Succeeding at Succession: Moshe’s Appointment of Yehoshua

A leader’s greatest challenge is conveying a legacy to future generations. This may involve identifying the next leader or executing a well-thought out transition. Parashat Pinchas teaches some important lessons on how leaders can create effective successors.

It is the 40th year of the sojourn of the nation of Israel in the wilderness. The mood is anticipatory – the people have their future in the Promised Land on their minds.  In this context, G-d raises the issue of Moshe’s own future.  God tells Moshe to ascend Mount Avarim and look at the land from a distance, reminding him that he will never enter the Land because he did not sanctify G-d’s name at the waters of Merivah.

Moshe’s response poignantly expresses his deep concern about choosing a proper successor. “Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; so that the congregation of the LORD be not as sheep which has no shepherd.” (Bemidbar 27:16-17).

Moshe’s precise articulation evokes lessons he has learned in his forty years of service. His emphasis on the need for leadership continuity calls forth the sin of the golden calf, when Moshe’s brief delay on Mount Sinai led to national revelry and idolatry. Moshe’s reference to the “G-d of the spirits of all flesh” reminds us that only G-d, who knows the inner workings of every human mind, can select a proper successor to Moshe. Interestingly, the only other time in the Torah that G-d is called by this title is in the uprising of Korach, when Moshe’s fitness to lead is questioned by the rebels.

Finally, Moshe’s words evince his personal disappointment as the conclusion of his office draws near. He begs G-d to appoint a leader who will take them out and also bring them in, again recalling that he, Moshe, drew Israel out of Egypt but would not have the opportunity to finish the job.

Strikingly, while Moshe expresses concern about the choice of a new leader, G-d’s response emphasizes not the choice of successor but rather the process of succession.  It is essential that Moshe transfer the authority of leadership to Yehoshua in a carefully orchestrated public ceremony.  “And the LORD said to Moshe: Take Yehoshua the son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, and lay your hand upon him; and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And you shall put your honor upon him so that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken…” (Bemidbar 27:18-20).

Though G-d commands a precise process, a careful reading of the text reveals that Moshe modified G-d’s plan in at least two ways.  “And Moshe did as the LORD commanded him; he took Yehoshua, and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all of the congregation. And he laid his hands upon him, and gave him a charge…” (Bemidbar 27:22-23).

First, Moshe changes the order of G-d’s command in the execution. He places Yehoshua before the people before he lays his hands upon him. And second, Moshe places two hands on Yehoshua rather than one. Why so?

Placing Yehoshua before the nation prior to the investiture demonstrates to the people that they are included in the process. Consensual leadership engages a populace even as it clearly lays down guidelines and boundaries.  Placing two hands on Yehoshua, rather than the one that G-d commanded, was a show of Moshe’s generosity of spirit. As the Rabbis comment, Moshe gave much more than was asked of him, rising above personal pain and anguish to address the best interests of the people.

Being a charismatic and effective leader while in office is laudable but creating a harmonious transition to the next leader is the mark of a visionary. Human psychology makes it difficult for us to separate from things we are close to and especially things we have a part in creating – whether it is our children, our vocations, or in Moshe’s case, the nation of Israel. We are challenged to recognize that although our physical beings are mortal, our aspirations and ideals can live on if we convey them with grace and clarity to future generations.

I suggest that Moshe’s single greatest accomplishment as a leader was in his partnering with G-d and the nation of Israel to transfer his authority to Yehoshua. To succeed as a leader while in service is meritorious; to hand over the reins to a successor with charity and realism is heroic.

Shabbat shalom.

Dean Rachel Friedman is the founder of Lamdeinu, a center for adult Torah study in Teaneck, NJ. Explore our excellent summer program at lamdeinu.org.

About the Author
Rachel Friedman is the dean and founder of Lamdeinu, a center for high-level, accessible and inspiring Torah learning for adults in Teaneck, New Jersey. She was previously the associate dean and chair of Tanakh at Drisha Institute in New York City. Dean Friedman is a noted author and lecturer in Bible, liturgy and parshanut. She has served as a scholar-in-residence at synagogues, schools and other venues throughout North America and beyond. She holds an MA in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School at Yeshiva University and a JD from Columbia University School of Law.
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