Our trip to America ended with a BANG! Since our penultimate day in the States was the Fourth of July. It’s also my B’day! Love the fireworks. So, the patriotic outburst is a perfect opportunity to say something about the leaders of the two countries which I love: Pay attention to the Torah reading to be read this Shabbat! Moshe knows it’s time to exit stage right, and talks to God about his replacement. I know Biden, Trump and Bibi aren’t 120, but they’re all beyond normal retirement age in both countries. Time to relax and appreciate the fruits of a rich and productive life, please.
So, let’s take a look at what Moshe says to God before his one-way trek up Mt. Nebo (Hint: it’s not, ‘Please, one more term’): Let the Eternal, Source of the breath (spirit?) of all flesh, appoint someone over the community, who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Eternal’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd (Bamidbar 27:16 & 17). What is Moshe requesting?
Clearly, our saintly shepherd is concerned for the future welfare of the Jewish people, his flock. But Rashi follows the Midrash, and suggests: The time has come that I should ask for something that I want, that my sons should inherit my high position (Tanchuma, Pinchas 11).
So, where did this come from? We haven’t heard about Moshe’s sons in forty years. The logic of the Midrash is based on context. This request from Moshe comes directly after the story of the Daughters of Tzelofchad, who said: Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen! (verse 4).
Moshe is also aware that he would like heirs to follow in his footsteps and keep his name alive. Okay, but we’re all aware that Moshe had no such worry. He remains the great teacher of our nation, and his name lives eternally. However the context of the story, which directly follows the rules of inheritance (verses 8-11), could lead us to the conclusion that Moshe is also concerned about inheritance and heirs.
But we also know that Torah giants are often thought about and remembered in terms of their greatest disciple. We actually see this in the Haftorah for Pinchas (which is rarely read, because it almost always falls out during the Three Weeks): He (Eliyahu) set out from there and came upon Elisha son of Shaphat…Eliyahu came over to him and threw his mantle over him (Melachim I 19:19). We don’t think about the sons of the Ari HaKadosh or the Vilna Gaon; instead, we think immediately of Reb Chaim Vital or Reb Chaim Volozhin.
I would have expected Moshe, as well, to be thinking about his great acolyte, Yehoshua. We have already seen many touching scenes between them. It was Yehoshua who was waiting for Moshe when he descended from Mt. Sinai (Shmot 24:13 & 32:17), he again runs to Moshe with news of people (Eldad and Meidad) prophesying in the camp (Bamidbar 11:28), and Moshe bestows his final and historic name upon him before the incident of the scouts (Ibid. 13:16).
When I look at this story, my question isn’t about Gershom and Eliezer, who have basically disappeared from the narrative, I want to know: Why doesn’t Moshe suggest Yehoshua, his favored (or chosen, Bamidbar 11:28) disciple? He looks like the prime candidate. Why doesn’t Moshe nominate him?
Perhaps, mentors never think their acolytes are ready. But I would suggest that there were two incidents which hint at this reality. Twice Yehoshua reacted to significant events differently than Moshe. The first example is obvious because Moshe expresses his disappointment. Allow me to set the scene. God has taken from Moshe’s prophetic power and allotted it to others. Two of these recipients started reciting prophetic material within the confines of the camp. Yehoshua is mortified: My master, Moshe, stop them! (Hebrew: KILA’EM, perhaps restrain,or destroy, Bamidbar 11:28).
But Moshe is nonplussed: Are you jealous on my behalf? I only wish that all of God’s people had the gift of prophecy! Let God grant His spirit to them all! (verse 29).
The other example is more subtle. After the disastrous reports of the Scouts, the four heroes of the nation, Moshe, Aharon, Calev and Yehoshua react. Moshe and Aharon fall upon their faces; Calev and Yehoshua rent their garments. What’s the difference? Tearing your shirt is mourning; falling on your face is TESHUVA! There’s feeling bad (mourning); there’s also taking responsibility (TESHUVA). I’m sure Moshe noticed Yehoshua’s response and was, again, disappointed.
Yehoshua was great and Moshe, I’m sure, loved him. But I believe that Moshe didin’t nominate him to be the next leader, because he felt Yehoshua didn’t yet respond to crises in the proper manner. But God knew that he was ready. Yshoshua had learned from observing Moshe and would react properly for evermore.
Now, it’s time for us all to learn that leaders, even the greatest, have to know when it’s time to ride off into the sunset, or at least retire to the realm of offering sage advice. Please, please, please may both my beloved homelands accept that reality.