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Torah Sparks

July 19, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Num. 25:10 - 30:1 (Hertz, p. 686; Etz Hayim, p. 918)
Triennial Cycle II: Num. 26:52 - 28:15 (Hertz, p. 690; Etz Hayim, p. 924)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 - 2:23 (Hertz, p. 710; Etz Hayim, p. 968)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: Q & A - An Age-Old Jewish Technique

The daughters of Tzelophechad came forward. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, 'Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach's faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!' Moses brought the case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, 'The plea of Tzelophechad's daughters is just; you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them. (Numbers 27:1-7)


  1. By his example, Moses taught the heads of the Sanhedrin of Israel that were destined to arise after him, that they should not be embarrassed to ask for assistance in cases too difficult for them. For even Moses, who was Master of Israel, had to say, 'I have not understood.' Therefore Moses brought their cases before the Lord. (Targum Yonatan)
  2. This is one of the four legal cases that came up before Moses our master. In two of them Moses was quick to act and in two of them Moses was tardy. In each case Moses said: I have not heard the like. He was quick to act in the case of the unclean person who could not keep the passover at is appointed time (Numbers 9:6-13) and in the case of the daughters of Tselophechad (27:1-11; 36:1-12) because civil cases were involved. But in the case of the wood gatherer who profaned the Sabbath willfully and in the case of the blasphemer who pronounced the holy Name blasphemously (Leviticus 24:10-23), Moses was tardy because these were capital cases. This was in order to teach the judges who would succeed Moses that they should be quick in civil cases and tardy in capital cases, so that they would not be in a hurry to put to death even one condemned to death. (Targum Neofiti)
  3. But there are some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those men said to them, "Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" Moses said to them, "Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you." And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. (Numbers 9:6-12)
  4. There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Mosesàand he was placed in custody until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. (Numbers 24:10-12)
  5. There were three other things equally difficult that Moses could comprehend only after God made him to see them plainly. They were the compounding the holy anointing oil, the construction of the candlestick in the Tabernacle, and the animals the flesh of which is permitted or prohibited. Also the determination of the new moon was the subject of a special Divine teaching. (Louis Ginsberg in Legends of the Jews)
  6. In the Mishnah, the four "questions" are attributed to the parent who teaches the son: "Look how different this night is" The four questions become four curious behaviors that ought to arouse wonder, for amazement is the beginning of the search for knowledge. The parent must know how to "open up" the youngest child who doesn't even know how to forumlate questions. For example, "Listen dear, let's look around and see what surprises are planned for us during tonight's meal." Hopefully, the child will not only respond with that "Aha" experience of eyes opened wide, but also add his own comments to the parent's four. Under no circumstances should this be merely a ritualized recitation of questions by the parent or the young child. In fact, the "four questions" are not obligatory at all. As a medieval Spanish rabbi explained (Haggadah, Meam Loez, page 234-236 Hebrew Edition): "It is a mitzvah to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt by arousing one's mind and heart and drawing the things out of us. All present at the seder should ask their parent or anyone sitting beside them at the table to explain the reason for each and every thing. Even if one is alone at home and knows all the reasons, one should conduct a discussion with oneself, asking and answering one's own questions." (Noam Zion and David Dishon, A Different Night, Leader's Guide)
  7. Why were the Rabbis so insistent that the Exodus story open with spontaneous questions? First of all, one can view this as an educational device. Teachers know that if they can just get their students to pay attention, get their minds working on something they find interesting, then teachers have gone a long way towards creating an openness to learning new things. The R abbis wanted to remind the leaders of the seder not just to focus on the story-but first to make sure to have an active, attentive audience. On a deeper level, the Rabbis may have reflected that questioning is an essential part of the freedom celebrated on the seder night. The whole Talmudic literature is in the form of questioning and dialogue-not the meek questioning of inferior to superior but the give-and-take interaction of adamant rivals pitted against one another, and sometimes even against God! (see Bava Metzia 59b). An essential characteristic of free people is that they notice the world around them, make distinctions and search for meaningful patterns. They want understanding, not inscrutability. For a slave mentality, nothing is "different" - all tasks are part of the same meaningless arbitrariness. There is no point in asking if no one answers, no place for questions in a world where the master's arbitrary orders are the ultimate justification for the way things are. In beginning the seder with genuine (not rote) questions, the Rabbis show that we not only tell the story of freedom, but we act like free people. (Noam Zion and David Dishon, A Different Night)
  8. My years in the rabinnate taught me to seek ways of talking about Judaism that would be meaningful to Jews of various backgrounds. Although I had been an Orthodox rabbi in the Bronx and in Montreal for seventeen years, my congregations were made up of people of many different backgrounds and levels of observance and belief. During my rabbinnic training at Yeshivah University, I was taught to answer halakhic questions. The details of the laws of kashrut and similar mitzvot were studied with rigor and devotion. Upon entering the rabbinate, I was anxious to answer the great halakhic questions of the Jewish community. I waited with anticipation, but to my dismay there were no questioners. Finally I realized that the role of the rabbi was not so much to provide answers as to create questions. (David Hartman, A Heart of Many Rooms)
  9. The Talmud, the greatest of all rabbinic works, is distinguished, above all, by its commitment to questions and challenges. The Mishnah gives the law; the Talmud asks, "why?" "For what reason?" "Maybe there's an alternative?" These questions challenge even God and God's law (the Torah). We are a people of questions. By continuing to ask questions, we guarantee our freedom. (David Kraemer, JTSA)

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

Why is the question so sacred in Judaism? Abraham Joshua Heschel once explained that the role of religious educators is to be the midwife to the birth of a question, for Judaism a response to life's deepest questions.

How do we foster an environment that values the question, provokes curiosity, legitimates debate, or validates challenging even our most sacred beliefs? How do we do that in a respectful way? To what extent should there be religious "authority" in our modern faith? Is everything open to question? What isn't?

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