Our father died in the desert. He was not part of the group that rebelled against God [nor was he] in Korach's assembly, but rather, he died due to his own sin.

Classic Questions

Why did Tzelafchad's daughters stress that their father "was not part of Korach's assembly"? (v. 3)

Rashi: Since they were coming to say that "he died due to his own sin" (v. 3), they had to state that it was not the sin of the complainers, nor was he in Korach's assembly who incited [the people] against God (16:1ff.). Rather, he died only because of his own sin, and he did not cause others to sin along with him. R' Akiva says: "He was the wood-gatherer" (15:32-36). R' Shimon says: "He was among those who were defiant [attempting to enter the Land, after the sin of the spies] (14:40-45).

The Rebbe's Teachings

Tzelafchad's Sin (Rashi to v. 3)

In the current passage (27:1-7), we read the story of how Tzelafchad's daughters were granted a portion of the Land in response to their plea to Moshe: "Why should our father's name be missed out from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father's brothers!" (v. 4). Before launching into their plea, Tzelafchad's daughters said the following words of introduction: "Our father died in the desert. He was not part of the group that rebelled against God in Korach's assembly, but rather, he died due to his own sin" (v. 3).

Rashi clarifies that this introduction contains four succinct points:

  1. That Tzelafchad was not one of "the complainers." Presumably, this refers to those who "complained against Moshe and Aharon," after Korach met his end, saying, "You have killed God's people!" (17:6).
  2. Tzelafchad was not party to Korach's rebellion.
  3. He died as a result of a private sin.
  4. Thus, he was not responsible for corrupting anybody else.

However, why is any of this relevant at the literal level? Where do we find in scripture, or in Rashi's commentary, that the members of Korach's rebellion or the subsequent "complainers" forfeited their rights to the Land, or that such a penalty was administered to individuals that caused others to sin? Likewise, the private nature of the sin which led to Tzelafchad's death does not appear to have any relevance here. So how did this introduction of Tzelafchad's daughters support their claim that they should be given their father's portion of the Land?

Rashi then proceeds to cite a difference of opinion as to what Tzelafchad's sin was: "R' Akiva says: 'He was the wood-gatherer.' R' Shimon says: 'He was among those who were defiant [attempting to enter the Land, after the sin of the spies].'"

Being that Rashi's self-declared intention is to explain "only the literal meaning of scripture" (Rashi to Bereishis 3:8), his comments here demand some justification. A literal interpretation must be indicated by the text of scripture itself (in contrast to a Midrashic interpretation which may have only a loose connection with the text). So why does the text of scripture force us to conclude that Tzelafchad was either the "wood-gatherer" or one of the "defiant ones"? There appears to be no direct reference to these associations in the verse at all.

And why does Rashi cite two opinions of Tzelafchad's sin? We need to identify the advantage of each opinion, at the literal level.

Another facet of a literal study is that the original source of an idea is irrelevant, since simplicity and contextual consistency alone validate a literal interpretation. Thus, when Rashi does cite the source or author of a given interpretation (which is the exception rather than the rule), it is an indication to the reader that, on this occasion, the source or author is relevant at the literal level, i.e., the interpretation needs to be perceived in light of the character and thought-system of the one who authored it.

So we need to explain: Why did R' Akiva understand that Tzelafchad was the wood-gatherer, and R' Shimon perceive him to be one of the "defiant ones"?

What was the Complaint of Tzelafchad's Daughters?

In order to answer the above questions, we first need to address a fundamental problem concerning the plea of Tzelafchad's daughters, at the literal level. At the time when the current narrative occurred, some forty years after the Exodus, the entire generation that had left Egypt had already passed away (see 26:64 above). And yet, it is only here in our parsha that the Land of Israel was actually allotted to the Jewish people for the first time, "You should apportion the Land as an inheritance [only] among these names [who were included] in the [above] census" (ibid. v. 53. See Rashi ibid.).1 Thus it follows that, until this point, nobody had been granted any rights to the Land. So how could Tzelafchad's daughters have argued that they wished to inherit their father's allotment of land when he never had the rights to any land, since he was not alive when land was allotted for the first time in our parsha?

The Explanation

While they were still in Egypt, God told the Jewish people, "I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt... I will bring you to the Land... and I will give it to you as a heritage'" (Shemos 6:6-8), i.e., God promised to give the Land to the generation that left Egypt ("to you"). However, when they later complained after the report of the spies and said, "If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this desert!" (Bamidbar 14:2), God responded, "I will do to you none other than what you said to My ears... You will not come to the Land" (ibid. 28-30).

