Sunday, June 25th, 2017

Parashat Matot: Moshe Begins to Take a Back Seat by Yaakov Bieler

July 22, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

Significant changes in the leadership of the Jewish people.

The latter portion of the book of BaMidbar describes a profound changing of the guard in terms of Jewish leadership. Parashat Chukat first relates the death of Miriam (20:1) followed by the Divine Decree that neither Moshe nor Aharon will enter Canaan (20:12). While Moshe’s actual death is not recorded until the end of the book of Devarim (34:5), the conclusion of Aharon’s life is described in the same Parasha and chapter that had begun with his sister Miriam’s demise, BaMidbar 20:28. Aharon’s death is the most ritualistic of the three,[1] with him just before his death watching as his son Elazar dons the garments of the High Priest (20:26, 28) which he had just removed, in effect representing the completion of Aharon’s term in office and the beginning of the service of his son as leader of Tabernacle activities.

Elazar’s first independent act as successor to Aharon is to give instructions regarding ritual purity and impurity.

In Parashat Matot (BaMidbar 31:21-24), we read about Aharon’s son Elazar’s first solo course of action[2] in his new position, i.e., his issuing of instructions to the returning combatants from the war against Midian.

And Elazar the Priest said to the men of war which went to the battle: This is the statute of the Tora that HaShem Commanded Moshe.

Only the gold, the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin and the lead, everything that can pass through the fire, you shall make it go through the fire and it shall be ritually pure.

Nevertheless it shall (also) be purified with the “waters of sprinkling” (a reference to the waters in which are mixed the ashes of the Red Heifer—see BaMidbar 19:1-22) and all that does not pass through the fire you shall (at least) make go through the water.

And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day and you shall be ritually pure, and afterwards you shall come into the camp.

Since the Kohanim[3] are the group in charge of the process of restoring ritual purity to anyone and anything that has come into contact with dead bodies by means of sprinkling water mixed with the ashes of a Red Heifer, it comes as no surprise that Elazar, in his capacity as newly-appointed High Priest, would be conversant with the rules that apply to those who have just returned from war and the spoils from such a war that might have become ritually contaminated.

Questions that arise from Elazar’s presentation of these issues.

However, what is striking and unique about this series of verses is Elazar taking the lead in speaking to the warriors about the “Halachot” (Jewish laws) that apply to their situation. For Elazar to play this role is strange on at least three counts:

1)  According to the Biblical text, Elazar’s father Aharon never gave Halachic instructions on his own,[4] and seems to always defer to Moshe in this regard. If Elazar is supposed to replace his father, why in terms of publicly teaching Jewish law does he now appear to surpass him?

2)   Is it appropriate for Elazar to teach Halacha in the presence of Moshe? Should he not have deferred to his uncle, under the rubric of the principle, “Ein Talmid Rashai Lomar Davar Lifnai Rabo” (a student is not to teach a matter [of Halacha] in the presence of his teacher)?[5],[6]

2)   Elazar never again is quoted in the bible in any speaking context, Halachic or otherwise.[7] Consequently, one wonders why it is this particular matter in which he acts so forthrightly and publicly.

A Rabbinic debate over the implications of Elazar’s Halachic instructions—was Moshe or Elazar in error?

An interesting ostensible clash of Midrashic interpretations appears in the Oral Tradition, as part of an attempt to try to account for Elazar’s presenting these Halachot at this particular point in time. On the one hand, some sources identify a shortcoming in Moshe as the catalyst for Elazar’s  having to suddenly step in and teach.

Sifre on BaMidbar 31:21 (cited by RaShI)

Moshe Rabbeinu, because he became angry (at the fact that the soldiers had taken Midianite women captive instead of killing them, suggesting that the dangers of Ba’al Pe’or were still at hand—see BaMidbar 25:1 ff.), erred (with regard to the proper Halacha).

R. Elazar says: In three places he becomes angry which in turn causes him to err.

1) In a similar manner (VaYikra 10:16-17) “And Moshe became angry at Elazar and Itamar the remaining sons of Aharon, saying,” ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering…?’”[8]

2) In a similar manner (BaMidbar 20:10-11) “And he (Moshe) said, ‘Listen you rebellious ones! From this rock can we extract water for you?’   And Moshe raised his hand, and he struck the boulder with his staff two times.”

