This week’s parsha has been called “the parsha of just deserts,” because in it we see many examples of people getting what they have deserved, getting what their actions have led to. One, which we’ll talk about more tomorrow, deals with the daughters of Tzelafchad, who asked that they be permitted to inherit a share in the land of Israel that would have gone to their father, had he not died. This is an incredible moment in the Torah for many reasons. It shows a group of young women asserting themselves, and voicing what they believe is their righteous perspective. It shows Moshe, usually the arbiter of such questions, seeking God’s advice on this question. It shows God as a righteous judge who hears all claims, including (and maybe especially) those of the underdog. And, finally, in a very practical sense, it also makes clear that, in Jewish law, women can inherit the estate of their father. I know that the circumstances are pretty narrow, but even with that, it’s a pretty radical move for the time.
But Rashi sees something else in this passage. For Rashi, Moshe has a little twinge of jealousy toward his brother Aaron. Can you guess why? Rashi believes that Moshe is jealous because Aaron’s children will inherit his priesthood but that Moshe’s children will not LIKEWISE inherit his leadership role. Here’s what Rashi says: “When Moses heard God tell him to give the inheritance of Tzelafchad to his daughters, he said to himself, ‘The time has come that I should make a request of my own—that my sons should inherit my position.’ God replied to him, ‘This is not what I have decided. Joshua deserves to receive reward for serving you and never leaving your tent.’ This is what Solomon meant when he said, ‘He keeps the vineyard shall eat its fruit, and he that waits on his master shall be honored.’”
As we know, Moses’ prayer was not granted. Aaron was succeeded by his son, but Moshe was succeeded by his disciple, Joshua. This makes clear that Torah leadership does not pass automatically from one generation to the next. And it also gives hope to all Jews, even though God’s decision might have been disappointing to Moshe at the time.
God’s decision to appoint Joshua sends all of us a clear message that each of us can play a role in Torah study and in Jewish leadership. Moshe’s personal loss, then, becomes a source of hope for future generations. Torah leadership is not the prerogative of an elite. It does not pass through dynastic succession. It is not confined to those who are descended from great Torah scholars. It is open to each of us, if we give it our best efforts of energy and time. But at the same time, God did give Moses a great consolation. Just as to this day kohanim are the sons of Aaron, so all who study Torah become the disciples of Moses. To some is given the privilege of being a parent; to others, that of being a teacher. Both are ways of carrying something into the future. Parent-as-teacher, teacher-as-parent: these are Judaism’s greatest roles, one immortalized in Aaron, and the other is made eternal in Moses.