Midrash is, among other things, the ability to listen to the Torah’s silences. Sometimes they contain great dramas.
What is the meaning of Abraham’s silence as he rides for three days with Isaac, toward the mountain and the great trial? Or of Isaac, as he lies bound on the altar? Or of Jacob, when he sees that his son Reuben has defiled his bed? These are eloquent silences – not a mere absence of words but a reticence, a concealment, a beckoning to those who hear them to explore, conjecture, enter into the mind of the characters involved. The Torah does not bear all its meanings on the surface, just as a person does not – and at its deepest level, the Torah is a profound meditation on what it is to be a person in the image of G-d.
So it is with the astonishingly understated narrative of Moses’ request to G-d to appoint a successor:
Moses said to the LORD , “May the LORD , the G-d of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
On the surface, no drama, no passion, no inner conflict. Yet the rabbis were right to detect here a silence to be decoded.
The immediate context is Moses knowledge of his own mortality, of the fact that he will not live to cross the Jordan and enter the land:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go up this mountain in the Abarim range and see the land I have given the Israelites. After you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was . . .”
Miriam has died. So has Aaron. Now Moses himself is within sight of the angel of death. Who will be his successor? Does he have no thoughts on the matter? With profound attentiveness, the sages listened to the immediately previous passage, and there they found the clue. It is the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who claim their rights of inheritance in the land, despite the fact that inheritance passed through the male line and their father had left no sons. Moses brought their request to G-d, who answered that their request was to be granted.
Against this background, the midrash interprets Moses’ thoughts as he brings his own request to G-d, that a successor be appointed:
What was Moses’ reason for making this request after declaring the order of inheritance? Just this, that when the daughters of Zelophehad inherited from their father, Moses reasoned: the time is right for me to make my own request. If daughters inherit, it is surely right that my sons should inherit my glory. The Holy One blessed be He said to him, “He who keeps the fig tree shall eats its fruit” (Proverbs 27:28). Your sons sat idly by and did not study the Torah. Joshua served you faithfully and showed you great honour. It was he who rose early in the morning and remained late at night at your House of Assembly. He used to arrange the benches and spread the mats. Seeing that he has served you with all his might, he is worthy to serve Israel, for he shall not lose his reward.
This is the unspoken drama. Not only was Moses fated not to enter the land, but he was also destined to see his sons overlooked in the search for a successor. That was his second personal tragedy.
But it is precisely here that we find, for the first time, one of Judaism’s most powerful propositions. Biblical Israel had its dynasties. Both priesthood and, in a later age, kingship were handed down from father to son. Yet there is a profoundly egalitarian strand in Judaism from the outset.
Ironically, it is given one of its most powerful expressions in the mouth of the rebel, Korach:
The whole community is holy only, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?
But it is not only Korach who gives voice to such a sentiment. We hear it in the words of Moses himself:
Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.
We hear it again in the words of Hannah when she gives thanksgiving on the birth of her son:
The LORD sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.
It is implicit in the great holiness command:
The Lord said to Moses, speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them, be holy, because I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.
This is not a call to priests or prophets – a sacred elite – but to an entire people. There is, within Judaism, a profound egalitarian instinct: the concept of a nation of individuals standing with equal dignity in the presence of G-d.
Korach was wrong, less in what he said than in why he said it. He was a demagogue attempting to seize power. But he tapped into a deep reservoir of popular feeling and religious principle. Jews have never been easy to lead because each is called on to be a leader. What Korach forgot is that, to be a leader it is also necessary to be a follower. Leadership presupposes discipleship. That is what Joshua knew, and what led to his choice as Moses’ successor. “He who keeps the fig tree shall eats its fruit” (Proverbs 27:28) . . . Joshua served you faithfully and showed you great honour . . . Seeing that he has served you with all his might, he is worthy to serve Israel.”
The tradition is summed up in a famous Maimonidean ruling:
With three crowns was Israel crowned – with the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. The crown of priesthood was bestowed on Aaron . . . The crown of kingship was conferred on David . . . But the crown of Torah is for all Israel . . . Whoever desires it, can win it. Do not suppose that the other two crowns are greater than that of Torah . . . The crown of Torah is greater than the other two crowns.
This had immense social and political consequences. Throughout most of the biblical era, all three crowns were in operation. In addition to prophets, Israel had kings and an active priesthood serving in the Temple. The dynastic principle – leadership passing from father to son – still dominated two of the three roles. But with the destruction of the Second Temple, kingship and a functioning priesthood ceased. Leadership passed to the sages who saw themselves as heirs to the prophets. We see this in the famous one-sentence summary of Jewish history with which the tractate Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) begins:
Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua [handed it on] to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets handed it on to the men of the Great Assembly.
What is conspicuously missing from this list is the priests – who in biblical Israel were the primary guardians and teachers of Torah. Why did the rabbis not see themselves as heirs to Aaron and the priesthood? That would, on the face of it, have been far more natural than defining themselves as successors to the prophets. There are many reasons, but one is surely this: the priesthood was a dynasty. It was not open to everyone. It was restricted by birth. Prophetic leadership, by contrast, could never be predicted in advance. The proof was Moses. The very fact that his children did not succeed him as leaders of the people may have been an acute distress to him but it was a deep consolation to everyone else. It meant that anyone, by discipleship and dedication, could aspire to rabbinic leadership and the crown of Torah.
