This week’s portion contains the story of the daughters of Tzelefchad (Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milca and Tirtza). Tzelefchad, who was from the tribe of Menashe, had five daughters and no sons.
When these women heard that only men were being counted in the distribution of the land, they complained to Moshe: “Our father died in the wilderness, but he was not among the men in the assembly of Korach. He died of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should his name be omitted from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers. And Moshe brought this claim before G-d. G-d said to Moshe saying: The daughters of Tzelefchad speak properly, you shall surely give them a portion of inheritance among the brothers of their father” (Numbers 27:3-7).
There are several important questions that must be asked here. Let us focus on one of them. Why were the daughters of Tzelefchad not punished for their impudence in asking this question? Korach got in trouble for challenging Moshe, as did the people of Israel for complaining on several occasions. Why were they different?
This incident can teach us a fundamental lesson.
The difference between Korach, and the people who were punished for complaining, and the daughters of Tzelefchad, is very simple: the way they asked their question. Being a good Jew does not mean having blind faith and never asking questions. The Talmud constantly asks questions, as its purpose is to clarify the oral law that was given over at Sinai. But it’s the way we ask questions. In the Hagadah (read the night of the Pesach Seder), the wise son and wicked son ask essentially the same question: “What’s going on here, what does all this mean?” But the wicked son add is the words “to you”, taking himself out of the equation. He is not wicked because he does not know, he is wicked because he does not recognize that although he may not understand, due to our experiences with G-d, it is only logical for us to trust in Him. This is why the first of the ten commandments is “I am your G-d who took you out of Egypt”, i.e., you have seen how I relate to you and who I am.
Korach and the others asked for their own self-aggrandizement, and this was proven by how they responded when they did not receive the answer they wanted.
The daughters of Tzelefchad asked because they wanted to know the law. They first asked their local court. When the local court could not provide an answer, it was sent to a higher court, until it reached Moshe.
(The Midrash [Bamidbar Rabbah] brings down two opinions why Moshe needed to ask G-d. One is that Moshe displayed a slight lack of humility when he established the courts, so G-d caused him to be humble. Another answer is that Moshe wanted to show that there is nothing wrong with a judge not knowing the answer to a difficult question.)
We learn from this story that it is crucial for us to be inquisitive and to delve into the depths of the Torah in order to improve our understanding. We must, at the same time, ask with respect and realize that if we do not comprehend, it is due to a lack of understanding on our part, not, G-d forbid, due to a lack of quality in the Torah.