Pinchas | The Leader In You
Updated: Apr 23
We always talk about fairytale endings. However; I think that fairytale endings are where they belong – in fairytales. The Torah is a book of truth; it’s not a fairytale. These are actual events that occurred. It is a book that is committed to the truth. And, therefore, it doesn’t have a fairytale ending and perhaps, I think, possibly the most powerful example of this is the fact that Moses doesn’t go into the Promised Land.
The power of prayer
Here you have the leader that came to take the Israelites out of the land of Egypt. He was born into the palace and then rebelled against it in the pursuit of justice. He is brought back by G-d; there are ten plagues, the splitting of the sea and all the time G-d tells him you will take the people out, they will go and receive the Torah at Mount Sinai and from there they will go into the Land of Israel. And then there is one delay after another. The sin of the spies occurs that delays them for 40 years and then eventually Moses is told that as a result of a number of events that took place that he, himself, can’t go in. And he tries to overturn it. We read later on in the Book of Deuteronomy where it says that he pleaded with G-d. Moses says how much he pleaded with G-d and he prayed to G-d and asked him to rescind the decree that he could enter the Promised Land, and in the end G-d would not.
What’s interesting is that many of the laws and concepts of prayer are learned from that prayer which Moses made on his behalf to be let into the land, and it was a prayer to which the answer was no. The power of prayer is about the communication with G-d because sometimes our prayers are answered but sometimes we ask for something and G-d declines it. Although the Talmud says that any heartfelt request has some dimension of it which is answered. Like we find even with Moses although he wasn’t allowed into the Promised Land, he was able to look at the land and was able to see it.
Who will lead them?
In fact in the portion that we read this week, although we are only in the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, we are already beginning this whole procedure. We have now crossed over from last week, from the beginning of the 40 years to the end of the 40 years. And so we are now in the last year in the desert, and G-d says to Moses to go up onto the mountain and look at the land that He has given to the children of Israel. “Go up to this mountain of Avarim and see the land that I have given to the Children of Israel.You shall see it and you shall be brought in to your people, you, too, as Aaron your brother was brought in”. And G-d said you are not going to enter into the land. Simply go and have a look at it.
In this week’s portion we see that ending which is really not the fairytale because it’s a book of truth. It would have been such a great ending to say that Moses would have victoriously led them into the land and then gone into retirement. But rather he died in the desert with that generation of the desert. What is Moses’ reaction to this in this week’s portion? It is very important. Here Moses was set up for this task to take the people out of Egypt, to take them to Mount Sinai and bring them into the Land of Israel. But now Moses is being denied the final stage, almost the culmination of the journey, to enter into the Promised Land. What is Moses’ response? It could be a response of bitterness; it could be a response of complaint. Very often when there are things we want out of this world and out of life and we are thwarted and frustrated, there can often be complaints and bitterness. Moses’ response is very clear. He says, “May G-d appoint a new man over the assembly” (27:16). So Moses’ immediate response is that if I am not leading the people into the land, somebody else is. So the people are going to need a leader, so who is that leader going to be? Please G-d make sure to appoint a leader as soon as possible. He says, “Let the assembly of Hashem not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” The people need a leader and now it’s time for you to appoint a leader then.
This is Moses’ challenge to G-d and it’s a very strong challenge because it says a very interesting thing in verse 15. It says, “Moses spoke to G-d saying”. Now what does the word “saying” mean? It should have just said and Moses spoke to G-d. Rashi says that it means, answer me immediately. I need to know. Meaning: I’m not just asking you. In other words, the way that Moses was phrasing the request to G-d was not saying: you can think about it and whatever you decide is fine. He is really saying to G-d, I demand an immediate response to this very urgent request that a new leader be appointed with immediate effect. Of course, when we say with immediate effect that Moses was still going to lead the people in the desert. But the people had to know about the new leader and Moses wanted to make sure that the new leader was appointed in his lifetime so that he would have someone to hand it onto. He would be able to train the person, be able to give that person legitimacy in the eyes of the people and he said to G-d let’s go ahead with that immediately.
The mark of greatness
That is a remarkable response. And Rashi actually points it out from the Talmud that this is the mark of a tzadik, of a saintly righteous person whose concern is not for himself but for the community. His concern is not for his own reputation and his own achievements, but his concern is for the greater good of society. Here Moses is given very disappointing news – that he is not going into the land; that he will only be able to see it from a distance; and his immediate response is to say appoint somebody now. And even though he knew that if a person is appointed in his lifetime while he is still the leader in the desert that might weaken his leadership to some extent because there is already a new star on the horizon. There is already a new and up and coming leader who may take away some of the limelight from him, and people will already be thinking that the time of succession is over and that Moses’ time has passed and that there could be an immediate sense of transfer of power and authority. And so, in spite of all of that, Moses was so committed to the greater good of everybody; he said to G-d appoint somebody immediately. That was the mark of a righteous person, of a person of greatness who sees beyond themselves.
