Google the phrase “Europe’s Childless Leaders,” and you’ll find quite a few articles, written about a year ago, discussing the fact that a significant number of European heads of state do not have children. It raises the question of where each country’s future is headed when its elected leader has no skin in the game.
The question becomes particularly relevant when we look at two narratives in our parsha: one of children looking to reclaim their future (Tzelafchad’s daughters), and one of children who are apparently not worthy to do so (Moshe’s sons).
Unlike Aharon, who found a successor in his son Elazar, Moshe is not given this opportunity. Instead, Yehoshua will succeed him.
And it is in that transition — from telling us of Tzelafchad’s daughters, to the appointment of Yehoshua — that Moshe is told, “Go up to Mt. Avarim to see the land that I will give the Children of Israel.”
The word avarim can be translated as a “transition.” Kli Yakar suggests that its placement follows the phrase we have just heard regarding inheritance for daughters: when there is no son, haavartem et nachalato l’bito (you shall transition his portion to his daughter). There, Rashi notes a play on words: anyone who does not leave over a “son to inherit him” causes G-d to send His evrah, wrath, against the person.
The phrase cannot be calling out a person who does not have a son, because who can control that? Tzelafchad had five children, all girls. Some people have sons who do not live to adulthood. Some people have no children at all.
Rashi’s comment emphasizes the word l’yorsho, to inherit him. The person has a son, but he is not worthy to take over his father. This is what causes G-d to send his evrah against the person.
As such, the transition of Tzelafchad’s inheritance to his daughters is immediately followed by instructions about Har HaAvarim — the mountain of transition.
Kli Yakar says that this is a condemnation of Moshe. Tzelafchad raised his daughters to follow in his ways, but you, Moshe, where are your sons? Clearly not following in your footsteps! “G-d had wrath against Moshe,” Kli Yakar writes, “for not guiding his sons to be worthy to inherit his position and his role as a prophet.”
In a certain sense, I think the Kli Yakar is arguing that Moshe was a failure as a parent.
This is not to minimize Moshe’s accomplishments. He was the greatest leader the Jewish people ever knew, and the greatest prophet in the world! One can argue that the greatness of a leader is defined by his accomplishments and his humility, and on those fronts, Moshe wins, hands down.
But one of the greatest success stories in life is being able to point to children and grandchildren and say “I raised them right.” Tzelafchad could say this. Moshe could not.
G-d judges the righteous strictly. Just because He sent evrah against Moshe for his shortcomings as a parent, does this mean that He does the same to others? I don’t think so. But it certainly ought to give those of us who are parents pause, to consider if we are fulfilling our calling to “educate each child according to his/her unique way” (Proverbs 22:6).
This is not about children following their parents’ professional footsteps. Every person needs to forge his or her own path. But whereas Aharon’s sons are mentioned throughout the Torah’s narrative, sometimes even after they have died, Moshe’s sons hardly appear at all. It is a question of legacy.
For all intents and purposes, Moshe’s sons are out of the picture. Yehoshua had no sons. In more recent times, George Washington had no children. The Lubavitcher Rebbe had no children.
Some people never marry. Some marry later in life. Some are unable to have children. Some people only have daughters. These are facts of life.
For those who have children, “success” can perhaps be measured in meaningful life aspirations as Jews, with shared values being embraced by future generations.
For those who do not have children, “success” can perhaps be measured in impact on community. A colleague of mine runs a Sunday morning learning program in his shul for Jewish kids who go to public school, sponsored by a philanthropist who felt this was his legacy: giving Jewish children a chance to learn Torah.
Every person has either a family legacy or a personal legacy. Some leave a tremendous impact when they are gone. Some leave a void.
By the time it was too late to have any further impact on the world, Tzelafchad had prepared. His daughters were incredible. But it was too late for Moshe. His sons were in a very different place.
For the remaining transitions of his life, Moshe prepared. He saw to it that he would be succeeded by Yehoshua. He got as close to G-d as humanly possible. He spent the last month of his life speaking the book of Devarim to all of Israel. That legacy is firmly in place, and it will never budge.
What transitions do we anticipate? What is in our hands to correct and put in order? What steps need to be taken so our lives can be lived with few regrets?
The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av are a good time to have this often-difficult conversation. This is when we examine our past indiscretions and remind ourselves that they continue to prevent the Jewish people from achieving our ultimate Service of G-d.