This is an English version of the Hebrew dvar Torah that appears in issue 1276 of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly portion sheet published by the religious peace movement Oz Veshalom. It is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us eight years ago on 2 Av.
The Book of Numbers ends with the appeal of a ruling on an inheritance case: “The family heads in the clan of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, one of the Josephite clans, came forward and appealed to Moses and the chieftains, family heads of the Israelites” (Num. 36:1). The original case was heard a few chapters previously:
The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (27:1–4).
When Zelophehad’s daughters brought their case before Moses’s court, he did not know how to rule. So he put their case before God, who instructed him in a revision of the inheritance law—if a father dies and leaves only daughters, they, not the father’s brothers, inherit his estate.
There is no higher authority than God. What he says is law. If that is the case, how dare the family heads appeal the ruling? And why would Moses agree to hear their petition?