How to Ask
This week’s portion contains the story of the daughters of Tzelefchad (Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milca and Tirtza). Tzelefchad, who was from the tribe of Menashe, had five daughters and no sons.
these women heard that only men were being counted in the distribution of the
land, they complained to Moshe: “Our father died in the wilderness, but he was
not among the men in the assembly of Korach. He died of his own sin, and he had
no sons. Why should his name be omitted from among his family because he had no
son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers. And Moshe brought this
claim before G-d. G-d said to Moshe saying: The daughters of Tzelefchad speak
properly, you shall surely give them a portion of inheritance among the brothers
of their father” (Numbers 27:3-7).
are several important questions that must be asked here. Let us focus on one of
them. Why were the daughters of Tzelefchad not punished for their impudence in
asking this question? Korach got in trouble for challenging Moshe, as did the
people of Israel for complaining on several occasions. Why were they different?
incident can teach us a fundamental lesson.
difference between Korach, and the people who were punished for complaining, and
the daughters of Tzelefchad, is very simple: the way they asked their question.
Being a good Jew does not mean having blind faith and never asking questions.
The Talmud constantly asks questions, as its purpose is to clarify the oral law
that was given over at Sinai. But it’s the way we ask questions. In the
Hagadah (read the night of the Pesach Seder), the wise son and wicked son ask
essentially the same question: “What’s going on here, what does all this
mean?” But the wicked son add is the words “to you”, taking himself out of
the equation. He is not wicked because he does not know, he is wicked because he
does not recognize that although he may not understand, due to our experiences
with G-d, it is only logical for us to trust in Him. This is why the first of
the ten commandments is “I am your G-d who took you out of Egypt”, i.e., you
have seen how I relate to you and who I am.
and the others asked for their own self aggrandizement, and this was proven by
how they responded when they did not receive the answer they wanted.
daughters of Tzelefchad asked because they wanted to know the law. They first
asked their local court. When the local court could not provide an answer, it
was sent to a higher court, until it reached Moshe.
Midrash [Bamidbar Rabbah] brings down two opinions why Moshe needed to ask G-d.
One is that Moshe displayed a slight lack of humility when he established the
courts, so G-d caused him to be humble. Another answer is that Moshe wanted to
show that there is nothing wrong with a judge not knowing the answer to a
learn from this story that it is crucial for us to be inquisitive and to delve
into the depths of the Torah in order to improve our understanding. We must, at
the same time, ask with respect and realize that if we do not comprehend, it is
due to a lack of understanding on our part, not, G-d forbid, due to a lack of
quality in the Torah.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.