Seeing the Value in Tzelafchad’s Daughters and Ourselves
The daughters of Tzelafchad showed their great love and yearning for the Land of Israel by requesting an inheritance for their family of only daughters with no male heirs. After Moshe brought their petition to God, Hashem instructed him that for all time, whenever a man dies with only daughters, his daughters inherit his estate. So, too, the daughters of Tzelafchad were entitled to inherit their father’s portion in the Land. Immediately after this narrative, the Torah jumps to a dialogue between Hashem and Moshe (27:12): “עֲלֵה אֶל־הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה” – “Ascend this mountain of the ‘Avarim (lit., the two sides).” You will be able to see the Land, but instead of entering the Land, you will die atop the mountain, because of your sin with the water at Mei Merivah (from Parshat Chukat).
Certainly, God is not cruel. Why, after instructing Moshe to bring the good tidings to Tzelafchad’s daughters about their award of a portion in the Land, did Hashem remind Moshe that he would NOT enter the Land because of his sin? Isn’t that just rubbing salt in the wound?
Rashi is sensitive to this question, and explains that because Hashem had just instructed Moshe to award Tzelafchad’s daughters a portion in Eretz Israel, Moshe made an assumption: since he had been the messenger to award them land, perhaps he’d be able to enter the Land in order to personally fulfill this charge. Hashem had to disabuse Moshe of any false impression, and therefore reminded him that he would, in fact, not be able to enter the Land.
Rashi’s explanation is fine, although some commentaries question why Moshe jumped to the assumption that just because he was delivering good news to the daughters, this signaled that he, too, might gain entry into the Land. Let us look a bit deeper and note something curious about the Torah’s text in the Tzelafchad’s daughters narrative.
The Letter “nun” – The Loneliest Number
After Tzelafchad’s daughters made their request, the Torah states (27:5): “וַיַּקְרֵב מֹשֶׁה אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטָן לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק” – “Moshe brought their judgment before God.” In the Torah scroll, the letter “ן” is written larger than all the other letters. The commentaries try to understand the reason for this. What else do we know about the letter “nun”? We say the Ashrei prayer daily, which is written as an acrostic, starting with a line that begins with “aleph,” and ending with a line that begins with “tav.” The Talmud (TB Berachos 4b) notes that only one letter is not represented in this acrostic psalm, the letter “nun.” Why is the “nun” excluded?
The Maharal explains that the letter is unique in that when you line up all the Hebrew letters, including the “מנצפך” double letters, you end up with 27 letters of the aleph-bet. The 14th letter, the one letter in the very center, is the letter “nun,” making it the “odd man out,” so to speak. Furthermore, “nun” is 50 in gematria (numerology), which, when dealing with a decimal numerical system, can only be added to itself to arrive at the completion of the series, 100. That is, the letter “nun” represents a solitary, lonely letter, that doesn’t have any companions other than itself (If, as the old song goes, “One is the loneliest number,” then “nun” is the loneliest letter).
Ashrei is a prayer of Divine support and strength, and accordingly the letter “nun” which represents being alone without any support is the opposite of what Ashrei is meant to convey. This prayer instead affirms that we are always together with Hashem, and as a result we’ll always be provided for and protected.
Perhaps the daughters of Tzelafchad were trying to communicate that they knew that they were “loners.” They had no husbands and no children, and from a societal perspective, some might view them as having little independent worth. No one was supporting them or strengthening them; why should they receive a portion in the Land if they wouldn’t have the power or communal clout to properly build and cultivate their portion of land?
Out With the Old, In With the New
When they made their petition, Moshe pondered the situation, not knowing how to respond. On the one hand, it would be tragic for an entire family to be denied a portion of the Land. On the other hand, these women lacked the resources to properly maintain and develop their property on their own. As single women, how would they fend for themselves? Was it indeed appropriate for these people on the lower echelons of Jewish society to receive a portion of the Holy Land? Moshe genuinely didn’t know what to do, and so he presented this “shaila” of these loners to God. In other words, he brought the “משפט” of “ן” (“משפט-ן”) before Hashem.
As the commentaries note, Moshe was not denied entry in Eretz Israel as a punishment per se, but rather because his whole approach to his children, Bnei Israel, was “old school” and not what they needed to successfully conquer the Land. In order for the Jewish people to succeed, they would need to disperse from each other and learn how to gain a sense of individual personhood and independence.
While in the desert, our national persona was front and center, and each individual’s persona was all but invisible. But as we were about to enter the Land, it would be necessary for individuals to emerge as local and municipal leaders, and strong individual personalities would perforce emerge. Moshe was unaccustomed to this kind of frontier ruggedness that would emerge from individuals entering the Land. He still viewed his children as “sheep,” as he called them in our parsha (27:17).
Why Joshua And Not Moshe?
The whole reason why Moshe doubted the worthiness of Tzelafchad’s daughters, the reason why he presented their question to God and couldn’t answer them himself, is because he failed to see them as individuals, capable of taking the mantle of leadership and ownership of their property. Viewing them as just part of a larger flock, Moshe saw them as the weakest societal link.
That’s what made him the wrong person to help the Jews settle this new frontier. They instead needed a leader like Joshua, who was a “man with spirit in him” (27:18). That is, because he was a unique individual with a healthy sense of ego, he was able to see each individual as a powerful and unique person, who could accomplish great things independent of the collective.
Hashem’s reminder to Moshe that he could not enter Israel, and that he had to stand at the mountain of “two sides,” was reminding Moshe about his leadership style. You were great for “this side,” when the Jews were just finding themselves and needed to learn the Torah from you, their strong leader who knew how to lead a flock. But now that they’re going to the “other side,” they’ll need someone new, someone who could be approached by Tzelafchad’s daughters, who would immediately see their great grit and determination, and would unhesitatingly grant them a portion in the Land of Israel.
This is why this interchange between God and Moshe takes place right after the story of Tzelafchad’s daughters, allowing Moshe to better understand that he was being denied entry NOT because Hashem was angry with him, but because the Jewish people needed a new leader for their next chapter of growth.
Finding the Individual in Each of Us
Entering the Three Weeks, we’re meant to rectify the animus that lingers within us. We sometimes fail to see the value in others, because we scrutinize only their “social worth.” Someone may be single, divorced, widowed, too young, too old, look different from the norm, dress differently from others, speak differently, or in other ways may not match up to what a community deems to be of value.
These people may be invisible to us because we fail to see them as individuals, and base their worth only on their social standing. We also might superimpose a view of them when they were much younger and more immature, and not see them for who they are today. But if we truly seek to move forward and change for the better, we should try and see every single person standing before us as someone with infinite value because of their holy neshama, created in God’s image.
Let’s not misjudge others in the room. The overlooked are often the ones who have the most to contribute and we’d only stand to enrich ourselves by seeing them in a different light. May our efforts at accepting others without prejudgment lead to our Redemption by the end of this season, bb”a.