According to God’s command to Moses, the allotment of the land of Israel should be assigned according to size. The more populous tribes should be assigned a greater portion and the less populous tribes a lesser portion (Numbers 27:54). This procedure is eminently pragmatic. Yet immediately thereafter, the allotment of land is to be contingent on a lottery (Numbers 27:55-56). Not only does this system contradict the first iteration of the allotment procedure, it allows for the possibility that the less populous tribes may “win” a larger share while the more populous tribes end up with a smaller share.
Troubled by this sequence of verses, the classical commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel, proposes that both procedures apply in the allocation of land in Israel. The lottery would decide which area in Israel would be assigned to each tribe. The lottery system has the added benefit of avoiding friction among the tribes. None could complain about the territory they were assigned if it were a heavenly decision. But after the area was decided, it would be left up to the the leadership to divide up the territory based on demographics. Indeed, that is precisely what seems to be the case in Numbers 33. Verse 54 states that the land shall be inherited by lottery, as does Numbers 34:13. Yet Numbers 34:17 states that the land will be assigned by Elazar, Joshua, and twelve tribal elders.
The grander theme included in this interpretation is that Judaism operates according to two complementary systems. First and foremost, Judaism operates according to divine command. The Torah provides a comprehensive program that requires the commitment of every Jew. Second, within that system is ample leeway for application in accordance with specific needs and circumstances. Just as the leadership of ancient Israel made the final assignments, contemporary rabbis perform a similar function. Both systems are intended to work harmoniously for the ultimate benefit of the Jewish people.
The problem that Judaism faces today is twofold. There are some who refuse to accept the authority of the divine system. And there are those who refuse to employ the human system. In either case, the Jewish people is the loser.