So he put their case before God, who instructed him in a revision of the inheritance law—if a father dies and leaves only daughters, they, not the father’s brothers, inherit his estate.
There is no higher authority than God. What he says is law. If that is the case, how dare the family heads appeal the ruling? And why would Moses agree to hear their petition?
Moreover, here, in this week’s portion, Moses shows no sign of confusion. He does not tell the family heads to wait while he consults God: “So Moses, according to the Lord, instructed the Israelites, saying: “The plea of the Josephite tribe is just. This is what the Lord has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may marry anyone they wish, provided they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe” (36:5–6). He does not again ask God for the answer; rather he issues a ruling “according to the Lord” (a plausibly better translation of al pi hashem than the usual “at the Lord’s bidding”). That is, he rules in accordance with his understanding of what God had told him in the earlier instance. Presumably, this is how he functioned in general—he was not simply a conduit for God’s rulings. Instead he ruled on the basis of his study of the Torah that he had received from God.
Academic textual scholars argue that Chapter 36 is an appendix to Numbers and thus stands outside its context. In this view, the chapter is a direct continuation of the episode related in Chapter 27. The family heads were parties in the case brought by the daughters of Zelophehad, and the ruling presented in Chapter 36 was thus part of the ruling issued in Chapter 27. But even if so, Moses reached his judgment in three stages. First, he perused the law books, meaning the Torah he received at Sinai. When he found no answer there, he appealed to the legislator. After the legislator elucidated the law, Moses went on to interpret it in accordance with the specific circumstances before him.
It seems to me, however, that there may be a rhetorical and literary reason for separating the family heads’ petition from that of Zelophehad’s daughters, and thus presenting it as an appeal of a ruling previously handed down. Chapter 36 is the last chapter in the four of the Torah’s five books written in the third person. Next week, in Deuteronomy, Moses will begin a review of his actions and of the Torah itself, in the first person. He will reiterate, to the generation that is about to enter Canaan and establish a sovereign society there, the principles of the Torah he received at Sinai, and the chain of events and acts during the journey through the wilderness. In Deuteronomy, Moses is the authority. He teaches the principles of the law. He does not act as a judge.
Is Moses the supreme authority in this world, whose principal role is to convey God’s laws? Or is he a judge, whose role is to apply the law as he adjudicates each case on its merits and bridges between legal principles and actual circumstances? The Torah portrays Moses sometimes as one and sometimes at the other. It’s an ambiguity that caught the attention of the medieval commentators. Rashi, in his mind’s eye, saw Moses as a king: “And he sits like a king and everyone else stands (Rashi on Ex. 18:13, beginning “And Moses sat, and the people stood”). Ibn Ezra, on the following verse, imagines Moses as a magistrate, a long line of petitioners waiting to bring their cases before him: “He makes them stand from evening to morning … and Moses did the right thing, because the judge sits and the plaintiffs stand.”
Ibn Ezra’s Moses is the Moses who sat to hear the case of Zelophehad’s daughters and the heads of the families. He is a judge who interrogates for the truth by engaging in a give-and-take with the parties to the case. Rashi’s Moses is that of Deuteronomy, who teaches the law to the Children of Israel but is not in dialogue with them.
When the philosopher Plato was about seventy years old, he sailed from Athens to Syracuse, in Sicily. Following the decline of Athens and Sparta as a consequence of the long war between them, Syracuse had become the major power in the Greek world. Its ruler, Dionysius II, had implored Plato to come to teach him how to be a good and just ruler. He knew that Plato, the author of the dialogues The Republic and The Laws, had argued that the ideal city was one ruled by a philosopher. Plato found himself facing the most difficult challenge that any philosopher could encounter: the need to put his theories into practice. He failed. Dionysius thought of philosophy as a tool for gaining more power and wealth. He wanted Plato to teach him rules and practices he could use to make himself mightier and richer. Plato relates, in his Seventh Letter, that he tried to explain to the king that philosophy is not the promulgation of laws but a conversation, one in which “names, definitions, sights, and other data of sense, are brought into contact and friction one with another, in the course of scrutiny and kindly testing by men who proceed by question and answer without ill will, with a sudden flash there shines forth understanding about every problem, and an intelligence whose efforts reach the furthest limits of human powers.”
The Torah lectures that Moses offers to his people before they cross the Jordan are essential for a generation that is about to set up a state from scratch. But, a moment before the class begins, the Torah reminds us, in the final chapter of Numbers, that the Torah can be implemented only as part of a conversation in which different voices are heard, while bridging between the letter of the law and things as they are. The dialogue between Moses, Zelophehad’s daughters, and the heads of the families is the voice that Plato did not hear in Syracuse.