Nevertheless, God did not revoke His promise completely, but rather, passed the merit of entering the Land to their children, "As for your children... I will bring them [there]" (ibid. v. 31).

From this it follows that when we read, in our parsha, how the Land was allotted to this second generation (the children of those who left Egypt), they actually received their portion due to the connection with their parents (which is why the allotment of Land was partially readjusted in light of the census of their parents' generation—See Rashi to 26:55. I.e., even according to Rashi's stance, at the literal level, that the Land was apportioned to the second generation [see note2], it was nevertheless a merit which they were granted on behalf of their parents, and thus their parents' rights to the Land were reflected in the apportionment.)

The daughters of Tzelafchad argued that, on this basis, they had a right to land too, since both their father and grandfather were among those that left Egypt. If Tzelafchad would have had a son, his rights to a portion of land (as well as his father's right) would have been passed to his son, who would now have been awarded this land after the census. So, being that there was no son, the daughters argued, "Why should our father's name be missed out from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father's brothers!" (v. 4).

The Daughters' Introduction

With the above in mind, we can now explain the daughters' introductory words, in verse 3.

Before they could argue that their father's merits to the Land should pass to them, the daughters had to first establish that their father had indeed been one of those who had left Egypt. So they began by stressing, "Our father died in the desert."

However, the fact that Tzelafchad died in the desert presented the possibility that his death was due to a sin associated with the Land, through which he forfeited his rights to possess any land. Therefore, his daughters wanted to make clear precisely what sin had caused his death, so that Moshe would know that Tzelafchad had not forfeited his rights to land.

But the daughters were faced with a problem: To disclose their fathers' sin "before Moshe, Elazar the priest, the (tribal) leaders and the entire congregation" (v. 2) would be disrespectful to their father. On the other hand, if they did not make known the cause of their father's death, their claim to land could not be substantiated.

So the daughters decided that the only way to preserve their father's honor, while at the same time making known the sin for which he died, was by a process of elimination: They would say which sins he was not party to, thus leading Moshe to the correct conclusion.

This is the meaning of Rashi's words, "They were coming to say that 'he died due to his own sin,'" i.e., to prove that the sin had not affected his connection with the Land. But they could not say which sin it was out of respect, so "they had to state that it was not the sin of the complainers, nor was he in Korach's assembly who incited [the people] against God," thus ruling out sins that were connected with the Land by a process of elimination.3

"Rather," concluded the daughters, "he died only because of his own sin," which was nothing to do with the Land—but they could not openly state what that sin was, out of honor for their father.

R' Akiva and R' Shimon

The reader will thus be left with the question: Which sin were the daughters referring to? This is not a matter of plain curiosity for the reader, but rather, a fact that needs to be understood to fully appreciate why this sin had no connection with the Land.

Therefore, Rashi continues, "R' Akiva says: 'He was the wood-gatherer,'" for this explains how Tzelafchad's sin was a purely personal matter which was in no way expressive of a dislike for the Land; and it meant that Tzelafchad would have passed away before the sin of the spies and would thus not have been party to any public complaints about the Land. It also occurred before the giving of the Torah (see Rashi to 15:32), when a transgression was less grave in nature.

R' Shimon, however, argued that he was among those who were defiant, attempting to enter the Land after the sin of the spies, as this would have strengthened the daughters' claim to a greater extent. For it showed how their father had repented for the sin of not wanting to enter the Land and had expressed a strong desire to enter, ultimately sacrificing his very life for this goal (14:45).

R' Shimon preferred this interpretation, for he placed great importance on the rationale of scripture, to the extent that he maintained that (in certain cases) new laws can be extrapolated from a scriptural precept through extending its rationale to different scenarios (see Gitin 49b). Thus, in our case, R' Shimon favored the interpretation that supported the daughters' argument for a portion in the Land with the strongest rationale, namely, that their father had been one of the "defiant ones" who lost his life out of love for the Land. R' Akiva, on the other hand, was famous for championing the inherent, virtuous nature of the Jewish people, so he preferred the interpretation that Tzelafchad was the wood-gatherer, for this minimized the extent of the sin as much as possible, both in terms of its significance and its influence on others.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 8, p. 171ff.)