“Moses brought their case before God ”
Numbers 27:5

When Moses was petitioned by the five daughters of Zelophehad to give them a portion in the land of Israel, one would have expected him to respond with ease. Surely this was not the most complex question he had encountered?!

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a) suggests that the answer to this “simple” question eluded Moses as a punishment for his presumptuous remark that “If any case is too difficult, bring it to me and I will hear it” (Deuteronomy 1:17). Moses was therefore forced to “bring their case before God”.

Rabbeinu Bahya Ben Asher (died 1340) offers an alternative reason. Moses deliberately brought this case before God as a lesson that whenever any judge is confronted by a situation where he is uncertain of the law, he should not be embarrassed to consult those greater than himself.

Fascinatingly, Rabbeinu Bahya deduces these two contrasting positions from the same letter in the same word. The Hebrew word for “their case” is mishpatan, and unusually, in a Torah scroll, the letter nun at the end of this word is elongated.

We also know that the gematria (numerical value) of the letter nun is 50, which our sages say represents the highest level of wisdom (Rosh Hashanah 21b). As such, Rabbeinu Bahya suggests that the longer nun could point to the fact that the fiftieth gate of knowledge eluded Moses, whereas it could also suggest that Moses reached that level and knew the answer to the question, but simply sought to teach a lesson.

To my mind, this disagreement is a classic example of the debate regarding how we should perceive our religious leaders. It is comforting for some to paint a flawless picture of our religious leaders; whereas for others, comfort comes in recognising that even our greatest leaders err.

Either way, either by force or by choice, Moses teaches us a fundamental lesson; no leader can be an island, because Jewish law is too important to be left in the hands of any one person.

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