Moses' Uncertainty

The sages say that a wise man answers a question to which he does not know the answer by saying, "I do not know."

"The Daughters of Zelophehad" by illustrator for The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Regular Shabbat Readings

Read / Listen to these Portions

  • Pinchas (פנחס | Phinehas)
  • Torah: Numbers 25:10-30:1
  • Haftarah: 1 Kings 18:46-19:21
  • Gospel: John 2:13-22

Note: The regular readings are often interrupted with special readings on Jewish holidays, special Sabbaths, and Rosh Chodesh. Refer to the annual Torah Portion schedule for these special portions.

Portion Outline

  • Torah
    • Numbers 25:10 | The Zeal of Phinehas
    • Numbers 26:1 | A Census of the New Generation
    • Numbers 27:1 | The Daughters of Zelophehad
    • Numbers 27:12 | Joshua Appointed Moses' Successor
    • Numbers 28:1 | Daily Offerings
    • Numbers 28:9 | Sabbath Offerings
    • Numbers 28:11 | Monthly Offerings
    • Numbers 28:16 | Offerings at Passover
    • Numbers 28:26 | Offerings at the Festival of Weeks
    • Numbers 29:1 | Offerings at the Festival of Trumpets
    • Numbers 29:7 | Offerings on the Day of Atonement
    • Numbers 29:12 | Offerings at the Festival of Booths
  • Prophets
    • 1Ki 18:41 | The Drought Ends
    • 1Ki 19:1 | Elijah Flees from Jezebel
    • 1Ki 19:11 | Elijah Meets God at Horeb
    • 1Ki 19:19 | Elisha Becomes Elijah's Disciple

Portion Summary

Pinchas (פנחס) is the Hebrew name translated in English Bibles as Phinehas. It is also the name of the forty-first reading from the Torah because of the second verse of the reading, which says, "Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath" (Numbers 25:11). In this Torah portion, the LORD makes a covenant of peace with Phinehas and his descendants, orders a second census, settles questions about inheritance, appoints Joshua to succeed Moses and lists the sacrifices for the appointed times.

According to the division of the land and the laws of inheritance introduced in this week's Torah reading, a man's land and goods were to be passed on to his sons and divided among them. There was an Israelite named Zelophehad who had four daughters. Because he had no sons who could inherit land, his family was not going to receive any portion of the tribal allotment of Manasseh. Not only would that leave his four daughters landless, it would mean that his name would not be remembered in the tribal allotment.

Zelophehad's daughters realized that they had to do something. They decided to petition Moses with their case.

Our father died in the wilderness, yet he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah; but he died in his own sin, and he had no sons. (Numbers 27:3)

When the daughters of Zelophehad asked Moses for a ruling, he did not decide the case himself. He brought the question to the LORD. Why did Moses need to consult God? Why was he unable to judge the case himself? Rashi suggests that the ruling escaped him because God was gently chastising him. When Moses appointed judges, he had told them, "The case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it" (Deuteronomy 1:17). God used the case of Zelophehad's daughters to remind Moses that some cases were too difficult even for him.

This should remind us as well that there is no virtue in answering a question when we are uncertain. Rather than admit to being ignorant on a certain subject, people often bluff competence. Clergy and Bible teachers tend to be the worst offenders. Their congregations and students look to them as spiritual authorities. Because of that, they pepper them with questions. Rather than appear uninformed or uncertain in a certain area of knowledge, the Bible teacher will provide an answer off the top of his head. The sages say that a wise man answers a question to which he does not know the answer by saying, "I do not know."

The question proposed by Zelophehad's daughters constituted a difficult matter to which Moses did not know the answer; therefore, he honestly admitted he did not know.

The Chofetz Chaim offers a different explanation. He says that the question was not legally difficult for Moses, it was morally difficult. Moses felt unable to settle the case because of the way that Zelophehad's daughters presented it to him. They said, "Our father died in the wilderness, yet he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah" (Numbers 27:3). When Moses heard these words, he realized that he could not serve as an impartial judge in deciding the case. He would be inclined to rule in favor of the daughters of a man who had remained loyal to him. Therefore, he removed himself from the case and brought the matter to God.

Adapted From: Torah Club Commentary Set: Unrolling the Scroll. Learn more about Torah Club and how you can start a Club of your own, or join a Torah Club in your area. Visit TORAHCLUB.ORG

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