Confidence, or boasting?

Pinchas - Confidence, or boasting?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Pinchas: Numbers 25:10-30:1

"And Moses brought their cause…" (Numbers 27:5)

There are standards and strategies for the traditional interpretation of Scripture. For example, if two verses seem to contradict each other, than a way must be found to make both opinions correct. Such a paradigm leads to significant theological development: what is it about G!d’s creation that opposites can both be true?

Another standard is that the heroes of our stories should be seen in a positive light whenever possible. One of my favorite examples of this is the Talmudic epithet, "If that were so, then Moses was a prophet!" What the text really means is the opposite: If that were true, then the world would be so upside down that he wasn’t a prophet. But so great is the unwritten sanction that the Talmud won’t even say that explicitly, in fear that it could be taken out of context.

All of which is background for this week’s midrash, which says some unusual things about Moses, and in so doing teaches a powerful message – or two!

The context is the daughters of Zelophehad, who have brought a question about property rights following the death of their father who had no sons as offspring. Instead of answering them himself, Moses brings the question to G!d. Listen:

Some hold that the law was hidden from Moses. There are cases where righteous men have boasted of some matter connected with a precept and the Holy One, blessed be He, weakened their power. You find that David boasts: Thy statutes have been my songs (Ps. 119:54), as much as to say that they are easy and familiar like songs. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘By your life! You will in the end err in a matter that children read in the Scripture!’ When he brought up the ark he erred and put it on a cart; as it says, And they set the ark of God upon a new cart (II Sam. 6:3). The ark suspended itself in the air and the cows beneath it slipped. Uzzah drew near to support it, And God smote him there for his error. And David was displeased, because the Lord had broken forth upon Uzzah (ib. 7,8). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "Thy statutes have been my songs"?’

It was the same with Moses. Because he had boasted: The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me, and I will hear it (Deut. 1:17), G!d diminished his mental powers. Moses had said: ‘The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me.’ When the daughters of Zelophehad, however, came, He concealed the law from him, and Moses brought their cause before the Lord. The daughters of Zelophehad speak right (27:7). This, He meant, is the law! The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me"? The law with which you are unacquainted is decided by the women!’

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXI:12

The plain message is clear: the reason that Moses brought the case before G!d was that he was being punished for boasting about his powers of judgment. And, in a twist that must be read in the context its time for its true wry humor, even women have better powers of judgment than he!

So at one level, we must be wary of becoming boastful, even if we’re not particularly concerned about cows flying as a result of our self-promotion. But why is this lesson taught with such power and emphasis, using Moses as the target for punishment and ridicule, he who is normally exempt from such midrashic vehicles?

The lesson goes to the heart of the laws regarding lashon hara, or evil speech: gossip. The "what" of these laws is easy to understand, but can be difficult to practice: don’t speak in a way that might cause another to be harmed or embarassed, even if what you are saying is true. The rationale for this law, however, is both deep and sweet.

When we bring shame to another, it is not merely that we have harmed another of G!d’s creatures. When we tell the story of the foolish person who did "x, y, z" – even if that person is completely anonymous! – we are disparaging the work of the Holy One’s creative efforts. Why? Because by saying a creation is flawed, we disparage the Creator.

And if we are to follow the theological imperative that we must find a way for opposites to be held as both correct, then surely we must find a way to find the beauty in the creative act that is every human being. Now, I can hear the arguers ready to raise the extreme cases of truly evil people, but to that I say, let it rest.

Think about the bulk of humanity, and how we speak of them and treat them. Let us find a way to honor the Creator in our daily lives by finding the beauty in all those creative acts, no matter how confusing or befuddling they might appear to be!

Then, Moses will be known to be as wise as women, who are as wise as he – and you and me.

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