In this week’s parshah the daughters of Tzelafchad requested from Moshe an inheritance in Eretz Yisrael, since their father had died and did not leave any sons. Their request was granted and a new halacha was introduced. Previously only a son would inherit from his father. The new halacha stated that if one dies and did not have sons but only daughters, the daughters would inherit from him.
The Midrash Tanchuma says that when Moshe saw that the daughters of Tzelafchad were now able to inherit from their father, Moshe asked Hashem if his sons could inherit his leadership. Hashem responded that Yehoshua served him more, honored him more, would arrive early and leave his study late, and arranged the benches and set the tables. Since he served Moshe, he is fit to serve Bnei Yisrael.
(As a side note, the Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim 12) points out that Moshe Rabbeinu would not have asked that his sons inherit his leadership if he felt that they were not worthy of the position. Yet Hashem denied his request. The Chasam Sofer says that we see from this that although all positions of honor are passed down through inheritance, the rabbinate is not.)
We need to understand why Moshe Rabbeinu decided to ask that his sons inherit his position after this new halacha was introduced. After all, the only nuance that was introduced was that in a situation whereby there are no sons, daughters could receive their father’s inheritance. The prior halacha was that sons would inherit from their father. Why then did Moshe now ask for his sons to inherit his position?
Many Acharonim suggest that a son inherits from his father in a different manner than a daughter. They explain that a son takes his father’s place and, as a result, he inherits from him. It is as if the father is still alive when his son inherits from him (see Ba’al Ha’Maor, Baba Basra 108b).
We find an example of this in the scenario in which a non-kohen woman married a kohen who dies. The Gemara in Yevamos 67a says that if she has a son from him, she can continue to eat terumah. The Yam Shel Shlomo (9:1) explains that according to the Rambam (Hilchos Terumos 6:19), this is because while her husband, the kohen, left a son in this world, we consider the father to still be alive. Therefore, the widow can eat terumah because her husband is a kohen – even though, technically speaking, he is dead. As has been explained, when one leaves a son the son is in his father’s place – and we consider the father to be alive.
However, the Gilyonei Hashas and the Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De’ah 312, s’ifim 156 and 170) explain that this only applies to a son, not to a daughter. It is for this reason that the Gemara in Kiddushin 17b says that if one had an eved ivri (a Jewish slave) and the master died the slave would only work for a son of the master and not for the master’s daughter. This applies even if the master only had a daughter who inherited everything else that belonged to him. The only exception to her inheritance would be his Jewish slaves. The Avnei Nezer explains that only a son takes the place of his father; thus a slave can only work for the son of the deceased master.
With this the Avnei Nezer also explains the Gemara in Nazir that says that only a son will shave for his father’s nezirus. A daughter will not.
A son takes his father’s place only regarding a monetary inheritance. Although we may consider the father to still be alive concerning other aspects of his life, such as terumah obligations, it is only involving monetary matters that enables a son to inherit from the father. This would not then entitle a son to inherit his father’s position of honor.
Prior to the parshah of the inheritance of the daughters of Tzelafchad, we did not know that one would inherit his father’s position. This is because inheritance was only transferred because a son would fill his father’s place regarding his monetary holdings. But once the Torah taught that there is another form of inheritance, namely that a relative can inherit from the deceased even though he or she does not fill his position, we now learn that one will inherit a father’s position of honor.
Moshe Rabbeinu saw fit to request that his sons inherit his leadership after the parshah of the inheritance of the daughters of Tzelafchad. This is because we now learned that one can inherit a position of honor.