3) So also here, (BaMidbar 31:14) “And Moshe was angry with the officers of the army, the officers of the thousands and the officers of the hundreds, who were coming from the war.”

Moshe Rabbeinu, because he became angry, came to make an error…[9]

Whereas Sifre suggests that the incident involving the returning soldiers from the Midianite war was part of a consistent pattern of emotional upheavals leading to errors on Moshe’s part, Pesachim points to the case of BaMidbar 31 as the prototypical example of this phenomenon regarding Moshe.

Pesachim 66b

Reish Lakish said: Regarding every person who becomes angry, if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him…

We learn this from Moshe. For it is written (BaMidbar 31:14) “And Moshe was angry with the officers of the army…”, and it is written, (Ibid. v. 21) “And Elazar the Priest said to the men of war which went to the battle: This is the statute of the Tora that HaShem Commanded Moshe,” which implies that it had been forgotten by Moshe…

According to MaLBIM’s interpretation of the Sifre, as soon as it becomes apparent to Elazar that Moshe was incapacitated by his anger from teaching the relevant Halachot properly, Aharon’s son relied upon a principle delineated by Rava in Eiruvin 63a followed by an anecdote involving Ravina and R. Ashi, to justify his action.

When it is a question of preventing one from committing a transgression (in this case, had Elazar not issued instructions regarding what to do with the captured vessels, they might have been introduced into the encampment without the proper Kashering and Purifying), it is quite proper for a student to teach a Halacha even in his teacher’s presence (thereby taking away from the respect that he is obligated to show for his teacher).

Ravina (the student) once sat in the presence of R. Ashi (the teacher) when he (Ravina) observed that a certain person was tying his donkey to a palm tree on Shabbat. He (Ravina) called out to him, but the other took no notice. “Let this man”, he (Ravina) called out, “be placed under the ban of excommunication” (a Halachic pronouncement that should have been undertaken only by R. Ashi).[10]

“Does such an act as mine”, he (Ravina) asked R. Ashi, “appear as disrespectful (to you, R. Ashi)?”

(R. Ashi responded:) “(Mishlei 21:30) ‘There is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel against HaShem’—wherever the Divine Name is being profaned, no respect is to be shown even to one’s teacher.”

Therefore the Sifre and Pesachim would answer the three questions that we posed regarding Elazar’s precipitous public teaching in the following manner:

1)   Although Aharon may never have taught in this way, it was necessary for Elazar to do so because otherwise HaShem’s Tora would have been violated by improper use of the captured vessels.

2)   The honor of the teacher (Moshe) is trumped by God’s Honor which would be violated if first Moshe and then Elazar would not have spoken up.

3)    For the rest of Moshe’s life, Elazar never again found himself in such a situation and therefore he deferred to his teacher in future Halachic matters.

The alteranative Rabbinic approach to what Elazar does.

The Sifre and Pesachim with regard to why Elazar taught these Halachot, are countered by a passage in Eiruvin, that finds fault not with Moshe, but rather with Elazar.

Eiruvin 63a (cited by Chizkuni)

R. Eliezer said: He (who gives a legal decision in the presence of his teacher) is deprived of his greatness.

For it is said, “And Elazar the Priest said to the men of war which went to the battle: This is the statute of the Tora that HaShem Commanded Moshe.”

Even though he said to them, “HaShem Commanded my father’s brother (Moshe) and not me,” he was nevertheless punished, as it is written, (BaMidbar 27:21) “And he (Yehoshua) shall stand before Elazar the Priest”, and yet we never find that Yehoshua needed his guidance.

