“Transferring Power”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, we learn of the transfer of the leadership of Israel from Moses to Joshua.

In Numbers 27:12, G-d tells Moses to go up to Abarim mountain, so that Moses can see the land that G-d has given to the Children of Israel. G-d tells Moses that, after viewing the land, Moses will die, just as Aaron had died, because both Moses and Aaron had failed to sanctify G-d’s name at May M’reeba, when they hit the rock instead of speaking to it. (Chukat 5765-2005)

Upon hearing that he would not enter the land of Israel, Moses’ first concern was that G-d make certain that an appropriate leader would replace him. Such was the unparalleled selflessness of the great Moses.

Moses beseeches G-d (Numbers 27:16): “Yif’kohd Hashem Eh’lo’hay ha’roo’choht l’chol basar, eesh ahl ha’ay’dah,” You L-rd, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly, who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and shall bring them in; and let the assembly of the L-rd not be like sheep that have no shepherd.

G-d then tells Moses (Numbers 27:18): “Kahch l’chah et Yehoshua bin Nun, eesh ah’sher ruach bo, v’sah’mahch’tah et yad’cha ah’lahv,” Take to yourself Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, and lean your hand upon him [to ordain him as the new leader]. G-d further instructs Moses (Numbers 27:19-21): You shall stand him [Joshua] before Elazar, the Priest, and before the entire assembly, and command him before their eyes. You shall place some of your splendor upon him, so that the entire assembly of the Children of Israel will pay heed…By his [Joshua’s] word, shall they go out, and by his word shall they come in, he and all the Children of Israel with him, and the entire assembly.

Moses takes Joshua, stands him before Elazar the Priest and the entire assembly, lays his hands upon him, commanding Joshua, as G-d had instructed.

Although, in retrospect, it seems perfectly natural that Joshua would assume the mantle of leadership from Moses, the commentators suggest that there were other deserving candidates for the leadership position.

Interestingly, Rashi suggests that Joshua was, in fact, not the first choice of Moses. Rashi implies that when Moses pleaded with G-d to appoint a new leader over the people of Israel who shall go out before them and come in before them (Numbers 27:16-17), Moses was actually concerned about what would happen to his own children. After seeing that the daughters of Zelafchad had inherited their father’s land, Moses concluded that the time had come for him to attend to his own needs, to think of his own family, and that his sons should inherit his high position.

The Talmud (Jerusalem, Taanit 4:5) and the Midrash (Kohelleth Rabba 9:1[11]) even suggest that Moses considered Joshua to be too naive to serve as leader, having twice failed to properly identify the true intentions of people’s “voices.” Joshua wrongly presumed that the voices of people dancing around the Golden Calf were those of revelers, rather than idolaters, and improperly concluded that the prophecies of Eldad and Medad were a threat to Moses.

In addition to the sons of Moses, there were other candidates. In fact, both Pinchas and Elazar were regarded by the Sages (Bamidbar Rabba 21:14) to be more logical choices due to their superior intellect.

G-d, however, informs Moses that Joshua is the only one who is worthy. After all, it was Joshua who served Moses selflessly, who (Exodus 33:11) “would not depart from within the tent.” In support of the choice of Joshua, Rashi cites a verse ascribed to King Solomon from Proverbs 27:18, who said, “Notzer teh’ay’nah yo’chahl pir’yah,” He who guards the fig tree, shall eat its fruit.

The rabbis in Bamidbar Rabba 21:14 suggest that the choice of Joshua as Moses’ successor over Pinchas and Elazar reflected an appreciation of Joshua’s loyal service to Moses; Joshua had faithfully ministered to Moses by arranging the chairs and spreading the mats in preparation for Moses’ classes. According to this interpretation, only he who keeps watch over his master [“the fig tree”] shall be honored [“to eat its fruits”].

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik , as cited in Darosh Darash Yosef, by Rabbi Avishai David, expands on this concept suggesting that it is not unusual in Jewish history for a leader’s successor to be chosen on the basis of loyal service, in addition to the successor’s intellectual prowess.

Rabbi Soloveitchik cites two examples:  When the Baal Shem Tov passed away, the logical choice to succeed him would have been Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, the Torah giant and author of the Toldot. Instead, the Maggid of Mezeritch was chosen, in part because he had devotedly served the Baal Shem Tov.

Another example cited by Rabbi Soloveitchik is that of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin who succeeded his teacher, the Vilna Gaon. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin was chosen, in part, due to his trusted role as primary confidante to the Gaon.  It was in this role in which Reb Chaim distinguished himself, because he was a confidante to a greater degree than the Gaon’s other disciples.

The Mishnah in Avot 1:1 notes that Joshua not only became the new leader and de facto king of Israel, but also served as the transmitter of the Oral Torah that Moses had received from Sinai. Even though Elazar and Pinchas had both studied and received the Torah from Moses, it was Joshua, Moses’ primary disciple, who received the Oral Law directly from him, who was selected to transmit it to Israel’s future generations.

Rabbi Soloveitchik draws attention to the Midrash’s deliberate use of the metaphor of the fig tree. Unlike the fruits of the olive or date trees, the fruit of the fig tree takes particularly long to ripen. This lengthened ripening period is likened to a person’s acquisition of Torah, which rather than being learned quickly overnight is absorbed, studied and learned over an extended period of time. Only he who guards the fig tree will merit to eat its fruits–the fruits of Torah and of kingship. This is precisely what happened to Joshua.

As previously noted, the Torah informs us concerning Joshua (Exodus 33:11), “Lo ya’meesh mee’toch ha’ohel,” that Joshua would never leave the tent of Moses. Joshua literally hung on to Moses’ every word. Joshua ate, drank, breathed and slept in order to serve his master, Moses. In this manner, Joshua learned the nuances of grandeur and greatness firsthand from the great Moses. Through his conscientious service, Joshua picked up the “tricks of the trade” that Moses had mastered over the years, on how to deal with a stiff-necked people. Joshua learned when to dig in his heels and be unyielding and when to be flexible and understanding. It is this particular skill that is often referred to in Jewish tradition as the “fifth Shulchan Aruch,” the fifth volume of the four volume “Code of Jewish Law,” reflecting common sense, which, unfortunately, is not very common.

This sixth sense is what separates good leaders from great leaders. It goes far beyond photographic recall and mastery of texts. It is more of an ability to read between the lines, to see shades of gray when others see only black and white and cannot find room for compromise.

At the time of the transfer of leadership, a new age was dawning upon the people of Israel. The people were about to enter the Promised Land, capture it and settle it. The leadership for this “new age” needed to be different from the leadership of Moses.

Joshua spent his whole life preparing for this moment, learning the necessary skills firsthand from his beloved mentor, Moses. Joshua’s later success as the leader of Israel is a testament to how well he had learned the lessons of leadership from the greatest leader of all.

May you be blessed.