That is always the mark of a great person. A great person is in it for the cause. A great person sees beyond themselves. They see themselves as merely part of a whole as influencing and making a difference to the greater whole. And that’s part of what it takes to build a community. To build a community requires people who are dedicated for the sake of heaven. That’s a very beautiful phrase. Dedicated to heaven. That everything they do is for pure motives in order to advance the cause, not for themselves. That’s how the commentaries explain the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:14) that, “any community dedicated to heaven will endure forever”. And in the Tosafot Yomtov, one our commentaries, it says, that what does it mean a community dedicated to heaven? It means those who work for community, work for the sake of the community and work for the sake of the cause – not for their own egos, not for their own self-aggrandisement, not for their own personal interest but rather for the benefit of the community and for the benefit of the greater good.
And that’s the whole Jewish concept of leadership. As the Talmud says, Jewish leadership can be summarised in one short phrase which is articulated in the Talmud, “I am not giving you power but service”. Power is what I can get out of it; service is what I can do for others. And that’s really what life is all about. It’s not about power, it’s about service. It’s about doing things for the sake of heaven. And that’s why Moses stands as this great role model in this respect. Here is a person who gave everything and sacrificed so much and gave so many decades of his life for the service of the community. And then he is told right at the end that one of the crowning glories of his reign as the leader of the Jewish people was not to be; that he was not to lead them into the Promised Land. His immediate response is: that’s fine by me but what are the people going to do? They need a new leader. Appoint a new leader immediately. And it’s almost not so much a request that he makes of G-d but almost a demand; even though he knows by appointing and announcing that leader it’s going to deplete his authority and yet he is committed to that. And that’s really the role model of how we need to lead our lives – a life dedicated for the sake of heaven, always thinking of others, always thinking of the broader picture. Always thinking of the cause and putting ourselves to the side if need be, if that is in the interests of the cause and saying that we are here to serve, we are here to make a difference and we are not here to gather in and accumulate what we can for ourselves. We do that in order to make a difference in the world.
Becoming a leader
This question of leadership is an important one to understand because although there are only a few leaders in comparison with the number of people, we are all called upon to be leaders in one way or another. We lead in our own lives, in the context of our own families or within a community, in a school or within an association. We all play various leadership roles. And these lessons of leadership are relevant to us, because the Torah has lessons which are relevant to all of us. It is also important as followers that we understand what the concept of a leader is, and that all of us are leaders and followers in all different kinds of respects and capacities.
Let’s try and understand a little bit more about how the next leader was chosen. And what’s interesting here is that Moses actually sets out the criteria that he believes should be met by the new leaders. Firstly, he says that, “May Hashem, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly”. Why does he address G-d in such a fashion – G-d of the spirits of all flesh? So Rashi, quoting from the Talmud, says that you are the G-d of all spirits and you know that every single human being is unique. The uniqueness of people is found in the neshoma, in the spirit, in the soul that is placed within every single human being. The Talmud says that the different faces that people have are reflective of the inner individuality that lies at the core of the soul, so that the face G-d created is unique in order that it reflects the uniqueness of the soul. And when you think about how remarkable it is that every single fingerprint is unique so that there are six billion people in the world with six billion different sets of fingerprints and there have never been two people with the same set of fingerprints. And if you have a look at your fingerprint, it’s so detailed and you see here the mastery that is required by G-d to fashion every single fingerprint uniquely and every single face in a unique fashion reflective of the deeper individuality. The Talmud says that this shows you the greatness of G-d, that all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve and in one sense we all come from the same mould, but yet every single one of us is so unique. This shows the greatness of G-d – that every single human being is unique.
That makes leadership very difficult. Moses understood that. He said if you are going to have a leader you need to find somebody who can relate to all different kinds of people. A leader must be someone who can reach out to an entire community. And if you are talking about an entire community, by definition you are talking about all sorts of individuals all of whom have something unique to offer and to contribute. A great leader is able to relate to that diversity and to respect the individuality. One of the cardinal principles of Judaism is the uniqueness and preciousness of every single human being – that one single human life is precious beyond measure. And that is why the Talmud says that if a person is present at the death of a human being, one tears one’s clothes even if one is not a close relative. We know that we tear our clothes if a close relative passes away: the seven close relatives; a spouse, father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter. If they pass away G-d forbid then a person has to tear their clothing. Even if you are with a stranger and you are in their presence and at that time the soul departs the body, one tears one’s clothing because a unique human being has been lost from the world.