It appears that according to R. Eliezer in Eiruvin, simply paying lip service to one’s teacher, as Elazar appears to do vis-à-vis Moshe, i.e.,  “This is the statute of the Tora that HaShem Commanded Moshe”,[11] is not the same as receiving explicit permission from his teacher to publicly teach or decide Halacha. While the final view in Kiddushin 32a is in accordance with R. Yosef who is of the opinion that a teacher who voluntarily waives his right to being honored by his student, may do so, R. Yitzchak ben Shila in the name of R. Matena in the name of R. Chisda argues that a teacher’s honor is never his to renounce. The dispute in Kiddushin centers on the premise that since the honor due to the teacher directly derives from the Tora that he has learned and now represents, is the Tora ever truly “his” to do with as he wishes?[12] Consequently, if there is a Talmudic dispute even in a situation where the teacher clearly articulates his intention to forgo any honor that a student might want to extend towards him, it should be obvious that a student can never simply presume that his teacher won’t mind if he would teach in his presence, even after carefully to quoting the teacher as the source for his pronouncements.[13]

The approach of Eiruvin would then generate the following set of answers to our questions:

1)  Just as Aharon was never presumptuous to teach in the presence of Moshe without specific permission, Elazar should not have been either.

2)  Elazar could have asked Moshe for permission, however pressing the situation may have appeared to him to be.

3)  Elazar regretted what he had done, and never did it again.

Reconciling the two Rabbinic approaches.

Even though it appears that the traditions reflected in these sources are diametrically opposed to one another, it is not necessary to insist that they are mutually exclusive. Whereas it is possible that Moshe froze due to his anguish over the Midianite female war captives, nevertheless, Elazar should have followed a protocol of asking Moshe’s permission before teaching, in order to clarify whether he had the right to fill the vacuum that his teacher had created. Perhaps it comes down to the time frame with which Elazar was working, i.e., if he was afraid that at any moment someone would improperly use some of the captured vessels, he did not have a moment to lose, niceties and etiquette had to be ignored in order to protect HaShem’s Honor in terms of observance of the Commandments. On the other hand, how long could it have possibly taken to simply acknowledge Moshe’s presence and ask permission to proceed? Great people are given a very narrow margin for error,[14] and therefore whether the fault lay more with Moshe or with Elazar may be an incredibly nuanced sort of issue.

An approach that removes blame from both Moshe and Elazar.

Finally, Ibn Ezra on BaMidbar 31:21 suggests that when in BaMidbar 19:3-5 Elazar is mentioned specifically as the one who will prepare the first Red Heifer so that its ashes can be used for purifying people and articles that are “Tamei Meit” (ritually defiled by contact with the dead),

And you will give it (the Red Heifer) to Elazar the Priest, that he may bring it outside the camp, and that it will be slaughtered before him.

And Elazar the Priest will take some of its blood with his finger, and he will sprinkle some of its blood towards the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.

And the Heifer will be burnt in his sight…

in effect Aharon’s oldest son is put in charge of all matters relating to this topic,[15] entitling him to explicate the details of how the Red Heifer was to be employed by the soldiers returning from the Midianite war. Ibn Ezra’s view would appear to be a development of an alternate reading of the story suggested by the Sifre, following the Midrash Halacha’s original critique of Moshe’s anger.

And there are those who say: Moshe gave permission to Elazar the Priest to speak, in anticipation of the time when Moshe would depart from this world, they (the people) shouldn’t say to him (Elazar), “During the lifetime of Moshe your teacher you did not speak; now how can you come to say (anything authoritatively)?”

Abrabanel parallels Ibn Ezra in his commentary, and adds, in accordance with R. Yoshiya’s interpretation in Sifre,[16] that in order that people not be misled to think that the laws being discussed by Elazar constituted a Revelation that came directly to him and bypassing Moshe, Elazar is careful to state at the very outset of his presentation of these rules:

BaMidbar 31:21

…This is the statute of the Tora[17] that Hashem Commanded Moshe.

Both Ibn Ezra and Abrabanel appear to ignore both Talmudic passages in Pesachim and Eiruvin. They contend that neither Moshe nor Elazar were acting improperly, and if anything, Elazar was simply doing his job. Whereas the Midrashim are intent on drawing ethical and psychological lessons from Elazar’s Halachic presentation by means of critiquing one or the other of the two protagonists in the story, Ibn Ezra and Abrabanel are more intent on reading a simple account of events, which in their view indicates that more and more of the responsibility of leadership for the Jewish nation prior to their entering Canaan, is being handed over to the younger generation.


[1] No details are supplied concerning the death of Miriam, e.g., where it took place, who was involved in her burial, who mourned for her, etc.

