Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

“Do not erect a sacred stone, for these the LORD your God hates.” ~Devarim 16:22

The prohibition of creating a monument stone, a “matsevah“, is side-by-side with a discussion of the altar, “mizbeah“, that the Israelites are allowed to create (16:21).

Contrasting the two structures enables a few suggestions as to why one might be encouraged and the other forbidden.

  1. A matsevah is a single stone while the mizbeah is built of many stones. Unity is less about being contiguous, about being of a single cloth, then about the unity of disparate elements towards a single purpose, the service of God and the fulfillment of God’s Law.
  1. Being a single stone, the matsevah is essentially a natural object, produced by God. The mizbeah is artificial, coming about only through the strength of human hands (Devarim 8:17-18). Holiness and the service of God have less to do with the innate nature of things and more to do with the importance of human action. God has given us a world and asked us, through his law, to sanctify and to distinguish, to elevate it and make it holy (Vayikra 10:10).

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?


Parashat Behar focuses largely, though not entirely, on the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years respectively[1]. These laws are often seen as a continuum, with one the former flowing naturally into the latter. Shemitah occurs every 7th year, when all of the Jews of the land of Israel must declare their land ownerless and let it lie fallow for a whole year; they may neither sow nor reap in the land. Yovel occurs every 50th year, just after every 7th Shemitah year. In Yovel, all sales of land are nullified and the lands are returned to their owner, and all slaves are set free. Thus Shemitah entails a nullification of dominance over the land, and Yovel entails a revoking of sales and ownership. However, this depiction runs across a critical flaw when it comes to the textual depiction of the return of lands and slaves in Vayikra 25:13, “In this year of Yovel you shall return every man to his portion [of land].” The text does not depict the return of lands as something separate from the freeing of slaves. In fact, it does not describe the return of lands at all. Rather it talks about the return of slaves as free individuals to their ancestral homelands. Thus Shemitah and Yovel are in fact conflicting, not continuous. Shemitah involves people stepping back from the land and their ownership of it, while Yovel requires people coming close to the land of their families. The former creates a sense of distance and otherness from the land, while the latter conditions a sense of familiarity and identity with it.

The tension can be resolved by reformulating the concept of the Yovel in a way that focuses on ownership after all. However, it is in the reverse way of it was formulated before. Instead of Yovel being about whether or not the land belongs to us, it’s about whether or not we belong to the land. Thus the whole of the Yovel/Shemitah passage can be summed up conceptually as, “The land doesn’t belong to us so much as we belong to the land.” Thus Shemitah and Yovel do in fact form a continuum, as we first recognize every 7 years that we do not really own the land, and then in the 50th year we take yet one step further away from ownership and recognize that we, in fact, are creatures of the land we are born on and are in a sense owned by it.

At this point it is worth bringing up a conceptual dichotomy discussed by Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)[2] regarding the difference between what he calls “earth” (אדמה) and “land” (ארץ). Rav Shagar says that “earth” refers to the elemental reality that all humans are born out of, to what it means to exist as a human being. In contrast, “land” refers to the society people construct, the power-oriented political structures we create. All human have a connection to the earth, and groups of people create their own various lands. In Shemitah we step back from the “land”, renouncing any sense of ultimacy that we attribute to our constructed societies, we recognize that our ownership is anything but absolute. In Yovel, we are still getting back beyond our conditional societies, but the emphasis is not on shattering these false idols, but on getting back to the source, getting back to the basics of what it means to be human. While Yovel is not applicable in our day, Shemitah is made all but negligible by the innovation of the Heter Mekhirah[3], and the number of Jews who live the sort of agrarian lifestyle where these rules are really felt is negligible, it’s important to recognize that these laws still have something to teach us. In our societies, we often become too caught up in the hierarchies and stratifications that we use to categorize and understand the people around us. While these structures are important, we need to step back every now and then and realize that they’re only constructs, and that at the root of it we’re all people. Further, living in these structures causes us to get locked into very particular ways of understanding ourselves, and every now and then we need to get back to our very human essence, and realize that we can choose how we want to define ourselves and our world in the future.

