5762 - #38




             Many commentators find difficulty with the placement in the Torah text of Moshe Rabbeinu’s request for a leader to succeed him.1 Why does Moshe make this request at this specific moment? The simple answer would seem to be found in the text itself. In the preceding verses,2 God calls upon Moshe to ascend Mount Avarim3 and look upon the land of Israel as he will not be entering it. Confronted, thereby, with his death, Moshe’s concern turns to his people.4 Thus, Moshe demands an assurance that they will be taken care of. Yet, this explanation is inherently problematic. Is there any justification for such a concern? Are we to assume that Moshe actually contemplated the possibility that God would leave the Jewish people leaderless?

             Rashi, Bamidbar 27:16 explains that Moshe’s concern was for his sons. Spurred on by what transpired with the daughters of Tzelophchad,5 Moshe believed that this was the right time to request that his sons, upon his death, assume the mantle of leadership. Of course God would not leave the Jewish People leaderless; this did not enter Moshe’s mind. In introducing the issue of leadership and declaring that the Jewish People cannot be without a leader, Moshe was specifically setting the stage for a response from God that Moshe’s sons would succeed him.6 Still, while this may explain why Moshe would raise this issue at 

this time, the language of the text does not easily support this understanding.
There are those who contend that Moshe’s concern was not that God would leave the Jewish People leaderless but rather that He would appoint Pinchus. Thus, Moshe’s request was specifically framed as to highlight the characteristics of leadership that would preclude a zealot, such as Pinchus, from attaining the position. Given that the story of Pinchus occurred in the recent past, it is also understandable why Moshe would make this request at this time. Yet, it is the story of daughters of Tzelophchad that immediately precedes Moshe’s request. As indicated by Rashi’s explanation, a tie-in to this story would seem to be most appropriate.

             When one thinks about leadership, there are many possible understandings of the role -- and thus the characteristics -- of the leader. Fundamentally, though, a leader must lead -- but what does it mean to lead? Essentially, the role of a leader is the role of a decision-maker. As Moshe defines it,7 a leader must set direction -- determine where to go and how to get there. Then the leader must take his people to this place, but first he/she must determine the place.

             When one thinks about decision-making within the context of Torah, one thinks of halachic decision-making. Indeed the Jewish People always need poskim, those able to render decisions in Jewish Law. And there is the need for one, like Moshe in his generation, who is able to handle the most difficult of halachic questions.8 But this is not the decision-making that is referred to here. Halacha can state what is permissible but it cannot state whether the permissible should be actualized or discouraged. It can state what is prohibited but it cannot state whether the posek should extend energy to find a heter, a leniency, or let the original prohibition stand. These are policy decisions. These are the decisions of the leader.

             When the daughters of Tzelophchad approached Moshe with their question, Moshe was confronted with more than a halachic problem.9 He was confronted with a situation that would repeat itself numerous times in the future. The daughters of Tzelophchad presented a new reality and raised new questions and issues. Their request had merit; it was not the ramblings of those simply wishing to destroy. But their request would initiate change and challenge the previous understanding and practice of the law. What to do? Moshe had the option that only he would have; he turned to God for the answer. God’s response was that the daughters of Tzelophchad spoke correctly.10 Their argument to inherit indeed had halachic merit. Furthermore, they were correct in initiating this halachic inquiry.

             Without a Moshe able to ask God, herein lies perhaps the greatest challenge of Jewish leadership. When to initiate change and when not? When to hear new possibilities and when to demand allegiance to the established tradition? When is a new halachic alternative, while technically acceptable, to be discouraged as an example of poretz geder, breaking the fence?11 When is a new halachic alternative to be embraced as an example of makom haneicho lo, a place the previous generations left for later generations to distinguish themselves?12 Something new initiates change and with change arises dynamic motion. This dynamic motion can lead to destruction or to growth. What is the nation to do? The challenge of leadership is to make such policy determinations. It was after experiencing the case of the daughters of Tzelophchad that Moshe called to God to ensure that the Jewish People had a leader who could meet this essential challenge.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

1 Bamidbar 27:15-17.

2 Bamidbar 27:12-14.

3 See Rashi, Bamidbar 27:12 as to why God made this demand at this time.

4 See Rashi, Bamidbar 27:15.

5 Bamidbar 27:1-11. This is the story that immediately precedes Moshe’s request for a successor.

6 Interestingly, in this light, one may wonder how Moshe responded to God’s declaration that Yehoshua would be the next leader. Effectively, our understanding of God’s response also goes through a transformation. If Moshe was simply requesting a successor, the appointment of Yehoshua was a positive response to the request. If Moshe was specifically requesting that his sons assume the leadership, than the appointment of Yehoshua was really a negative response. Yet, as Yehoshua was Moshe’s foremost student, this answer must have also been somewhat positive to Moshe. See, further, Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, Pinhas 3. See, also, Rashi, Bamidbar 27:21.

7 Bamidbar 27:17.

8 Shemot 18:22,26.

9 See, further, T.B. Baba Batra 119b.

10 Bamidbar 27:7.

11 See Kohelet 10:8.

12 See Chulin 6a.

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