The words “and G-d spoke to Moshe saying” appear hundreds of times throughout Chumash, appearing as the Torah’s refrain. They convey a sense of the relationship Moshe had with Hashem, one of closeness and near-constant communication. They also indicate Moshe’s role as go-between between G-d and Bnei Yisrael. However, in this week’s parsha we have the only occurrence of this refrain reversed: “and Moshe spoke to G-d saying” (Bamidbar, 27:15). And what does he say? “Let Hashem, Source of the spirit of all flesh, appoint a leader over the congregation who will go out and come in before them and who will take them out and bring them in so that the congregation of Hashem will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Bamidbar, 27:16-17).
When Moshe asks this question, he is in the middle of a conversation with G-d. G-d told him to climb Har Avarim so that he would be able to at least see the land of Israel. However, Moshe is told that because he did not sanctify Hashem at mei-meriva, he will not be able to enter (Bamidbar, 27:12-14). Rashi, quoting the Sifrei, explains Moshe’s request shows his greatness: even though he knows he is close to death, he is concerned with the people and who will lead them into the land (Rashi, Bamidbar, 27:15).
The pesukim immediately preceding this conversation tell the story of the five daughters of Tzelafchad: Machla, Noa, Chagla, Milka and Tirtza. They come before Moshe to request (or demand) an inheritance in the land of Israel despite the fact their father died without any sons (Bamidbar, 27:1-4). Chazal enumerate many different praises of these women: amongst other things, “the daughters of Tzelafchad were wise, they could interpret the verses of the Torah and they were righteous” (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra, 119b). This Gemarah explains that they were wise because they only presented their case at the appropriate time. It was only when Moshe was sitting and interpreting the pesukim regarding men who died childless and their legacy and inheritance that they presented their case before him. Why does this show wisdom, and not just common sense?
Rashi comments on the juxtaposition of the daughters of Tzelafchad with Hashem reminding Moshe that he will not enter the land. He explains that G-d commanding Moshe how to apportion the land amongst the tribes led him to think that his punishment had been revoked (Bamidbar, 27:12). However, Hashem tells him that this is not the case. The daughters of Tzelafchad came to ask for a piece of the land. Hashem says yes. And still says no to Moshe. Perhaps Machla, Noa, Chagla, Milka and Tirtza were sensitive to how difficult this would have been for Moshe. Therefore, they make their request now, when it is relevant to what Moshe is teaching, when he is thinking and ruling about it anyway, when it is immediately pressing – and not at any other time. Perhaps this is the wisdom the Gemarah is praising, wisdom that is linked to empathy, kindness and peace. After all, a wise person is defined as someone who “increases peace in the world” (Talmud Bavli, Berachot, 64a).
Empathy, sensitivity and peace are characteristics exhibited by the daughters of Tzelafchad. Rashi points out that their names are listed twice in this parsha (Bamidbar, 26:33 and 27:1), but in different orders. He explains that this was because they all viewed themselves as totally equal to each other; none of them claimed superiority or thought of herself as the leader (Rashi, Bamidbar, 27:1). This is illustrated through the way they spoke to Moshe, each sister making a different point and none trying to overshadow the others (Yalkut Shemoni, Bamidbar, 27:2). For this, they are praised. For this, they are called wise. For this, a portion in the Torah is taught in their merit (Rashi, Bamidbar, 27:5). And this is the message we should take, especially as we begin the period of the three weeks – a time of mourning for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash because of hatred and reflecting on how we can merit to have it rebuilt through empathy, kindness, love and peace.