[1] The ideas in this composition are based to some degree on “Father Sky and Mother Earth” by Rav Shagar, found in “On That Day: Sermons and Essays for the holidays of Iyar”, pg. 207-216.

[2] “On That Day”, pg. 37. Note that he also includes a third category, “State” (מדינה), that is absolutely worth reading about but was beyond the scope of this composition.

[3] Literally “Permission of Sale”, wherein land in Israel is sold to a non-jew in order to exempt it from the laws of Shemitah.

Parashat Nitsavim-Vayelekh – Following Man vs Following God

הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ

The joint parashot of Nitsavim-Vayelekh begin Moshe’s final farewell to the nation, including a formal covenant, the commandment of Teshuvah, his transferal of leadership to Yehoshua, the commandment of the mitsvah of Hak’hel, and the writing of a Torah scroll to be kept by the Aron. While not the most dramatic or stirring of these events, the appointment of Yehoshua presents us with problematic doublings and contradictions which, when given serious consideration, not only explain or cast new light on various passages in Sefer Devarim and beyond, they also point toward the Torah’s radical conception of leadership and responsibility.

The passage at the beginning of Devarim 31 depicts Moshe telling the people that he will not be leading them any longer, and that Yehoshua will be leading them in his stead. However, that’s not quite what it says.

1 And Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel. 2 And he said to them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no longer go out and come in; and the Lord has said to me: You shall not cross over this Jordan. 3 The Lord your God, He will cross over before you; He will destroy these nations from before you, and you shall dispossess them; and Joshua, he shall cross over before you, as the Lord has spoken.

The first thing that stands out here is that Moshe present’s two reasons for why he will not be leading Bnei Yisrael anymore, (1) that he is too old and therefore physically he is no longer up to the challenge of leadership, and (2) that ‘א has said to him that he shall not cross the Jordan. Either one of these reasons would be sufficient, and certainly once the second has been stated, as it was in Bamidbar 20:12, the first is not only unnecessary but also not quite correct, as ‘א could certainly have strengthened Moshe if he was to continue leading. Moving on from there, we see that in verse three, parallel to these two reasons, there are in fact two leaders. Moshe tells the people that in contrast to himself, their former leader, that the new leader will “cross over before you,” “הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.” However, he uses this phrase not once but twice, by both ‘א and Yehoshua. Moshe seems to say that his role will be filled by both ‘א and Yehoshua. This is, to say the least, odd, and it requires explanation. This explanation can be found in the appointment of Yehoshua in Bamidbar 27.

The twenty-seventh chapter of Sefer Bamidbar starts with the story of the Daughters of Tselophehad, which is really attached to the census that preceded it, and then begins something new, the question of who will lead after Moshe.

12 And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Ascend Har HaAvarim, and behold the land which I have given to the children of Israel. 13 And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was gathered; 14 because you rebelled against My commandment in the wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the waters before their eyes.’–These are the waters of Merivat-Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. 15 And Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: 16 ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, 17 who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.’ 18 And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Take you Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him; 19 and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. 20 And you shall put of your honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken. 21 And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.’

This section (Bamidbar 27:12-21) is composed of two distinct passages (27:12-14 and 27:15-21). It is important to note that these are in fact two separate passages[1] (there’s even a break between them), because this pair of passages correspond exactly to the dual pairs of reasons and leaders in Devarim 31. In the first passage, ‘א tells Moshe that he will not be going into the Land of Israel, and, importantly, no replacement leader is mentioned. In the second passage, Moshe asks ‘א to choose a person to replace him after he dies, in order that the nation not be “as sheep which have no shepherd.” This second passage also uses the same language of “going out” and “coming in” (27:17, 21) that Moshe uses in Devarim 21:2, where he says that the reason that he needs a replacement is his physical inability to lead. This dichotomy matches the two reasons and leaders given in Devarim 21, one where ‘א tells Moshe that his leadership is over, and therefore ‘א will lead, and one where Moshe feels he is too old to lead and asks for a replacement, Yehoshua.

This is tied into the hotly debated understanding of the mitsvah[2] regarding appointing a king from Devarim 17.

14 When you have come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you shall possess it, and shall dwell in it; and you shall say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’; 15 you shall in any wise set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brethren shall you set king over you ; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.

