Picking Up Where Moses Left Off / Parashat Matot-Massei

Why does Moses issue incomplete directives and why does his nephew pick up on instructing the Israelites in his stead?

In a celebrated verse that opens Tractate Avot of the Babylonian Talmud, better known as Pirkei Avot ‏(Ethics of the Fathers‏), the chain of the Torah’s intergenerational transmission is described: “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, who transmitted it to the Elders, who then conveyed it to the Prophets, who passed it on to the members of Knesset Hagedolah [the Great Assembly, the body of spiritual leaders in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E.]. Anyone who wants to understand the nature of the Torah that Moses received at Sinai must seek it in the words of the members of the Great Assembly, who received it via a stable chain of transmitters as a closed, organized body of knowledge. After the above introduction, the members’ words are cited: “They said three things: ‘Be moderate when sitting in judgment, produce many students, and create buffers for the Torah [i.e., establish additional restrictions to prevent violation of its laws]’” ‏(Pirkei Avot 1:1‏).

In a midrashic commentary on Pirkei Avot, the following commentary appears regarding the first principle uttered by the members of the assembly: “‘Be moderate when sitting in judgment’: A person should not adopt a strict approach when sitting in judgment ... because all those who adopt a strict approach when sitting in judgment ultimately forget the relevant religious law, as was found in the case of Moses, the greatest prophet of all, who adopted a strict approach for a brief moment and thereupon forgot the relevant religious law. Eleazar answered in his stead, as it is written, ‘And Eleazar the priest said [unto the men of war] ...’ He was in effect saying, ‘God gave the commandment to Moses, not to me.’ It therefore stands to reason that, if Moses, the greatest prophet of all, forgot the relevant religious law because he adopted a strict approach for a brief moment, this principle holds true for all people” ‏(“Avot de-Rabbi Natan”; 2nd version, section 1‏).

The example from which the principle “Be moderate when sitting in judgment” is deduced is taken from this week’s Torah portion. In the wake of the damage inflicted by the Midianites, particularly the young Midianite women, upon the Israelites as portrayed in previous portions, God commands Moses, “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites; afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people” ‏(Numbers 31:2‏). This is the last commandment God issues to Moses before his death.

The Israelites go off to battle, wreaking vengeance on the Midianites, killing many and bringing back much loot. Moses is extremely unhappy with the way they comport themselves: “And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who came from the service of the war” ‏(Num. 31:14‏). Furious, he orders the officers to kill all the Midianite women ‏(that is, all Midianite females who had reached sexual maturity and already had had sexual relations with males‏), and also to purify themselves, their surviving prisoners of war ‏(all the Midianite females who were not sexually mature‏) and all the loot they plundered, by means of mei hatat ‏(water containing the ash of the Red Heifer that was used to purify individuals who had become ritually unclean‏).

After Moses finishes his instructions, the Torah states: “And Eleazar the priest said unto the men of war that went to the battle: ‘This is the statute of the law which the Lord hath commanded Moses’” ‏(Num. 31:21‏). Eleazar, Moses’ nephew, continues where his uncle left off, explaining to the Israelites how exactly they should purify the plunder. According to Eleazar, mei hatat is not sufficient, despite what Moses commanded them; some of the items must also be subjected to fire before they can be brought into the Israelite camp.

Why does Moses issue incomplete directives and why does his nephew pick up on instructing the Israelites in his stead? Moses’ anger, argues the midrash in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, causes him to forget momentarily the relevant religious law. Hence, Eleazar must take the floor and continue where Moses left off. This midrash illustrates the principle “Be moderate when sitting in judgment,” validating it with a biblical source.

The first Mishnah in Pirkei Avot opens with the chain of the Torah’s transmission, according to which the Torah taught by members of Knesset Hagedolah is the very same Torah that Moses received at Sinai. However, the first principle presented in the name of the members of the Great Assembly, our sages learn from Moses − specifically, from his mistaken action: Because he adopts a strict approach, he forgets the relevant religious law. Thus, our sages teach, persons who sit in judgment must not follow Moses’ example in this particular case and must instead be moderate, adopting a lenient approach.

The other two principles presented in this first Mishnah in the name of the Great Assembly do not represent a direct connection with Moses. The members teach the principle that one should produce many students, unlike Moses, who produced only one: Joshua. The third principle for establishing “buffers” for the Torah − that is, the instruction to establish additional restrictions to prevent any violation of its laws − is an addition to the Torah that Moses received at Sinai, not an integral part of it.

The dialectic between the transmission of an organized body of knowledge and its renewal is also reflected in the overall composition of Pirkei Avot, which opens with a declaration concerning transmission of the Torah as an organized, orderly body of knowledge from one generation to the next. The text that follows in Pirkei Avot is built on maxims uttered by various scholars, which are presented more or less in chronological order, with the focus on the unique statement made by each of them.

While, on the one hand, the reader is presented with a splendid panorama of the intergenerational chain reflecting how the Torah is conveyed − on the other, Pirkei Avot cites unique, singular aphorisms enunciated by various scholars over the generations. Does Pirkei Avot’s structure reflect the ethos of a uniform, stable body of knowledge transmitted to succeeding generations from Sinai, or the ethos of an individualistic philosophy that renews itself from one generation to the next on the lips of those to whom it is transmitted?

According to “Avot de-Rabbi Natan,” moderation among the judges enables the Torah to be conveyed, without any instances of its laws being forgotten momentarily, as an orderly body of knowledge from one generation to the next. On the other hand, anger − an individual human, emotional outburst − becomes a barrier between the source of the tradition and the succeeding generation. The moment Moses adopts a strict approach, he cannot remember the religious law that God himself conveyed to him beforehand. The “space” of strictness is where tradition is forgotten, but it is also where the new, self-renewing Torah of the members of the Great Assembly is created. Moses’ strictness leads to the creation of the principle, “Be moderate when sitting in judgment,” which reflects not the Torah that was given to Moses at Sinai but rather the obstruction of the intergenerational chain of the Torah’s transmission.

Says Eleazar, in effect, “God gave the commandment to Moses, not to me.” With these words, the priest attributes the Torah he utters to the Torah that Moses transmitted and forgot. With these words, Eleazar also defines his own position in the chain of transmission as that of someone who passes on tradition and, although he was not commanded directly by God, presents principles in the name of those who first uttered them. Whereas Eleazar continues from the point where Moses stopped talking, the members of the Great Assembly begin from the point where Moses becomes silent.