“Joshua, the Worthy Successor”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, G-d informs Moses that he will soon die because he and Aaron rebelled against G-d’s word at Mei Mereeva in Kadesh, by striking the rock instead of speaking to it.

Until this point, Moses had hoped that G-d would rescind the decree against him and that he would be allowed to enter the land of Israel together with the people of Israel. Now that he was certain that G-d would not forgive him, Moses was concerned about the future leadership of Israel. His fervent hope was that his sons would succeed him. However, they were not worthy of leadership. Another possibility was that his great-nephew, Pinchas the son of Elazar, would assume the mantle of leadership for Israel, but his zealousness rendered him inappropriate. The final option was that Moses’ closest disciple, Joshua the son of Nun, would be designated the leader.

Moses appeals to G-d saying (Numbers 27:16): “Yif’kohd Hashem, Eh’lo’kay ha’roo’choht l’chol basar, eesh ahl ha’ay’dah,” May the L-rd, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly. May this man go out before the people and come in before them, take them out and bring them in, so that the assembly of G-d be not like sheep that have no shepherd.

G-d then tells Moses (Numbers 27:18): “Kahch l’chah et Yehoshua bin Nun, eesh ah’sher roo’ach bo, v’sah’mach’tah et yad’chah ah’lahv,” take to yourself Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, and lay your hand upon him. Stand him before Elazar the priest and before the entire assembly, and designate him before their eyes. G-d then instructs Moses to place a portion of his “hohd“–-his majesty, upon Joshua so that the entire assembly of the Children of Israel will pay heed to Joshua. Moses then lays his hands upon Joshua and formally designates Joshua as his successor.

Who was Joshua, and why did he merit to succeed the great Moses as the leader of Israel?

An entire book of the Bible, the Book of Joshua, is devoted to the life of Joshua. In several ways, Joshua is similar to most of the other ancient Israelite “Judges,” such as Deborah and Samson:

1. Joshua does not inherit leadership from his father, nor does he leave it to his children. He is chosen to be a leader by the Al-mighty Himself. Like other judges, Joshua operates with the spirit of G-d and with the help of G-d directly and openly.
2. Joshua does not establish a permanent system of government or a monarchy, and after his death the people are left leaderless, pleading with the Al-mighty to have compassion on them until a new leader arises.
3. In addition to being the spiritual leader of his generation, Joshua is also the military leader.

Joshua, however, is in certain respects in a class by himself, quite different from the other judges in the following ways:

1. Joshua was a leader of all Israel, whereas the other judges were leaders of a limited number of tribes and not of a united people.
2. Joshua does not battle against invaders and enemies. His entire focus is on conquering the land.
3. Joshua was the only person to merit to serve as an aide to the great Moses. He receives his training and education from the master prophet himself. It is the spirit of Moses that guides him. However, the majority of the time, Joshua functions as a military leader, rendering Joshua more like a judge than the prophets who came after him.

It is in the role of a military leader that we first encounter Joshua in the Bible (Exodus 17:8-13). We learn that Moses has chosen Joshua to lead the battle against the fierce Amalekite enemy who attacked the recently freed slaves, harassing the women, children and the elderly. Apparently, Moses chose Joshua purely on the basis of talent and not because he was a relative or from an influential family or a member of his tribe. Joshua’s critical victory over Amalek very much determines the future fate and destiny of the Jewish people.

Joshua soon became the permanent aide of Moses, his right-hand person. When Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, Joshua accompanies him up the mountain along with Aaron, Hur and the seventy elders (Exodus 24:12-14). However, Joshua ascends higher than all the other leaders and waited for Moses to return. When Moses descends with the two tablets in his hand, he encounters Joshua, who informs Moses that there are loud noises emanating from the camp of Israel. Joshua’s inexperience leads him to conclude that there was a war in the camp (Exodus 32:17). Moses, however, who knew the people more intimately, realized that it was the sounds of wantonness. Indeed, they were soon to discover that the sounds were the cries of the sinful people of Israel wildly celebrating before the Golden Calf.

As one of the twelve scouts who was sent to explore the land of Canaan, Joshua learns how to stand up to his wayward co-religionists. Despite the fact that ten of the scouts come back with evil reports, Caleb and Joshua respond firmly to the rebellious scouts and the people. Of all the men of that generation, only Joshua and Caleb merited to enter the land of Israel.

For 40 years Joshua serves as the faithful assistant to Moses, accompanying the great leader wherever he went, and learning Torah directly from his mentor’s mouth. Scripture describes Joshua’s extreme devotion to his master by stating (Exodus 33:11) that Moses’ servant, the young Joshua the son of Nun, never left his master’s tent.

When the people clamored for meat and the quail arrived (Numbers 11:23-29), a report reaches Joshua that two elders (Eldad and Madad) were prophesying in the camp. Joshua immediately advises Moses to arrest them. Despite his close relationship to Moses, the young Joshua fails to fully appreciate the greatness of his mentor, the meekest person on the face of the earth. Moses, on the other hand, concludes that the two men were worthy prophets and deserving of no punishment.

The transfer of power from Moses to Joshua is recorded in the closing chapters of Deuteronomy. Moses calls Joshua and says to him in front of all the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:23), “Chazak va’ematz, kee ah’tah tah’vee et ha’ahm ha’zeh el ha’aretz ah’sher nish’bah Hashem la’ah’vo’tahm la’tayt la’hem,” be strong and courageous, for you will bring this people into the land that G-d promised their fathers to give to them.

In Deuteronomy 34:9, as Moses’ life is about to end, the Torah records that Joshua was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had placed his hand on him. Although Joshua had now succeeded the greatest leader in all of human history, we are told that the people of Israel listened to him and did as G-d had commanded Moses.

The great Moses had found a worthy successor.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shiva Assar B’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Thursday July 9, 2009, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tish’ah Ba’Av. Have a meaningful fast.