With respect to Moshe, in Devarim 34 we read that he dies and is buried, but the text is unclear regarding who buried him. Talmudic tradition (Sota 14a) asserts that HaShem Himself Buried Moshe, thereby demonstrating and modeling the high value placed upon taking care of the dead. Although the text in Devarim (34:9) mentions that Yehoshua received “Semicha” from Moshe, a ritual transfer of authority that parallels what took place on Har HaHar where Elazar succeeds Aharon, the actual conferring of leadership upon Yehoshua is recorded much earlier in BaMidbar 27:23, and appears to have preceded Moshe’s death by some days. Furthermore, the text in Devarim 34:6 stresses that no one knows the exact location of Moshe’s burial site, in contrast to Aharon, since he was accompanied to the place by Moshe and Elazar, who witnessed his demise. Furthermore, a literal understanding of BaMidbar 20:27, “…And they went up on Har HaHar before the eyes of the Children of Israel” may not only refer to the fact that they went up the mountain in full view of the people, but that the people may have been able to observe from afar Aharon’s death and burial as well. No such terminology appears in connection with Moshe’s death.

[2] Elazar is mentioned in three prior contexts, but as a passive representative of the Priesthood, rather than in any active capacity. a) BaMidbar 26:1 mentions him as the recipient, along with Moshe, of the Divine Directive to conduct a census of the people, a practice that often appears following a plague during which a significant portion of the people die—in this case the plague that resulted from the sin of Ba’al Pe’or (BaMidbar 25:8-9); b) BaMidbar 27:2 lists Elazar among the Jewish leadership before whom Zelophchad’s daughters presented their arguments for inheritance of the land of Canaan; and c) BaMidbar 27:19-22 cites Elazar as one of the Jewish leaders before whom Yehoshua is publicly introduced as Moshe’s successor.

[3] In BaMidbar 19:1, not only is Moshe addressed by HaShem, but Aharon is mentioned as an equal in the introduction to the Parsha of the “Para Aduma” (the Red Heifer). Elazar is then referred to as the individual who oversees the preparation of the Red Heifer’s ashes (19:3,4), although when it comes to the actual sprinkling of the water and ash mixture, the more anonymous “HaKohen” (the priest) (19:6, 7) appears in the biblical text. The changeover from a specific mention of Elazar to the more generic “priest” is particularly understandable in light of the logical observation that the ashes from a single Red Heifer would be sufficient for creating the required ritual liquid mixture for many years to come.

[4] The specific instances where Aharon either addresses the Jewish people or his brother Moshe are as follows:

a)    Shemot 4:30 Aharon relays Moshe’s instructions regarding the wonders that will be done to impress the Jews that Moshe and Aharon were sent by HaShem to redeem them from Egypt.

b)    Shemot 32:5 Aharon tells the people to delay the festival for the Golden Calf until the next day (in the hope that Moshe would return before that and put an end to the idolatry.)

c)    Shemot 32:22 Aharon pleads with Moshe not to blame him for his participation in the fabrication of the Golden Calf.

d)    VaYikra 10:19 Aharon defends the rest of his family from Moshe’s criticism regarding offering sacrifices while in mourning.

e)    BaMidbar 12:11 Aharon pleads with Moshe to pray so that Miriam’s Tzora’at will heal.

There are instances where Aharon is included with Moshe when HaShem Reveals or Clarifies some type of Mitzva to either the people of Israel as a whole, or the Kohanim and Levi’im in particular, and it would be reasonable to assume that this is intended to indicate that he played some sort of role in not only receiving the information, but disseminating it as well. However, this is never clearly indicated in the text.

f)    Shemot 12:1 “Rosh Chodesh” (the new month) of Nissan and the Mitzvot of Pesach.

g)   VaYikra 11:1 The laws of “Kashrut”.

h)    VaYikra 13:1; 14:33 The laws of “Tzora’at” (skin diseases that require the afflicted individual to remain outside of the encampment until the condition is cured).

i)      VaYikra 15:1 The laws of “Zav”, “Zava” (men and women who experience unnatural emissions from their bodies).

j)      BaMidbar 2:1 The arrangement of the tribes in the encampment.

k)     BaMidbar 4:1 Assignments for Kohanim and Levi’im with regard to carrying the components of the Tabernacle from place to place.

l)      BaMidbar 4:17 Special instructions regarding the dissembling of the “Kodesh HaKodashim” (the Holy of Holies) for travel.

m)    BaMidbar 19:1 The laws of the “Para Aduma” (Red Heifer, whose ashes were mixed in water and then sprinkled on those who have become ritually defiled by contact with the dead in order to affect their purification).

