Isaac Landes

Bibi and the Sin of Joshua

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to speak in grand historical terms. In the same breath he will talk of Joshua’s conquest of the Land, the Maccabees, the Bar Kokhba revolt, and the War of Independence. There is no denying his ability as an orator, and I confess that often I am uplifted by how he weaves the current war into the ancient struggles of our people. Of course, the implication is that as a leader he is on par with Joshua, Judah the Maccabee, Bar Kokhba and Ben Gurion. He has always had a healthy sense of self.

Unfortunately, if Netanyahu shares anything with Joshua it is his sin, not his sanctity. Here are Joshua’s shortcomings described by the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabba.

“Our masters said “It is written about Joshua (in Josh. 1:5), ‘as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.’ So Joshua should have lived a hundred and twenty years like Moshe our teacher. And why were they shortened by ten years? ( Joshushua lived to 110 I.L.) Because at the time that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses (in Numb. 31:2), ‘Exact vengeance for the Children of Israel and afterwards you will die,’ even though Moses death was also announced Moses did not delay the thing. Rather, he showed alacrity, as stated (in Numb. 31:6), ‘And Moses sent them to do war on Midyan.’But Joshua did not do like this. When he came to war against thirty-one kings, he said, ‘If I kill them, I will die immediately, as happened to Moshe our teacher.’ What did Joshua do? He began to stall in the war with them, as stated (in Josh. 11:18), ‘Joshua waged war with all those kings over a long period.’ So the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘This is what you did? See that I will shorten your years by ten years.’ ( translated by S. Buber. Adapted by I.L.)

Moses did not hesitate to wage war against the Midyanites, knowing full well that it would only hasten his death. Joshua, dreading an early death, allowed fear to burrow into his heart and delayed victory for many long years. As Joshua delayed the people of Israel waited. They waited for their land to be allotted. They waited to build their homes, sow their fields, plant their vineyards, and see their loved ones. They waited for a life of peace. Did Joshua see them waiting? How could he not? But despite the needs of his people, he stalled and the war ground on and on.

The heads of the IDF warned us from the outset that the defeat of Hamas will take time. I believe them. Perhaps it is our lot to fight a long and treacherous war. But every person in this country right, left, and center knows that an extended war serves Netanyahu’s personal interests. When the war ends, and the soldiers return home, the public’s righteous anger over the failures of October 7th will be unleashed on the political system. The coalition will fall apart, and new elections will be called. Netanyahu will certainly be voted out of office. As long as the war rages, Netanyahu can live to fight another day. Could the war be shortened, and victory still be achieved? I don’t know. What I do know is that Netanyahu isn’t trying. He isn’t using his prodigious talents to bring this war to an unexpected and victorious close. The ingenuity with which he has dominated the Israeli political system for two decades is not being utilized to end this war in a stunningly swift victory. To do so would be good for the people but hasten the end of his political career.

Joshua was entrusted with bringing to fruition the promises made centuries earlier to Abraham. He was entrusted and he faltered. Joshua, whose face was as radiant as the moon and who never left the tent of meeting. Joshua, who sat atop Mount Sinai before the giving of the Torah and gazed at the splendor of the Lord beneath a sapphire firmament. Joshua, the bane of the Amalekites, and who stood firm with Calev against the entire community of Israel. If that Joshua could ultimately allow the fear of death to subvert his judgment and delay the victory of Israel how much more so should we fear that Bibi will prove no greater.

Perhaps we can only take solace in the final words of the Midrash:

“Solomon said about this in Proverbs 19:21, ‘Many thoughts are in the heart of a man, but it is the counsel of the Lord that will stand.’”

About the Author
Rabbi Isaac Landes is the director of the Classic Talmud Program at Yashrut. He is also working on a doctorate in history at Hebrew University on birth control, abortion and infanticide in nineteenth century England.
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