Pinchas: May Our Leaders Learn From Moses!

The transfer of power from Moses to Joshua was a moment of grace and spirit.
What qualified Joshua to take over a position held by Moses, the greatest prophet, teacher and leader in history?

Table for Five: Pinchas

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

The Lord said to Moses, “Take for yourself Joshua the son of Nun, a man of spirit, and you shall lay your hand upon him. And you shall present him before Eleazar the kohen and before the entire congregation, and you shall command him in their presence.”

-Num 27:18-19

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Even Moses realized there comes a time to appoint a replacement for the day he is gone. So how does a congregation choose the ideal candidate to lead them – the question facing every synagogue board when an aged beloved Rabbi recognizes the need to make way for his follower?

Moses was chosen by God. That was easy. And his selection was accompanied by a miracle. God revealed Himself by way of a bush that was burning, yet miraculously was not consumed.

On a simplistic level it was a show of divine power, an act defying the physical laws of nature meant to prove to Moses that it was indeed the Almighty who commanded him to assume the difficult task of leadership. Yet if it was no more than that, surely God could have come up with a more amazing miracle. Why simply a bush impervious to fire?

To my mind, more than demonstrating a miracle, God was sending Moses a message: If you accept the task of leadership of my people, no matter how difficult your mission may be you will never ever, just like the bush, suffer the breakdown of burnout!

And so the Torah, as its first requirement for the appointment of a new leader, tells Moses to take Joshua because he is “a man of spirit.” Spirit is everlasting; spirit is optimistic; spirit is the divine quality that defines a quality of leadership immune to burnout.

Here is the first Torah prescription for a Rabbinic follower of Moses: Someone whose inner fire for divine service will be an eternal light.

Nili Isenberg, Judaics Faculty, Pressman Academy

The issue of leadership is explored in the entertaining Ukrainian comedy “Servant of the People.” The hero, portrayed by Jewish actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy, suddenly becomes president and struggles to combat corruption in his country. In a stunning example of life imitating art, Zelenskyy was actually elected President of Ukraine, and we are all now familiar with his story from the headlines.

Political corruption has always been a concern, as indicated by our own texts. Moses may have been suspected of wanting his own son to succeed him, but the midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar, compiled around the third century) points out that Moses appointed Joshua “with joy, undiluted with regret for his son.” Furthermore, Nachmanides (1194–1270) observes that the appointment was made in public “so that it could not be viewed as a high-handed act by Moses.”

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888) adds that the ceremony in front of the people “means to place him in their service.” The Talmud (Horayot 10a) recalls a related story about Rabban Gamliel’s humble disciples hesitating to accept the position as heads of the academy. Gamliel chastises them, saying “You imagine it is an honor that I offer you; but it is rather servitude.”

The Biblical text connects Joshua with the concept of servitude in his role as “Mesharet Moshe,” the servant of Moses. Today, I recommend to you Zalenskyy’s show, which in Hebrew is called “Mesharet HaAm.” Let us hope that our leaders today, like Joshua, come to their positions with an attitude of service.

Nicholas Losorelli, 3rd Year Rabbinical Student, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Sometimes the solution to lots of change is actually more change. As difficult as it can be, often it’s that final push that shifts our course. For example, the people have been through previously unimaginable change, and in this week’s parsha they face something even more daunting: Moses stepping down, and Joshua taking his place.

With the discord between the people and Moses, something has to give. Rashi would call the people “troublesome”, but I find it hard to blame them. Maybe they are more troubled than anything. Troubled by what they’ve been through, troubled that this operation could go wrong in a million ways, and troubled after seeing Moses and Aaron seeming to claim that it was their power that drew the water from the rock and sounding an awful lot like aspiring Pharaohs. To resolve this trouble, leadership needed change, inaugurated not in divine private like Moses, but in holy public for the people to see, so they could trust that this new reality they were building wasn’t just going to be more of the same, and is in fact bigger than any one person.

So, when we find ourselves troubled and stuck, even after so much change, we often need to find one more thing to change and make that change visible, even if only to ourselves. And it’s that shift that has the power to set us off on the new and promising course that is waiting for us, just at the edge of our imagination.

Rabbi Natan Halevy, kahaljoseph.org

Moshe asked Hashem who his successor would be. Hashem chose Joshua.

Hashem instructed Moshe to impress upon Joshua the awesome responsibility he was accepting and how he must become very sensitive to the needs of the people. At the same time, he must know that the final responsibility rested on him when major decisions had to be made and he must be firm and fearless. When the people would hear Moses publicly impress upon Joshua the qualities that a leader must display at all times, they in turn would feel confident that a man so instructed by Moses would indeed do everything to live up to the task entrusted to him.

They would accept his authority willingly and follow his directives.

What is unique about the ‘spirit’ of Joshua? His holy strength. His ability to lead the different ‘spirits’ within the nation according to their needs.

Moshe’s conferring of leadership and his blessing were impactful. He literally made a spiritual transfer of power. His blessing added to Joshua’s wisdom and conveyed an aura of regal authority. Though Hashem told Moshe to place one hand upon him, Moshe placed both his hands to increase the blessing as much as possible.

Eleazar was Aaron’s extension, and this solidified the event even more in the eyes of Israel. Eleazar’s merit would support Joshua as Aaron supported Moshe.

By learning of these matters, we become blessed with the spiritual energy contained in them in our lives. May our leaders always be blessed with such wisdom and compassion.

Rabbi Mari Chernow, Temple Israel of Hollywood

You don’t need to look very far in today’s headlines to know that peaceful transition of leadership is critical for a healthy society. Which does not mean it is easy.

What more gentle and loving gesture could there be than the outgoing leader laying a hand on the head of the incoming? What greater statement of blessing, confidence, and trust?

I wonder what is going through Moses’ mind as God issues this order? Immediately before doing so, God reminds Moses of his striking the rock and the consequence that he will not enter the promised land, as if he needs reminding. Then God adds, “And give some of your splendor to him [Joshua].” It is not only the labor of his lifetime that he is about to hand over; it is his standing and respect in the very society he has worked so hard to create.

Moses is facing the excruciating truth that his leadership will come to an end. His life will come to an end. He will leave business unfinished, conversations incomplete and goals unmet. As we all will. A colleague of mine, an avid reader, marvels that when her time comes to die, she will be partway through a book. It is just a question of which book.

Moses handles this moment with generosity and grace. As the commentators note, he places both hands on Joshua’s head, doubling the blessing for his successor and granting the gift of peace to his community.

With thanks to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Nili Isenberg, Nicholas Losorelli, Rabbi Natan Halevy, and Rabbi Mari Chernow

Image: Joshua Is Appointed As Moses’ Successor by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfel

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