Rashi in Parshas Devarim (1:17) writes that because Moshe said to Bnei Yisrael that any problem too difficult for the judges that he appointed “tikrivun eilei u’shemativ,” should be brought to him and he will hear what Hashem has to say, he therefore was forced to acknowledge that he did not in fact know what the din was when the Bnos Tzelafchad came to him and it was through them that this parsha was revealed.
Sefas Emes asks: how could it be that Moshe Rabeinu, the biggest anav who ever lived, was guilty of outright boasting?
Even before we get to that question, we should first maybe ask whether “tikrivun eilei u’shemativ” is a boast at all. Moshe is not saying that he would know the answer – he is saying that he will listen, and Hashem will give answers. For this Moshe is punished?
In order to understand what Rashi is telling us, we need to take a broader look at what is going on in these parshiyos. The Netziv in his introduction to Sefer Bamidbar asks why it is that Chazal and the Geonim call this book Sefer Pekudim, the Book of Numbers ("counts" would probably be a better translation). Of all the episodes that occur in the sefer, why do Chazal focus on the count that opens the sefer and the count in our parsha, Pinchas, as capturing its essence?
The Netziv answers that these two counts are emblematic of the dramatic shift that occurred between the first and the 40th year in the midbar. On the surface, we are dealing with two identical events – two tallies of Bnei Yisrael. Yet, there are marked differences between the two. To take one example, in the first count the Menashe-Ephraim-Binyamin group was led by Ephraim. In the second count, Menasheh is counted first. Netziv explains that during the first year in the desert, Bnei Yisrael’s needs were tended to miraculously by G-d. Therefore, Ephraim, the son of Yosef who devoted himself exclusively to Torah, is given primacy. In year 40, at the threshold to entering Eretz Yisrael, Hashem was weaning Bnei Yisrael off of miracles and teaching them to fend for themselves. (Netziv develops this theme in his discussion of Mei Meriva and many other episodes in the latter half of the sefer.) Their needs would have to be realized through their own work and efforts. Menasheh, the practical son who helped Yosef manage affairs of state, was now primary.
Sefas Emes similarly draws a distinction between the early travels in the desert, where Bnei Yisrael were led by Hashem's instructions as dictated to Moshe, is’arusa d’l’eila, and the final year, when things began to change. It was not Hashem dictating anymore -- people began to express their own thoughts and ideas of what should be done and how. Or, perhaps to put it better, Hashem allowed and encouraged people to express their own thoughts and ideas as way to achieve spiritual fulfillment -- isar’usa d’l’tatta. We see example after example of this: in next week’s parsha we will have the story of the tribes of Reuvain and Gad asking for land in Eiver haYarden. They were not content with being told where to settle and having a portion assigned to them by lottery – they wanted to determine their own fate. We will have the members of Menasheh causing new rules of who can marry whom be created based on their complaint that their tribe could potentially lose land if Bnos Tzelafchad marry into a different tribe. “Tzeror is haMidyanim v’hikisem osam” – it is not enough in year 40 to go to war for the sake of fulfilling G-d’s command, but war is now predicated on first feeling animosity for the enemy, on feeling that it’s *your* fight. The punishment of Zimri and Kuzbi is not dictated by Beis Din, but rather occurs because Pinchas could not restrain himself, kana’im pogim bo. His zealousness drove the outcome; there was no formal psak din from a court. Last but not least, we have the Bnos Tzelafchad, who, through their argument that they deserve nachalah, causes a new parsha to be revealed.
Sefas Emes explains that this is what Rashi is teaching us. Moshe was like a robot which cannot deviate from Hashem’s command. The Meshech Chochma in his intoduction to Shmos goes so far as to say he even lost bechirah. The Netziv sees Moshe’s leadership period as a constant experience l’ma’alah min ha’teva, i.e. events were controlled by Hashem’s direct intervention. “Tikrivun eilei u’shemativ” is not a boast, but rather simply a statement of fact. While human intellect of beis din hits a brick wall and fail to come to a solution, Moshe can go l’ma’alah min ha’brick wall and hear Hashem’s answer directly.
But therein lies the rub. When the hanhaga of Bnei Yisrael switched from the domain of l’ma’alah min ha’teva to the domain of teva, from the domain of crises solved by Hashem’s intervention to crises being solved by man’s intervention, from the domain of answers being dictated by G-d to the domain of people being forced to grapple with issues and come up with the own solutions, that switch meant a move away from the domain of Moshe’s leadership to new leadership and new direction. Moshe not having an answer for the Bnos Tzelafchad is not a punishment for saying “tikrivun eilei u’shemativ,” but is simply a consequence. Precisely because Moshe was so close to Hashem and could utter those words with complete sincerity and humility meant he could not address the messy, unclear world of those who are not so close and must struggle to work things out themselves.