There was a man named Tzlofchad who died and was survived by daughters, but not by sons. When the tribal land holdings were assigned, Tzlofchad’s daughters came to Moshe and claimed that it was only right that in the absence of sons, they themselves should be their father’s inheritors. Moshe did not know what the ruling should be, so he approached God, who ruled in the daughters’ favor (Bamidbar 27:1-11). 


The fact that Moshe, who received the entire Torah on Sinai, would have been unaware of the law in this case, is problematic. How can he have received a Torah that records this incident, and not known the outcome? The Midrash Tanchumah (Siman 8) points to this problem, and uses it as an opportunity to teach. 


The Midrash tells us that when someone becomes too great in Torah, and begin to lose their humility, God takes away some of that spiritual strength. King David is brought as an example. In the sixth chapter of Shmuel II, the ark is moved from Baalei Yehudah. It is transported on carts. When one of the oxen stumbled, a man named Uzzah took hold of the ark to steady it. God punished Uzzah with death. The Midrash uses this example to illustrate how even King David, master of writing and singing God’s praises, can forget something that even children in their Jewish studies know: that the proper way to transport the ark is for the Levites to carry it. In this Midrash, God says to David “By your life! In the end, you will err in a matter that even children studying in cheder know.”


We have seen examples of this in today’s rabbinic leadership. Great scholars of Torah literature have made incorrect halachic rulings, and even given teachings that diminish the value of human life. It seems that the Torah knew that this would happen. Judaism is a religion that recognizes the flawed humanity even of the greatest leaders and sages. Our parashah this week emphasizes this fact in two places. One is the incident involving Tzlofchad’s daughters. The other comes immediately afterwards in the 27th chapter. God tells Moshe that he must climb to the top of Mt Avarim and pass on the mantle of his leadership before his death, just as his brother did on Mt. Hor. Both are punished for their failure to sanctify the name of God when they brought water from the rock at Merivah by striking it instead of talking to it. They are to die without setting foot in the land of Israel. 


Moshe, our greatest prophet, was not all-knowing, and he did not always exhibit the best human qualities. He was impatient to a fault. He was quick to anger. He was sometimes even ignorant of Torah.  

This is a crucial theological point in Jewish thought. The prohibition against idolatry is so severe that we are urged even against hero-worship. No one is above intellectual and moral failure; not even Moshe Rabbeinu. How much more true is that of us?

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