Verse 15 certainly does seem to say that the nation is commanded to appoint a king over them, but it is preceded by verse 14, which seems to indicate that the commandment would only apply in the case where Bnei Yisrael indicate that they want a king, like the nations around them, meaning that it is optional. This debate is expressed in the Sifri[3], the halakhic midrash on Sefer Devarim.

“And you shall say, Let us appoint over ourselves a king’ – R’ Nehorai says: This is a matter of disgrace to Israel, as it is written (Shemuel I 8:7) ‘For it is not you whom they have despised, but Me whom they have despised from ruling over them.’ R’ Yehuda said: But it is a mitzva from the Torah for them to request a king for themselves, as it is written, ‘You shall surely appoint over yourselves a king.’ So why were they punished for this in the days of Shemuel? Because it was too early for them to ask. ‘Like all the nations around us’ – R’ Nehorai said, They did not ask for a king for any other reason but so that he would institute idolatry, as it is written (Shemuel I 8:20), ‘And we, too, shall be like all the nations, and our king will judge, and he will go out before us and fight our wars.” (Sifri Shoftim 156)

This debate is picked up in the Rishonim both in their enumerations of the mitsvot and in their commentaries on the Torah. Stepping back to the Tannaim, it is important to note the proof text R’ Nehorai brings indicating that having a king is less than ideal. “For it is not you whom they have despised, but Me whom they have despised from ruling over them” (Shemuel I 8:7). This verse from Shemuel I depicts ‘א stating that desiring a king is not simply choosing from amongst types of human authorities, but choosing a human leader over Divine Authority[4], which is a fairly strong argument for the opinion that having a king is optional at best.

Taking that back to the anointment of Yehoshua, Moshe’s request for a replacement is granted by ‘א, not initiated by Him, which would indicate that in an ideal sense there was never supposed to be any replacement for Moshe, and the people were supposed to be directly under ‘א’s leadership, with no human leadership in between, as is the case in Sefer Shoftim, after Yehoshua’s death, where there is no centralized national leadership. Unfortunately, the people failed to live up to the responsibility of guiding themselves and their society according to the Torah, and so eventually the institution of a King became necessary. Ideally, there was never supposed to be a king, but once there was a need for a king, there was an ideal way for the king to act. The king was never supposed to displace ‘א’s leadership, but his leadership was supposed to encourage the people to follow the Torah. Hence Divrei HaYamim I 29:23, “Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king,” where it’s made clear that the seat of human authority is also meant to be a representation of Divine authority. However, Bnei Yisrael failed in that too, as is clear from most of Sefer Melakhim. This idealization of human leadership as an expression of divine leadership is depicted in  Devarim 31:23, “And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said: ‘Be strong and courageous; for you will bring the children of Israel into the land which I swore to them; and I will be with you.” Yehoshua’s strong leadership will be a function of ‘א being with him.

Reading this back into Sefer Devarim sheds new light on many passages. Devarim 17:15-20 depicts the specific laws of the King which put a strong emphasis on the fact that the king must be of the brethren of Israel, and greatly restrict the amount of wealth, horses, and wives that the King may acquire. On the surface these laws would seem designed to keep the king from becoming too arrogant and becoming corrupted by his wealth and power but, based on the above, this would seem to be part of the larger goal of emphasizing that the king is just another member of Bnei Yisrael under the Kingship of ‘א.

Another passage that takes on fascinating new meaning in this light is part of Moshe’s final pep-talk to the people in Devarim 30.

11 For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 14 But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

The basic message of this passage is that the people are capable of keeping the Torah, that they need not worry, and cannot claim, that it is too hard for them to keep. However, the specific messages are that the Torah is not in heaven, where the people would need someone to go get it for them, nor is it across the sea, which would bar the people from going to get it. These two impassable obstacles, the breadth of the sea and the height of heaven, were those that were crossed by Moshe as he split the sea and ascended Har Sinai. Thus the message of this passage is not just that the people have the capability to keep the Torah, but more specifically that they do not need Moshe, or his replacement, in order to do so. They themselves are up to the challenge.

