It is often said that Torah — in the sense of the set of laws intended to guide the life of the Jewish people — was given to Moses at Mount Sinai. But the Torah itself records that not every nuance of the law was transmitted to the people in this way.
In this week’s Torah reading, as in several other places in the Torah, individuals come forward to inquire about the applicability of the law in their particular case. In so doing, they provide a model for how Torah will continue to be relevant as a source of guidance up to this day, thousands of years later.
In this week’s case, the people involved are the daughters of a man named Tzelophehad, and the issue is one of inheritance. The people are about to enter the land of Canaan, and each family is to be assigned a holding in the land. Since Tzelophehad has died, what will happen to the land assigned to his family? The law states that when a man dies, his son inherits his land, but Tzelophehad had no son; his daughters are the only heirs.
Could it be that their family among all the Israelites will have no holding of their own? Could the law be that unjust? To solve this problem, the daughters of Tzelophehad ask that they be given possession of the family plot, even though the law as it stands at that time does not give that option. What is Moses to do?
Note how Moses reacts to this challenge. He could have simply denied these women’s request. Or he could have made an exception that would have helped these women but left others in similar situations with no relief. But he does neither. Instead, Moses brings their case “before God” [Numbers 27:5]. He recognizes that there is something sacred in their claim, that it requires serious consideration even though their proposed solution changes the face of the law as it stands.
God agrees: “The daughters of Tzelophehad speak properly. You shall surely give them a portion of inheritance … ” [Numbers 27:6]. Now, God was the one who gave Moses the laws of inheritance in the first place. Why would God have left out precisely the nuance of the law that is relevant in this case? Didn’t God know that this issue would come up? Or was God trying to teach Moses something else?
I would argue that this passage teaches us something crucial about the character of Jewish law. Yes, Torah was given to Moses at Mount Sinai, spoken in a thundering voice and inscribed in words of fire.
But that one-way communication was not the only way that God intended for instruction to come to the people. Human challenges to the law and the attempts to interact with it and even to modify it to fit changing circumstances were also part of the divine plan.
Far from discovering a weakness in the law of Torah, the daughters of Tzelophehad discovered its central strength. Torah was not meant to be an immutable message from the heavens to the earth, a holy relic suitable only for angels, not to be sullied by the hands of lowly humans. Instead, Torah is intended to spark an interactive conversation between human and divine, bridging the gap between holy ideals and lived experience. Only then can it become an etz hayim — a “living tree” that is the sacred inheritance of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org .