Aharon’s direct involvement in the instances h), i), k), l), and m) are understandable since matters of ritual purity and impurity, as well as responsibilities associated with disassembling and assembling the Tabernacle were the specific purview of the Kohanim and Levi’im. It is more difficult to account for Aharon’s being included in f), g), and j).

Finally, Eiruvin 54b describes how not only Aharon, but also his sons Elazar and Itamar, would participate in reviewing with the Jewish people any new Halacha revealed to Moshe by HaShem:

Our Rabbis learned: What was the procedure of the instruction in the oral law? Moses learned

from the mouth of the Omnipotent. Then Aaron entered and Moses taught him his lesson. Aaron then moved aside and sat down on Moses’ left. Thereupon Aaron’s sons entered and Moses taught them their lesson. His sons then moved aside, Eleazar taking his seat on Moses’ right and Ithamar on Aaron’s left. R. Judah stated: Aaron was always on Moses right. Thereupon the elders entered and Moses taught them their lesson, and when the elders moved aside all the people entered and Moses taught them their lesson. It thus followed that Aaron heard the lesson30 four times, his sons heard it three times, the elders twice and all the people once. At this stage Moses departed and Aaron taught them his lesson. Then Aaron departed and his sons taught them their lesson. His sons then departed and the elders taught them their lesson. It thus followed that everybody heard the lesson four times.

From here R. Eliezer inferred: It is a man’s duty to teach his pupil [his lesson] four times. For this is arrived at a minori ad majus: Aaron who learned from Moses who had it from the Omnipotent had to learn his lesson four times31 how much more so an ordinary pupil who learns from an ordinary teacher.

However, according to this Talmudic source, this was only immediately after Moshe would first publicly teach the law himself, and therefore it would be clear that Moshe was the one who received the initial Revelation. There is no indication in BaMidbar 31:21, that such is the case in this instance.

[5] According to RaShI on VaYikra 10:2, this is one of the possible explanations for the death penalty incurred by Nadav and Avihu, i.e., instead of consulting with Moshe regarding the appropriateness of offering a certain sacrifice, they proceeded on their own, as if taking for themselves the right to make such a decision and thereby disrespecting their teacher publicly.

[6] Not only should Elazar have considered Moshe his teacher in the same manner that all of the Children of Israel refer to him as “Moshe Rabbeinu” (our teacher), but Rabbinic tradition assumes that Moshe had an especially close teaching relationship with his nephews, as reflected in RaShI on BaMidbar 3:1.

[7] In two specific contexts, it is implied by the text that Elazar would have to issue pronouncements; however what he actually says is never quoted.

a)     BaMidbar 27:21 Yehoshua is instructed that he is to stand before Elazar who in turn would consult with the “Urim VeTumim” (the High Priest’s Breastplate, which was to miraculously reveal the Divine Will by means of its jewels lighting up in encoded sequences—see http://www.kmsynagogue.org/Tzav1.html ) regarding when and how far the Jewish encampment was to journey first in the desert, and then in Canaan.

b)    BaMidbar 26:53-56; 34:13, 17 The division of the land according to a lottery was to involve Elazar who again using the “Urim VeTumim” would predict supernaturally which tribe would be linked with which parcel of land prior to their being picked from a box containing all of the tribes and land parcels—see RaShI on 26:54, based upon Bava Batra 122a.

