“The Great Moses Seems Not to Know the Answer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, we encounter the episode of the מְגַדֵּף, megadef, the blasphemer, which is the first of four cases where Moses seems to be unable to determine what the proper disposition of the religious or legal issues should be.

The Torah, in Leviticus 24:10, tells us that the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the Children of Israel, and fought in the camp with the son of an Israelite man. The next verse states, וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם, וַיְקַלֵּל, וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מֹשֶׁה, the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Holy Name of G-d and blasphemed, so they brought him to Moses. After identifying that the man’s mother’s name was Shlomit the daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan, we are told that they placed the blasphemer in detention to clarify through G-d what should be done with him.

G-d instructs Moses that the blasphemer is to be removed to outside the camp, and all those who heard him blaspheme shall place their hands on his head and the entire assembly shall stone him to death.

In Leviticus 24:23, the Torah confirms that the Children of Israel took the blasphemer outside the camp, they stoned him to death and the Children of Israel did as the L-rd had commanded Moses.

The second case where the proper response eluded Moses is found in parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha, Numbers 9:6. There we are told that there were a group of men who were in the state of ritual impurity and could not bring the Passover sacrifice in its proper time in the month of Nissan. In Numbers 9:7, they say to Moses, אֲנַחְנוּ טְמֵאִים לְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם, לָמָּה נִגָּרַע לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִיב אֶת קָרְבַּן השׁם בְּמֹעֲדוֹ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “We are contaminated through a human corpse. Why should we be diminished by not offering the L-rd’s offering in its appointed time among the Children of Israel?”

Moses then tells the people to stand by while he hears what the L-rd will command. In Numbers 9:10-11, G-d informs Moses that there will be a make-up date for those people who are unable to bring their Pascal sacrifices at the proper time, and that thirty days later, in the month of Iyar, they will be permitted to bring the Passover offering together with matzah and marror.

The third case is found in parashat Shelach, Numbers 15:32. There the Torah states that while the people were in the wilderness, וַיִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ מְקֹשֵׁשׁ עֵצִים בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, the people found a man violating the Sabbath by gathering wood on the sacred day. They brought him to Moses, Aaron and the entire assembly. The Torah informs us that he was placed in custody, for it had not been clarified what should be done to him.

Eventually, G-d says to Moses that the man shall be put to death and that the entire assembly of Israel shall pelt him with stones outside the camp. The Torah reports that the perpetrator was stoned by the people and put to death.

The fourth and final instance in which Moses was unable to promptly respond, is found in parashat Pinchas regarding the daughters of Zelophehad. The five daughters of Zelophehad stood before Moses, Elazar, and the princes of Israel and the entire congregation and claimed that their father had died in the wilderness for his own sin and not as part of the Korach rebellion. They maintained that their family should not lose the land of their paternal estate in Israel, simply because their father had no sons.

The Torah, in Numbers 27:5, reports, וַיַּקְרֵב מֹשֶׁה אֶת מִשְׁפָּטָן לִפְנֵי השׁם, and Moses brought their claim before the L-rd.

G-d responds that the daughters of Zelophehad are indeed correct, and that they shall surely be given possession of their father’s inheritance in Israel among the other tribes.

The commentators point out that in the case of the people who are impure and couldn’t bring the Pascal sacrifice, as well as in the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, the reply from G-d was immediate, whereas in the case of the blasphemer and the person gathering wood on Shabbat, there is a delay. The blasphemer and the one who gathered wood were placed in detention until the final verdict was clarified.

The reason for this, say the rabbis, is that when the issue is a monetary matter, the answer is given immediately to preclude any further financial losses. However, in the case of capital punishment, the justice system seeks to postpone the determination as much as possible, since a human’s life is at stake and Judaism places great value on human life.

There are those who say that Moses actually recused himself in these four instances because he felt that he had a direct relationship with each of these cases. Moses is always somehow involved, either because he is directly associated with the conflict itself or because of his status as the primary decisor of law. Of course, Moses knew the proper disposition in each of these cases, but he felt that it would appear to be far more equitable if G-d adjudicated the issues.

In the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, Rashi  notes that Moses also knew what the proper disposition should be–that the daughters should inherit their family’s land, but he did not know if they should inherit the additional portion of the firstborn as well. Furthermore, the daughters of Zelophehad showed such great devotion and love for the land of Israel that the Al-mighty felt that these newly clarified statutes of inheritance should, as a reward, be recorded for posterity in the names of these righteous women (Talmud, Sanhedrin 8a).

There are even those who maintain (Tosafot Baba Batra 119b, cf Afilu) that the gatherer of wood was really a truly righteous person who purposely decided to sacrifice his life and violate the Shabbat in order to teach the People of Israel the great sanctity of the holy day. Many of the people who left Egypt maintained that they no longer had to keep the Sabbath since they were going to die in the wilderness and never enter the land of Israel. Perhaps, the reason that the exact form of capital punishment eluded Moses, was so that this law would be recorded for posterity in the name of the gatherer of wood, who would be specially acknowledged for his great sacrifice.

Once again, we see that it is frequently through slight textual nuances and seemingly subordinate details in the Torah that many important principles and values are taught.

While the four cases may seem similar, the significant differences between each of them teach extraordinary values with which the Torah has endowed humankind.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday Night, May 2nd, and continue all day Thursday, May 3rd, 2018. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.