Hence we find in the sources a paradox. On the one hand the Torah describes itself as an inheritance:
Moses commanded us the Torah as an inheritance [morashah] of the congregation of Jacob.
On the other, the sages were insistent that Torah is not an inheritance:
Rabbi Jose said: Prepare yourself to learn Torah, for it is not given to you as an inheritance [yerushah].
The simplest resolution of the contradiction is that there are two kinds of inheritance. Biblical Hebrew contains two different words for what we receive as a legacy: yerushah / morashah and nachalah. Nachalah is related to the word nachal, “a river.” It signifies something passed down automatically across the generations, as river water flows downstream. Yerushah comes from the rootyarash, meaning “to take possession.” It refers to something to which you have legitimate title, but which you need positive action to acquire.
A hereditary title [such as being a duke or an earl] is passed from father to son. So too is a family business. The difference is that the first needs no effort on the part of the heir, but the second requires hard work if the business is to continue to be worth something. Torah is like a business, not a title. It must be earned if it is to be sustained.
The sages themselves put it more beautifully:
“Moses commanded us the Torah as an inheritance [morashah] of the congregation of Jacob” – read not “inheritance [morashah]” but “betrothed [m’orasah].”
By a simple change in pronunciation – turning a shin [=”sh”] into a sin [=”s”], “inheritance” into “betrothal” – the rabbis signaled that, yes, there is an inheritance relationship between Torah and the Jew, but the former has to be loved if it is to be earned.
The sages were fully aware of the social implications of R. Jose’s dictum that “the Torah is not given to you as an inheritance.” It meant that literacy and learning must never become the preserve of an elite:
They sent word from there [Israel] . . . Be careful [not to neglect] the children of the poor, because from them Torah goes forth . . .And why is it not usual for scholars to give birth to sons who are scholars?
R. Joseph said: so that it should not be said that the Torah is their inheritance.
R. Shisha, son of R. Idi said: so that they should not be arrogant towards the community.
Mar Zutra said: because they act highhandedly against the community.
R. Ashi said: because they call people asses.
Rabina said: because they do not first utter a blessing over the Torah.
In these dicta we see the full range of rabbinic meditation on why the crown of Torah was not hereditary – because it might become the prerogative of the rich; because children of great scholars might take their inheritance for granted; because it could lead to arrogance and contempt for others; and because learning itself might become a mere intellectual pursuit rather than a spiritual exercise (“because they do not first utter a blessing over the Torah”).
The very fact that the sages said these things is evidence that they had to be constantly on their guard against exclusivist attitudes to Torah. Equality is never preserved without vigilance – and indeed there were contrary tendencies. We see this in one of the debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai:
“Raise up many disciples”: The school of Shammai said, A person is to teach only one who is wise, humble, of good stock, and rich.
But the school of Hillel say, Everyone is to be taught. For there were many transgressors in Israel who were attracted to the study of Torah, and from them sprang righteous, pious and worthy men. To what made it be compared? To a woman who sets a hen to brood on eggs – out of many eggs, she may hatch only a few chicks, but out of a few eggs, perhaps not even one.
One cannot predict who will achieve greatness. Therefore Torah must be taught to all. A later episode illustrates the virtue to teaching everyone:
Once Rav came to a certain place where, though he had decreed a fast [for rain], no rain fell. Eventually someone else stepped forward in front of Rav before the ark and prayed, “who causes the wind to blow” – and the wind blew. Then he prayed, “who causes the rain to fall” – and the rain fell. Rav asked him: what is your occupation [i.e. what is your special virtue that causes G-d to answer your prayers]? He replied: I am a teacher of young children. I teach Torah to the children of the poor as well as to the children of the rich. From those who cannot afford it, I take no payment. Besides, I have a fish pond, and I offer fish to any boy who refuses to study, so that he comes to study.
It would be wrong to suppose that these attitudes prevailed in all places at all times. No nation achieves perfection. An aptitude for learning is not equally distributed within any group. There is always a tendency for the most intelligent and scholarly to see themselves as more gifted than others and for the rich to attempt to purchase a better education for their children than the poor. Yet to an impressive, even remarkable degree Jews were vigilant in ensuring that no one was excluded from education and that schools and teachers were paid for by public funds. By many centuries, indeed millennia, Jews were the first to democratize education. The crown of Torah was indeed open to all.
Moses’ tragedy was Israel’s consolation. “Why is it not usual for scholars to give birth to sons who are scholars? . . . So that it should not be said that the Torah is their inheritance.” The fact that his successor was not his son but Joshua, his disciple, meant that one form of leadership – historically and spiritually the most important of the three crowns – could be aspired to by everyone. Dignity is not a privilege of birth. Honour is not confined to those with the right parents. In the world defined and created by Torah, everyone is a potential leader. We can all earn the right to wear the crown.