Moshe as Posek

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz

This week’s double parshiyot of Matot-Masei mark the conclusion of Sefer Bamidbar. One of its central themes is the development of the halachic process and the growth of Moshe and the Jewish people in this regard.

We see this through two key episodes which contain several significant linguistic, structural and thematic similarities. The first is the case of Pesach Sheini in which a number of men complain to Moshe and Aaron that they are unable to offer the korban Pesach because they are impure: “why should we lose out and not be able to present G-d’s offering at the right time…?” (9:7) Moshe does not know the answer and brings their question to Hashem. Hashem tells Moshe that the petitioners are correct and they can offer the sacrifice one month later. The case is precedential and anyone who is impure or too far away is allowed to participate in Pesach Sheini.

The second episode is b’not Tzlopchad – five sisters whose father had died without any sons. According to the rules of inheritance, only males were entitled to a portion in Eretz Yisrael. Tzlophcad’s daughters come to Moshe and the elders with the same complaint of those in the Pesach Sheini story: “Why should our father’s name be disadvantaged in his family merely because he did not have a son?” (27:4) Here too, Moshe does not know and brings their question to Hashem. Here too, Hashem rules in favor of the petitioners and the case serves as precedent for similar situations.

The upshot of these two stories is that the halachic process must be accessible and democratic. In each case people who felt disadvantaged were comfortable to air their complaints publicly. It is likely that Moshe does not know the answer to the question because he had not considered these particular circumstances. Halachic authorities must have the awareness and sensitivity to address every scenario to which a ruling may be applied. For this they must be in tune with their communities.

Moshe’s development is seen in two stories in this week’s parshiyot. First, he answers the tribes of Gad and Reuven who wish to settle in the rich pastureland east of the Jordan rather than cross into Israel proper. Moshe agrees, but only if they join their fellow tribes in battle to conquer the land. Moshe does not consult with Hashem but he convinces Gad and Reuven on his own. His response shows that he has developed a sensitivity for the rest of the nation: “‘shall your brethren go to the war, and you sit here? And will you turn away the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land…?” (32:6-7). Finally, Sefer Bambidbar concludes by revisiting the story of b’not Tzlophhad, this time from the perspective of their relatives who are concerned that if the daughters marry outside of their tribe then the land will be passed onto their male descendants who will be members of a different tribe. They use the same language prominent in Pesach Sheini and the original encounter with b’not Tzlophchad: “their inheritance will be taken away from the inheritance of our fathers, and will be added to the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they shall belong; so will it be taken away from the lot of our inheritance…” (36:3) Moshe similarly answers on his own without consulting Hashem. His response is that a compromise must be reached: Tzlophchad’s daughters will inherit their father’s portion but on condition they agree to marry within their tribe so that the land will remain in the tribe of Menashe.

With these two answers Moshe shows that he has grown as a posek. He adjudicates difficult cases on his own without consulting Hashem (an option that will not exist once they enter Israel). He relies on the art of persuasion and building consensus. Moshe is able to internalize and account for the emotional and spiritual concerns of the petitioners and all whom the ruling will affect.

Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz (SBM 2001) is Rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore.

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