by Rabbi Avi Billet
Google the phrase “Europe’s Childless Leaders” and you’ll find quite a few articles written about a year ago noting that a number of leaders of European countries do not have children. While I won’t speculate on what that means for each country, it does raise the question of where each country is headed when its elected leader has no skin in the game for the real future.
The question becomes particularly relevant when we look at two pieces of narrative which follow one another in our parsha, one of children looking to reclaim their future (Tzlafchad’s daughters), and one of a leader who arguably does not have children of note in looking to the future (Moshe).
Unlike Aharon who found a successor in his own son Elazar, Moshe does not have that opportunity to give his position over to one of his sons.
And it is in that transition from telling us of Tzlafchad’s daughters to the instruction of appointing Yehoshua as a successor that Moshe is told “Go up to Mt Avarim to see the land that I’ll be giving the Children of Israel.”
The word “Avarim” can be translated as a transition. (For a very different discussion about Har HaAvarim, click here)
The Zohar suggests that this mountain was in view of the burial places of Aharon and Miriam – suggesting that the deaths of all three leaders is one kind of transition for the nation. Moshe being replaced with Yehoshua as leader is another transition. And for Moshe personally, seeing his finality in front of him is a transition of his own dream (hanging onto the hope that he’ll enter the land) being replaced with reality, that he will not enter the land.
Kli Yakar says the placement of Har HaAvarim, in the Torah, right here, follows the phrase we just read before in the Torah regarding inheritance for daughters when there is no son, “V’haavartem et nachalato l’veeto” (you shall transition his portion to his daughter). There Rashi notes a play on words, that anyone who does not leave over a “son to inherit him” causes God to send His “Evrah” (wrath) against the person. (Evrah is spelled like Avarim and v’ha’avartem in Hebrew)
Kli Yakar notes that the phrase is not calling out a person who does not have a son at all, because who can control that? Tzlafchad had five children – all girls. Some people have a son, and he, God forbid, does not reach adulthood. Some people have no children at all. Rashi’s comment is meant to emphasize the word “L’yorsho” (to inherit him). The person has a son, but the son is not worthy to take over his father’s affairs, his father’s competence in Torah, in wisdom, in leadership, etc. This is what causes God to send his “Evrah” against the person. (I’ll get back to this point in a moment)
As such, the transition of Tzlafchad’s inheritance to his daughters is immediately followed with instruction about Har Ha’Avarim, the mountain of transition.
Kli Yakar says it’s a condemnation to Moshe – look at how Tzlafchad raised his daughters to follow in his footsteps, and you, Moshe, where are your sons? Clearly not following in your footsteps! “God had wrath against Moshe, 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 the world has ever known! 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.” Tzlafchad could say this. Moshe could not.
We are familiar with the idea that God judges the righteous more strictly. Just because God sent “Evrah” against Moshe for his failures as a parent, does this mean that God sends “Evrah” to everyone who fails as a parent? I don’t think so. But it certainly ought to give those of us who are parents pause, to consider if we have the right amount of patience, if we are fulfilling our jobs of “educating and giving a foundation to each child according to his/her unique way of processing and learning.” (Based on Proverbs 22:6)
This is not about following in parents’ professional footprints. Every person needs to forge his or her own path professionally. 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.
The question is not one of having children or not. It is a question of legacy.
For all purposes, Moshe’s sons are out of the picture. Yehoshua had no children. In more recent times, George Washington (l'havdil) had no children. The Lubavitcher Rebbe had no children.
Some people never marry, some marry later in life, some are unable to have children, or 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 the impacts we have in our community. A colleague of mine runs a Sunday morning learning program in his shul for Jewish kids who go to public school. The successful program is sponsored by a philanthropist who, before he passed away, felt this was his legacy – giving Jewish kids a chance to learn Torah.
Every person has either a family legacy to worry about or a personal legacy to worry about. Some leave a tremendous impact when they are gone, some leave a void and their life work falls apart.
In preparing for transitions, by the time it was “too late,” because he was dead, Tzlafchad had prepared. His daughters were incredible.
By the time it was too late for Moshe, his sons were in a very different place.
But Moshe prepared for the remaining transitions of his life by seeing to it that he would be replaced with Yehoshua, he got as close to God as humanly possible, and he spent the last month of his life speaking the book of Devarim to all of Israel. And his legacy is firmly in place, and it will never budge.
What transitions do we anticipate? What is in our hands to correct, fix, put in order, plan for, implement? What steps need to be taken so the rest of life can be lived with few regrets, and whatever current regrets can be fixed?
The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av is a good time to have this (at-times difficult) conversation. This is when we look at past indiscretions (in general) and remind ourselves that they continue to prevent the Jewish people from achieving our ultimate form of Service of God.