[8] RaShI on VaYikra 10:19 cites BaMidbar 31:21 as a proof text regarding Elazar’s abilities:

“And Aharon said”—The term “saying” here denotes a harsh utterance…

Is it likely that when Moshe expresses his indignation with Elazar and Itamar, Aharon would reply to him with such harsh language? You must consequently know that it is only by way of respect that these remained silent. They thought, “It would not be right neither for our father Aharon to be sitting here and we should speak in his presence, nor would it be right for a student to reply to his teacher (Moshe). You might think, however, that Elazar did not possess the ability to reply, and that on this account he was silent? This was not so, for it is stated, “And Elazar the Priest said to the men of war who went to battle…”, so you see that when he wished to do so, he did speak in the presence of Moshe and in the presence of the princes…

[9] Technically, one could question the language of Sifre in contrast to Pesachim 66b’s presentation of this situation. Whereas the Talmudic passage merely states that “his wisdom departs from him”, which appears to be an accurate description of Moshe’s cognitive state, the Midrash Halacha’s suggestion that Moshe “erred” does not appear to be precise, since in fact he said nothing. NeTzIV, in his commentary on Sifre, Emek HaNeTzIV, contends that since Moshe was unclear about the Halacha, he was not entitled to speak in public about his views since he was liable to make an error. Having the potential to err therefore according to Sifre, is tantamount to making the error itself. This then sheds additional light upon the dictum in Avot 3:8 “R. Dostai BeRabbi Yanai in the name of R. Meir would say—Anyone who forgets a single thing that he has learned, he is culpable for his life…” Not retaining clarity of understanding inevitably leads to error in terms of one’s own practice as well as the directives that one might give to others.

[10] When Rabbinic authority was ignored, the Rabbis had the power in Talmudic times to declare someone off-limits socially and communally until s/he repented properly.

[11] Perhaps the manner in which to read this verse according to R. Eliezer, which would compound Elazar’s presumptuousness would be, “THIS (as opposed to anything anyone else might say, including Moshe) is the statute that HaShem Commanded Moshe.”

[12] The derivation proving that the Tora indeed is considered to be the possession of the individual who has learned it, and consequently subject to his deciding to not insist on his honor, is Tehillim 1:2.

But his delight is in the Tora of HaShem; and in his (His?) Tora he meditates day and night.

Although the antecedent of the second part of the verse could be understood to be HaShem, i.e., “His” Tora is parallel to “Tora of HaShem”  in the first part of the verse, Rava opines that in fact it refers to the individual who  has internalized and thereby “acquired” the Tora for himself.

[13] This Talmudic discussion in Kiddushin forms the basis for the custom that when someone gives a “D’var Tora” in the presence of the Halachic authority of the community, s/he begins, “B’Reshut HaRav” (with the permission of the Rav). By at least tacitly asking for permission, the Halachic problem is obviated.

[14] e.g., see Yevamot 121b.

[15] Due to the intrinsic holiness of the rite of the “Para Aduma”, major debates take place among the commentators attempting to ascertain the significance of assigning Elazar this task, even while his father Aharon was still alive. RaMBaN on BaMidbar 19:3 offers three widely differing hypotheses:

a)     Since the preparation and burning of the Red Heifer was to take place outside of the Tabernacle, it was considered undignified to require Aharon to do this Service. (The Sifre contains a dispute with regards to whether giving Elazar the responsibility of the “Para Aduma” sets a precedent whereby the “Segan Kohen Gadol” (the assistant High Priest) is always assigned this particular task, or whether this was purely a temporal decision that has no bearing on who will take care of this Mitzva in the future, and in fact not only can the actual “Kohen Gadol” prepare the ashes, but even a most ordinary Kohen can also do so.)

b)    Elazar’s involvement in the Red Heifer was a means by which Elazar could be publicly introduced as Aharon’s successor, and he would be able to gain experience during his father’s lifetime with regard to at least one of the Mitzvot that he would be expected to perform in the future. (Meshech Chachma on BaMidbar 31:21 expands this particular approach, and suggests that Moshe wished to give Elazar the opportunity to teach about “Para Aduma” so that even after Moshe’s death, people will not question Elazar’s authority in this area.

c)     Because of Aharon’s disgrace with respect to his participation in the fabrication of the Golden  Calf, he was deprived of the privilege to prepare the “Para Aduma”.

[16]R. Yoshiya says: (BaMidbar 31:21) “…This is the statute of the Tora that HaShem Commanded Moshe.” He (Elazar) said the matter in the name of the person (Moshe) who originally said it (after receiving the information from Hashem.)

[17] The language is directly parallel to that used when the Red Heifer is first introduced in BaMidbar 19:2, further reinforcing the impression that Elazar is merely following Moshe’s lead, rather than contributing something not covered before.

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