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing to appreciate in light of this idea is the mitsvah of Hak’hel (31:10-13). Every seven years, when the people are all in Jerusalem for Sukkot, they are to gather around the king as he reads to them from the Book of the Torah[5], in order that they learn to revere ‘א and follow His Torah. This ceremony is essentially a reenactment of the Revelation on Har Sinai, and there are numerous textual and thematic parallels indicating this[6]. However, it is also parallel to the covenant ceremony described in parashat Ki Tavo that was yet to be enacted on Har Eval, which itself has strong textual and thematic parallels to the Revelation on Har Sinai[7]. The two covenants, that of Har Sinai and Har Eval, are each thought of as the people accepting ‘א’s Torah upon themselves, and they are that. In this vein, Hak’hel reenacts the giving of the law, with the King standing in place of Moshe and Yehoshua[8]. However, the two events were each also the forging of a covenant, and this covenant is a direct relationship[9] between ‘א and the Nation of Israel. Taken in this light, the mitsvah of Hak’hel is not about gather every 7 years for the people to brush up on their knowledge of the laws, but in order for them to reaffirm that they are ruled not by the king but by ‘א. This also helps explain why every member of Israel is supposed to be there, even children who cannot understand the law but can certainly grasp that ‘א is in charge.

Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, Judaism has gone from a centralized, nation-oriented religion to a much more personalized, individual-centered religion[11]. We have returned to the status quo of Sefer Shoftim, and we must not fail as Bnei Yisrael did then.The mitsvah of Hak’hel arises every year as we approach Rosh HaShanah. More than it is a day of judgement, Rosh HaShanah is about the declaration and affirmation of ‘א’s Kingship[11]. Rosh Hashanah is a time where we take upon ourselves the responsibility of a direct relationship with’א, with all the culpability that entails. Bnei Yisrael in Sefer Shoftim were incapable of taking ‘א’s Kingship upon themselves, and so they required a human king. We cannot be vicariously religious. Communities require leaders , but they are meant to help guide us, not to be intermediaries between us and ‘א. There are no “holy men” in Judaism, only individuals, and thus no individual can throw off his responsibility to ‘א by saying that they are not a “holy man.” The Torah commands Bnei Yisrael to turn to their leaders for guidance only when they cannot determine what they should do (Devarim 17:8), otherwise we must turn to ‘א. On Rosh HaShanah, as in the mitsvah of Hak’hel, we reaffirm the covenant we have with ‘א, and recognize the responsibility that is thus incumbent upon us, and only upon us[12]. Only in this manner do we return to ‘א and to who we are meant to be.

[1] For an excellent discussion of the relationship between the two passages and, more particularly, the grammatical and chronological issues involved in understanding the first passage, see this excellent essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] For more on this discussion, see this excellent essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[3] A similar formulation is also found in a beraita, Sanhedrin 20b, and Tosefta Sanhedrin ch. 4.

[4] The alternative was that the people in asking for a king were simply rejecting Shemuel the Prophet as their leader, but ‘א’s statement makes it clear that ‘א’s Prophet is not a leader in and of himself, but rather a mouthpiece, a vehicle for the expression of Divine Authority.

[5] There are a variety of opinions as to what was actually contained in this torah, as reading the entirety of the Torah would be quite difficult in practice. See the commentaries on this passage for more details on the various opinions.

[6] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Menachem Leibtag.

[7] For more on that, see this essay by R’ Tamir Granot.

[8] See Hizkuni on Devarim 31:11.

[9] Peshat in Shemot 20 is certainly that ‘א spoke all ten of the commandments directly to the people, but it is possible to suggest otherwise, and the forging of the covenant from the beginning of Shemot 19 through Shemot 24 does seem to be done via Moshe. However, the covenant is repeatedly affirmed and accepted not by Moshe, but by the people (19:8 and 24:7, for example).

[10] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Berakhot, 8a.

[11] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Rosh HaShanah, 16a.

[12] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, 17a.

