In this week’s Parsha, the Jewish people are introduced to their new leader: Joshua. Like a child sitting at your desk on the first day of school, introduced to your new teacher, the Jewish people wonder, is this a leader we will like? Can we trust this leader? Why this one and not someone else? Which leads to the real question: Why Joshua? There was no shortage of other good options. How did we get here?
In the late part of Parashat Pinchas we are told (Bamidbar 27:12):
“The Lord said to Moses, “Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother was gathered. Because you disobeyed My command in the desert of Zin when the congregation quarreled, [when you were] to sanctify Me through the water before their eyes; these were the waters of dispute at Kadesh, in the desert of Zin.”
Considering what we are taught about the love Moses had for the land of Israel, one would think this is the time for him to ask—to beg—to be allowed into the land of Israel. The more than 500 prayers Moses prays would fit right here, yet suddenly Moses steers the conversation in an entirely different direction.
“Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: “Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
Fascinating. Moses’s first concern upon hearing of his death is the appointment of a new leader for the Jewish people. He does not want to engage in personal business. It’s all about the people.
Rashi cites the Sifrei pointing this out.
“This [verse comes] to let us know the virtues of the righteous, for when they are about to depart from the world, they disregard their own needs and occupy themselves with the needs of the community. — [Sifrei Pinchas 23]”
So who will this leader be? Who are the candidates? Rashi continues:
“When Moses heard that the Omnipresent told him to give Zelophehad’s inheritance to his daughters, he said, “It is time to ask for my own needs-that my son should inherit my high position.” The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, That is not My intention, for Joshua deserves to be rewarded for his service, for he “would not depart from the tent” (Exod. 33:11). This is what Solomon meant when he said, “He who guards the fig tree eats its fruit” (Prov. 27:18). “
Joshua’s diligence and consistency earned him the title of the next leader of the Jewish people.
This seems very strange. After all, the name of the Parasha is Pinchas. Pinchas shows extraordinary leadership so much so that God goes out of his way to commend that leadership. Another good candidate? Caleb? In Parashat Beshalach, in the story of the spies, Caleb is the one who speaks up, despite the fact that Joshua is standing right next to him:” Caleb silenced the people to [hear about] Moses, and he said, “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it.”(Bamidbar 13:30) Caleb is ever counted in the list of 12 leaders before Joshua, even whilst Rashi tells us this counting lists the 12 leaders based on their greatness.
It is clear why God didn’t choose one of Moses’s children. Scholarship and Torah leadership is a meritocracy which must be protected from nepotism. However, there were other great candidates. Both Pinchas and Caleb seem like great candidates. Why did God choose Joshua, someone who had no record of public service?
We live in an age of conviction. We are all very informed and have endless evidence to support our beliefs. If you don’t agree with me, just ask any of the countless people in my echo chamber. We are all so sure of what we believe in, there is not much of a chance to change what we think. In fact, in a 2017 study, political scientists and sociologists asked social media users to follow people with opposite opinions than their own. The results? They became even more deeply entrenched in their own opinions. We love the way we think, we are right and others are wrong.
This attitude does have its virtues, but it is not great for leadership.
“a man of spirit: As you requested; someone able to deal with the character of each one. — [Sifrei Pinchas 23]”
A true leader is someone who is able to deal with the various characteristics of different people. To know that different people need to be in addressed in different ways. Sure, Pinchas and Caleb were huge heroes. Sometimes reality demands leaders who stand up and do not flinch from the standard they believe need to be implemented.
Winston Churchill said:” “Perhaps it is better to be irresponsible and right than to be responsible and wrong.” That is why he made an amazing wartime hero. God did not want this for the Jews’ day to day operations.
The Sifrei states:” And you shall command him[Joshua]: Concerning Israel; be aware that they are troublesome and obstinate. [You accept office] on condition that you take upon yourself [all this]. “
Leading the Jewish people would not be easy, but you need to take into account how the job is going to be on a day to day basis.
The Talmud teaches: “Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Ḥanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said: “And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children” (Isaiah 54:13). (Brachot 64a) Torah scholars must strive for peace, but also be able to address various difficult situations.
In today’s world in which we are so certain of our own truths, a world where we know those who hold our opinions are good, and those who disagree with us are bad. Those who share our convictions are to be friended, and those who share the opposite are to be distanced, it is essential—especially for Jews—to be able to “people of spirit”. People can embody the quality of “someone able to deal with the character of each one”.
We are all great at being Pinchases, and Calebs. We are all amazing at arguing our points, isolating those who disagree with us and being fierce about what we believe in.
Let us all take some time to try and be Joshuas. The world won’t come to an end if we befriend someone we disagree with. We can take the same path Joshua took to achieve this. Sit and learn something together, study Torah, gather in the house of study, find something we do agree on. When we have more and more leaders—and community members—that are Joshuas, we can be blessed with the words of Rabbi Chanina: “Torah scholars increase peace in the world” (Brachot 64a). Shabbat Shalom!