The most popular verse, by far, in the Torah is “Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe l’emor” – “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying”. It appears no less than seventy times. So when its converse [Bemidbar 27:15] “Vay’daber Moshe el Hashem l’emor” appears in Parashat Pinchas, the one and only time it appears in the entire Torah, it should raise some eyebrows.

First let’s examine the context: The four righteous daughters of Tzlofchad approach Moshe and ask to inherit their late father’s share in the Land of Israel. Hashem agrees to their request and the Torah then enumerates the general laws of precedence in family inheritance. Afterwards Hashem tells Moshe to climb Mount Nevo and to look at the Land of Israel because he will not be entering it as a result of his sin at Kadesh where he hit the rock instead of talking to it. This is where the verse “Vay’daber Moshe el Hashem l’emor” appears. What does Moshe “say” to Hashem? He tells Hashem that He must appoint someone to serve as the leader of Am Yisrael so that [Bemidbar 27:17] “the congregation of Hashem will not be like sheep without a shepherd”. The progression of the verses makes quite a bit of sense: First Moshe is commanded to give an inheritance to the daughters of Tzlofchad, so he thinks that perhaps the edict against his entering the Land of Israel has been rescinded. Not so, says Hashem. You can see it but you may not enter it. That being the case, thinks Moshe, I’d better ask Hashem to find Am Yisrael a new king. Indeed, this hypothesis is proposed by a number of commentators, including Rashi. However, the hypothesis begins to unravel when we ask ourselves why in the world Moshe would think that Hashem would leave Am Yisrael without a leader after his death. Did anyone really think Hashem was going to say “Well, Moshe’s gone. They can probably fend for themselves now…” We’re going to have to take a closer look.

Our first stop is in understanding the meaning of “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying”. The word “saying” seems redundant. The Ramban [Shemot 6:10] suggests that it means that the words that Hashem is speaking to Moshe were transmitted in a way that was unequivocal, so that they could be understood without even the slightest uncertainty.

Our next stop is in the “Ba’al HaTurim”, written by Rabbi Yaakov, the son of the Ro”sh. The Ba’al HaTurim typically brings plays on words and gematria. This time, however, he is straight as an arrow and more “in-your-face” than anywhere else in his commentary: “There is no similar verse in the Torah. Moshe said to Hashem, ‘Will You not recall all the ‘vayedabers’ You spoke to me?!’” The Ba’al HaTurim gives an unmistakable indication that Moshe is furious, and true to the above explanation of the Ramban, Moshe makes his point without any hemming or hawing. How many times have You spoken with me and I always did exactly what You asked? And now You won’t even answer my one request? The Ba’al HaTurim seems to be suggesting that Moshe is not asking for a new leader for Am Yisrael, but, rather, to be permitted to continue acting as their current leader. The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh states this explicitly and explains Hashem’s ensuing response in this context[1].

Explaining Moshe’s request in this vein can help answer another question. In Parashat Va’etchanan Moshe tells of a request that he made of Hashem [Devarim 3:25]: “Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon”. Hashem is unswayed [Devarim 3:26]: “It is enough for you; speak to Me no more regarding this matter”. It is well known that the Book of Devarim recaps events that occurred during Am Yisrael’s forty-year sojourn in the desert. When, precisely, did this particular exchange happen? The commentators don’t point to a specific verse in the Torah. Rather, they point to the successful wars waged against the Amorites and the Bashanites as a potential sign that Hashem was going to permit Moshe to enter the Land of Israel. The conversation itself is not recorded in the Torah. On the other hand, by using the explanation of the Ba’al HaTurim and the Ohr HaChayim it seems fairly obvious that Moshe is referring in Parashat Va’etchanan to his conversation with Hashem that begins with the words “Vay’daber Moshe el Hashem l’emor”.

As an added benefit, this explanation also shines a tremendous amount of light on the reason for which Moshe was replaced as the leader by his prized student, Yehoshua. Ask any child why Moshe was not allowed to cross the Jordan River and he’ll tell you it is because “Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it”. This is the answer that a child would give. An adult would give a more nuanced answer. For example, Rav Elchanan Samet asserts that Am Yisrael had outgrown Moshe. He was the perfect leader for the former slaves who had left Egypt forty years earlier. During the time they spent wandering the desert they experienced significant spiritual growth. Moshe did not appreciate this growth and he did not adapt to it, and so a new leader was required.

Based on the explanation of the Ba’al HaTurim and the Ohr HaChayim, we can suggest another reason: Looking over the verses in both Parashat Pinchas and Parashat Va’etchanan, it can be argued that a key word in these episodes is the word “daber” – “speak”. Moshe speaks to Hashem. Moshe asks Hashem why He does not value all the times He spoke to Moshe. And when Hashem denies Moshe’s request in Parashat Va’etchanan, He tells Moshe [Devarim 3:26] “Speak to Me no more regarding this matter”. I’d like to add one more instance: when Aharon and Miriam besmirch Moshe in Parashat Bechulotai, Hashem defends Moshe by telling them [Bemidbar 12:8] “With him I speak face to face”. The only other time in which the phrase “face to face” is used in the Torah is when Moshe dies and the Torah eulogizes him [Devarim 34:10]: “There was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom Hashem knew face to face”. Moshe’s greatness was in his ability to speak – not with humans[2], but with Hashem, intimately – face to face. By connecting the dots, a cogent argument can be made that while the Torah seems to be discussing “speech”, it is really discussing “prophecy”.

Moshe was the first leader after Am Yisrael became a nation. Actually, to call them a “nation” is being overly kind. These people were bound by a shared past that they had forgotten, and by a shared present that they wanted to forget. Their connection to their forefathers was nearly nonexistent. They had lost nearly all vestiges of Judaism. The fact that they were beaten by the same slave master and lifted the same boulders did little to fashion them into a nation. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks writes in “Not in G-d’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” that while man is an inherently social creature, his natural social networks are usually limited to his close family. Rabbi Sacks suggests that the way to bind large groups of people is via religion. Religion is deep and visceral, and it turns strangers into brothers. And so the first leader of Am Yisrael was not a General or a politician. Their first leader was the greatest prophet who ever lived, a prophet who could open up avenues between Hashem and His people that no other person could open. As Am Yisrael matured, their relationship with Hashem was cemented. After forty years in the desert eating manna and learning Torah, they no longer needed a prophet to lead them. They no longer needed someone who “talked the talk”. They needed someone who “walked the walk”. The obvious choice is Yehoshua. He is a combat-proven General but he has a firm attachment to Moshe. Notice that the first thing that Hashem tells Yehoshua is [Joshua 1:2] “Get up, cross this Jordan, you and this nation, to the land which I give the children of Israel.” Get up! Turn words into deeds! Am Yisrael, through Moshe, have become a nation, and the time has come to lead them into their Homeland.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] While it is not relevant to this shiur, I heartily recommend reading the Ohr HaChayim ad loc.

[2] When Moshe is first tasked to lead Am Yisrael, he refuses, telling Hashem [Shemot 4:10] “I am not a man of words… for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”