Parashat Matot – Human Initiative and the Divine Will

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת


Parashat Matot contains the story of Bnei Yisrael’s war with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8), which finishes the story of Pinhas and the sin of Bnei Yisrael at Baal Peor (Bamidbar 25). Chapters 26-30 are an interjection, interrupting the story of Bnei Yisrael’s encounter with Midyan. While some of the sections in these chapters might be chronologically in order (see 26:1, for example), other law sections could have gone anywhere, and thus their placement in the midst of the Midyan narratives strange. However, a close analysis of the parshiyot of chapters 26-30 demonstrates that the whole unit, starting from Bamidbar 25 and stretching through chapter 30, explicates and demonstrates different aspects of the tension between the Divine Will and Human Initiative.[1]

This unit breaks down into (A) Pinhas, (B) the Census and the Daughters of Tselophehad, (C) Moshe being told to go up on the Mountain and Yehoshua’s Appointment, and (D) The Laws of the Festival Sacrifices and the Laws of Personal Vows. While Pinhas’ Narrative stands alone, the rest of the sections are pairs, half of each emphasizing the Divine Will and half emphasizing Human Initiative. Together, they create what seems to a very full picture of the different aspects of the tension between Divine Will and Human Initiative, one which is built upon in the following narratives of the Spoils of War (Bamidbar 31:9-54) and the Request of Reuven and Gad (Bamidbar 32).

In the story of Pinhas, Bnei Yisrael had sinned, and were suffering from a plague in consequence (25:1-3). Then ‘א said to Moshe, “Take the leaders of the people and execute them before ‘א, that ‘א’s wrath may be turned back from upon the nation” (25:4). Moshe then instructs the judges of Israel to take the sinners that are under their jurisdiction and to kill them. This is a valid reading of ‘א’s command, based on interpreting “them” to mean the sinners, and that “take the leaders” means that Moshe should act with them. It is not the intuitive reading, which would mean simply to kill the leaders themselves, but it is certainly valid, and we do not see that Moshe is punished or corrected for his interpretation. However, there is an implied critique on Moshe in the extensive praise and reward lavished on Pinhas, who did indeed fulfill the more intuitive reading of ‘א’s command, and turned ‘א’s wrath back from upon the people. Interestingly, we do not see that Pinhas heard the command to Moshe, or was a prophet in his own right, or anything of the like. Rather he seems to have decided on his own that this was the correct thing to do, and thus he was acting both in accordance with the Divine Will and his own, human, initiative.

The census of chapters 26 and 27 serves to detail all the families of all the tribes for the purpose of dividing the Land of Israel up evenly between them. In this census, only males inherit land and thus only male heirs of the tribes are delineated, with the exception of Serah Bat Asher (26:46) and the daughters of Tselophehad (26:33). The daughters of Tzelophehad are uniquely mentioned here in order to pave the way for their taking  of the stage at the beginning of Chapter 27, where they approach Moshe and ask to inherit the land of their father, in order that his name not disappear from his tribe[2], and after Moshe speaks to ‘א, they are granted this right. Thus the original Divine law, that only sons inherit, was changed by Human Initiative.[3]

The narrative of the Daughters of Tselophehad is followed by a brief command to Moshe that he go up on Mount Avarim to see the Land of Israel before he dies[4] (27:12-14), which is followed by his request from ‘א that He appoint a leader to take Moshe’s place. The careful reader will notice that ‘א makes no mention here of a replacement for Moshe, rather Moshe asks for it on his own[5] (27:15-17). This is a case where the Divine will accepting a completely Human Initiative and acting upon it, as opposed to the previous case where the Human Initiative simply led to a slight Modification in the divine plan.

The final section before the War with Midyan is not a narrative but two sets of Laws, intimately related. The first section of laws (Bamidbar 28 & 29) is the laws of public sacrifices, both the daily sacrifices and the additional sacrifices for festivals. This is followed by the laws for personal vows (Bamidbar 30). While at first glance these appear to be separate, they are connected by the institution of the vow-offerings. If a person vows to bring an offering, it would be brought at one of the festivals. Thus the laws of chapter 30 are really part and parcel of the laws of chapters 28 & 29[6]. Thus one might consider the whole section part of the Divine Will category. However, the laws of chapter 30 are all about voluntary vows a person might take upon themselves. Therefore this is in fact a case of where the Divine Will includes space for Human Initiative.

