When the daughters of Zelofchod approached Moshe, they realized that their claim to the land of Israel was vulnerable due to their lack of brothers and they would need to seek clarity over what would happen to the inheritance of a family. Moshe responded that he would seek the answer from God (Bamidbar 27:5).
Rashi ad. loc. offers one suggestion that Moshe was criticized for not knowing how to respond to the daughters of Zelofchad. It was unfair that he kept them waiting for a question that he should have known the answer to. This critique is unusual because it isn’t the first time Moshe sought out God’s recommendation when facing a perplexing question of Jewish law.
Earlier in Bamidbar (9:8), Moshe was approached by a group of men who were ritually impure and were therefore unable to participate in the annual paschal sacrifice which required ritual purity. There, too, Moshe sought the answer from God, but in that case, Moshe was praised for his humility, and seeking this advice. Why the difference?
Rabbi Avraham Rivlin, the spiritual guide (Mashgiach Ruchani) at the famous Yeshiva Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel, suggests that there is a profound difference in the nature of these two questions. In regards to the question about the paschal lamb, Moshe could not have anticipated such a scenario. When someone is ritually impure, they are exempt from performing mitzvot and therefore, the idea of offering a second chance should never have occurred to Moshe.
On the other hand, it is completely feasible that a family should only have daughters, and with inheritance defined in the Torah by sons, Moshe should have anticipated this scenario and been prepared with an answer. The critique of Moshe perhaps is not that he sought out the answer from God, but rather he kept the daughters of Zelofchod waiting.
In the roles we each play in our lives, we are never expected to know how to handle that which is unexpected. But the Torah gives us the tools to consider that which is possible and to be truly present when applying those tools. In an age where we can easily be distracted by phones and news, the critique of Moshe reminds us of the value of being truly present when someone is experiencing doubt and seeking your guidance.
Leadership, whether it be in a role in the community or as a friend or parent, is often about anticipating the possibility, understanding the available options ahead and then offering gentle, thoughtful guidance to those who follow.