Parshat Pinhas: When Moshe doesn’t know

How will land be divided among the various tribes which make up the nation?

Torah reading 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Torah reading 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
In this week’s Torah portion, Am Yisrael is about to enter the Land of Israel. The nation which had spent almost 40 years in the desert was preparing spiritually and logistically for the transition from a life of wandering in the desert to an organized life in the Promised Land.
One of these important preparations was the answer to the complicated question: How will land be divided among the various tribes which make up the nation? He who decided on the answer to this was G-d Himself. The solution was to implement the complex division through lottery and through fair division based on numbers of people. We will not focus on the manner in which the division was done, but on the following story which came after it.
The daughters of Zelophehad, an unknown man who died in the desert leaving behind five daughters, came to Moshe with a complaint: It seemed that based on the planned division, each man would get land, but the women would not get land for themselves, rather they would be part of their husbands’ land. This situation seemed reasonable.
Every family gets land and the location would be determined by the tribe to which the head of the family belonged. But there was a problem since the father of these five brave women did not have any sons. Therefore, his daughters would indeed get what they deserved in the land of their husbands, but he himself would not get land.
The girls summarized their claim with the following words: “Our father died in the desert... and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.” (Number 27, 3-4) The leader to whom Zelophehad’s five daughters complained was, of course, none other than Moshe Rabbeinu. This is the same respected leader who has been taking care of the nation for 40 years, who liberated them from slavery and took them out of Egypt, who makes sure to prepare them to enter the Land of Israel despite knowing that he will not be entering with them but will die beforehand. And how did Moshe respond to the claim of these five unknown women? Moshe remained silent.
Why did Moshe remain silent? For the simple reason that Moshe Rabbeinu did not know what to answer them.
This is not the first time the nation encounters Moshe Rabbeinu’s lack of knowledge. We find six incidences in the Torah when questions were asked of Moshe and he did not know how to answer them.
The Torah, as opposed to in other religions, does not try to make the nation’s great leaders seem superhuman. Almost each of the nation’s greats – the three patriarchs – Abraham, Jacob and Isaac – as well as Moshe and Aharon, David and Solomon – are in some way criticized in the Bible. Here we encounter that same phenomenon, only this time it comes from Moshe Rabbeinu himself. The experienced leader who holds so much power in his hands does not hesitate to admit that he is not knowledgeable about a simple halacha, and he waits for Divine instruction to tell him how to behave.
The sages of the Talmud suggested that we adopt Moshe Rabbeinu’s behavior with the following rule: “Teach your tongue to say I do not know!” (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Brachot, page 4) Sometimes men and women are afraid to say the words “I don’t know.” This apprehension is understandable.
Lack of knowledge can be interpreted as weakness and occasionally even as stupidity. However, the gain in saying “I don’t know” is immeasurably greater than the fear. When a person candidly admits his lack of knowledge, he presents himself as a real person whose words can be trusted, since when he does not know something, he is not afraid to admit it. Furthermore, when a person admits it and says “I don’t know,” he is conveying – to his partner or colleagues – that he is a human being just as they are. When we admit that we don’t know something, we convey equality and lack of arrogance.
Just like Moshe Rabbeinu, whose image was not the least bit harmed when he admitted that he “doesn’t know,” so our image will not be harmed and we will even gain if we heed the advice of the sages and get used to admitting that we do not know everything.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.