The War with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8) completes the Pinhas story (Bamidbar 25) disrupts the thematic tensions of Divine Will and Human Initiative with an absolute Divine command. It leads into a series of events involving the spoils of the war that build upon and contrast with the themes of Bamidbar 25-30.

Immediately after the war with Midyan, before the soldiers can even return to the camp, Moshe and the other leaders of Israel confront the returning army. They had failed to wipe out the women of Midyan who had caused Bnei Yisrael to sin in the first place (25:1-3), instead keeping them for themselves. The soldiers are reprimanded, and told to rectify their mistake. Here, while lacking an explicit and obvious Divine command, it is clear that the Human Initiative still went astray.

This story is followed by the divvying up of the spoils of the war to each member of the nation. Percentages were taken from all of the spoils for the Levi’im and for ‘א. This portion for ’א was taken and given to Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Then at the end of the section, the officers of the army come before Moshe and Elazar and say that because none of their soldiers died in the war, they want to give a tribute to ‘א from their finest spoils. They do so, and it is clear that this is considered somehow greater than the first percentage given to ‘א from the spoils, as that was simply given to Elazar, where this is “brought into the Tent of Meeting for a memorial for Bnei Yisrael before ‘א.” Thus in this case the Human Initiative does not stray, but rather builds on and succeeds the Divine Will.

The final case is that of the Request of Reuven and Gad to dwell on the far side of the Yarden River. This on first appearance seems to be incredibly problematic, as Moshe points out by comparing them to the Spies (Bamidbar 13-14). They are rejecting the Land of Israel, which ‘א has given them an inheritance, in favor of land that’s better pasture for their livestock. Not only that, but they outdo the spies by trying to separate from the rest of the nation by dwelling apart, thus damaging national unity. However, upon further questioning they reveal that their intent was not to reject the Land of Israel nor to harm national unity. Not only are they not trying to separate from the rest of the people, but they are willing to lead the charge into the Land of Israel, putting themselves in harm’s way for no gain of their own. They are not rejecting ‘א’s Land, they are asking to expand it, defining the Land of Israel as the Land in which Israel dwells[7]. Their Human Initiative is not rejecting the Divine will, but embracing it and surpassing it.

Man takes a position of great power and importance in the Torah. He is created in the Image of ‘א, the Creator of the World. Tehillim 8 sees man as “מעט מא׳לוהים”, “a little less than Divine.” And yet his first great act is to disobey the Divine Will, to push against ‘א. Man is powerful, but also fickle. This portrayed strongly as Bnei Yisrael make ready to enter the Land of Israel and live under their own control at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. Perhaps the strongest indication of this is the ambiguity of Reuven and Gad’s request. Based on their request, Moshe predicts Bnei Yisrael having to wait another 40 years in the desert. But this is a false perception, as the tribes intend not evil but great good. Man’s will can go either way, it can be lowly or it can be great. It can even intuit the Divine. It’s up to us what we do with it.


[1] Many of the Ideas in this composition come from this piece by Rav Yonatan Grossman of Michlelet Herzog and Bar-Ilan University:

[2] For a discussion of why this story is not a feminist one, see here:


[3] The tension here is aptly displayed by the midrash brought by Rashi on Baidbar 27:7. “Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly: As the Targum [Onkelos] יָאוּת, rightly. [As if God said,] This is the way this passage is inscribed before Me on high (Sifrei Pinchas 18). It teaches us that their eye perceived what Moses’ eye did not. – [see Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 8]”. (translation from

[4] The exact nature of this command is complex, for an excellent and fascination discussion of the differing views and possibilities by Rav Elchanan Samet of Michlelet Herzog, see here:

[5] It’s entirely possible that without Moshe’s request there would not have been a replacement leader, part of a much larger discussion about the ideal form of leadership and government of Bnei Yisrael, which goes far beyond the scope of this composition.

[6] See the Rashbam’s comment on Bamidbar 30:2-3. There are also linguistic parallels between this section and it’s neighbors.

[7] This sets the stage for any further conquest Israel might perform from Yehoshua until the Exile.