“And you shall place from your splendour upon him in order that the whole congregation of the Children of Israel will pay heed” (Num. 27:20)
In Torah portion Pinchas, Moses follows God’s instructions and appoints Joshua as his successor. Joshua will be the leader to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land. The Talmud says that the elders of Israel who witness this transfer of power remark “The face of Moses is like the face of the sun, whereas the face of Joshua is [only] like the face of the moon. Oh the embarrassment, oh the shame.” (Bava Basra 75a) Some commentators explain that the elders are embarrassed on Joshua’s behalf that the future leader’s face does not shine with Moses’ holy radiance. But why would Joshua be embarrassed? The Torah itself says that Moses is the greatest prophet of all time, because only he knew God face to face (Deut. 34:10).
Rav Itzele Volozhin (1780-1849) presents a different interpretation. The shame referred to by the elders is their own shame, not Joshua’s. Rav Itzele compares them to a group of poor men who are offered an opportunity to work for a rich merchant. Nobody takes the merchant’s offer except for one man who works hard and becomes very rich. Later, he runs into his old friends and they hide their faces in shame. “Why are you embarrassed?” he asks. “Sure, I’m wealthy, but my boss is much wealthier than I am!” His friends reply, “Your boss’ family was blessed with great wealth. We paupers can’t compare ourselves to him. But you were poor like us, and we had the same chance as you to become rich. But you took that chance and we squandered it! That’s why we’re embarrassed.” The Israelite elders aren’t mocking Joshua for being lesser than Moses. They’re kicking themselves for not being as great as Joshua.
Image: “Joshua and Moses” by J.G. Schreiner, c. 1840