One of the core values that a leader has to be able to incorporate into their make-up is the respect for diversity of every single human being and their individuality. And that’s why these principles of leadership are actually very important for all of us to understand because we are all operating as leaders and followers in different ways. And this is what Moses said to G-d. On the other hand, he said, that it must be a person who can go out in front of them and who can come back in front of them – who will take them out and who will bring them in. And you won’t have a congregation of G-d like a flock without a shepherd. So here’s the strength of leadership, the proactive approach that people need to be led and given direction. And so Moses on the one hand was saying find a balance between a person who can respect the individuality, have tolerance, understand diversity, see the greatness of each individual person, be able to relate the greatness of every single person and have an inclusivity to which everyone can relate. But at the same time, a leader has to actually lead the people. So Moses said we have got to find somebody of strength who can take a view and lead the people in that direction. It’s balancing between both of those two values so that there will be a strong sense of direction. So he said to G-d to find somebody like that.
G-d’s answer to Moses was I’ve got the person and his name is Yehoshua Ben Nun. Joshua the son of Nun. And He says that he has the spirit within him. He has the soul within him to relate to all of the different people that you spoke about. And He says that, “you shall lean your hand upon him”. A few verses down it says that Moses “leaned his hands upon him”. And Rashi says that G-d said just place your one hand on him as a sign that he is the designated leader. Moses actually placed both his hands on the head of Joshua because that was his great generosity of spirit and that’s what Rashi, in fact, says he did with a good eye placing both his hands on the head of Joshua showing his full support for him.
That was actually a remarkable test for Moses because there is a tradition that Moses had in mind that his own son, Gershom, would succeed him. And Gershom was a great man and Moses said it would be fitting for the son to take over from the father but G-d wanted Joshua. But that shows all the more so Moses’ great generosity of spirit and his commitment to the cause. What he wanted for his own son was denied him. Again, denied entry into the Promised Land; denied having his son take over from him and it was handed over to Joshua and G-d said place your hand on him, and he actually places both hands – showing his great generosity of spirit, his capacity to rise above the mere moment, to rise above that which is parochial and selfish and personal.
By the way the expression, Vayismoch, placing his hands on Joshua as a sign of authority, are the origins for word semicha, the Rabbinic Ordination, which literally means the placing of the hands. Moses placed his hands on Joshua’s head to say now you can take over. Rabbinic Ordination is received from a Rabbi of standing who says that this new person is qualified to take on the mantle of leadership that comes with being a Rabbi and he is responsible enough to know what he knows and what he doesn’t know and to exercise leadership within the Jewish people. That is semicha – the placing of the hands – to say I have full confidence in you. I place my hands upon you, go out into the world. And this is what Moses was doing with Joshua. He said I place my hands upon you, go out into the world. Not just one hand, but two hands. Moses rising above his own personal interest and showing the greatness of his spirit saying that he could rise above all of his own personal interests. If this is the person that G-d has chosen, he gives him his full support. And not only that, he actually encouraged Joshua. It says that Moses did what G-d asked him and he took Joshua.
What does it mean – he took him? Rashi says he took him with words. He didn’t physically lift him up and take him. He took him with words means he encouraged him. And he told him of the great reward that is stored up for those who dedicate themselves to leadership of the Jewish people and who are involved in service of the community and he encouraged him. So you see how far his generosity of spirit went. It wasn’t the person he would have chosen, he wanted his own son for it. But yet he put both his hands, he gave him words of encouragement, he poured his heart and soul into handing over the authority and handing over the mantle of leadership to Joshua and encouraging him and displaying in full view of the entire people his confidence in the future leadership of Joshua.
Why was Joshua chosen? The reason given by the Talmud is so interesting because at first glance seems counter-intuitive. Because we are looking for somebody to step into the shoes of the great Moses, somebody who has to lead the people into the Land of Israel and conquer the land. It’s a long, hard journey ahead. It’s difficult circumstances in which to lead – stepping into the shadow of someone like Moses; having to lead the people from the miracle existence of the desert into the natural existence and hidden miracles that would take place in the Land of Israel; not this manna falling from heaven, and a well of water following them, and clouds of glory. They would now have to really participate in the natural world, obviously always with G-d’s help and the constant miracles – but hidden miracles – and that was going to be a transition that people would have to make. From the desert where everything was taken care of for them into the Land of Israel where they would have to start to look after themselves, obviously again with G-d’s help. It’s a whole different existence. So there were enormous challenges ahead, and it needed someone of enormous strength and capacity to be able to step into the shoes of Moses and achieve this very dramatic transition from the desert into the Land of Israel.
According to the Talmud the reason that Joshua was chosen was because of a verse where it says, “the young boy did not depart from the tent”. He was in the tent of learning and specifically it says that he was involved in organising the place of learning. He would organise the benches, he would get there early in the morning before anybody else and would set the place up and late at night after everybody else had left he would organise the benches and make sure that everything was sorted out and tidied up. And this is who he was. He was always in the tent of learning, always at the side of Moses, always sorting out the benches and tidying and moving. These sorts of qualities seem wonderful qualities. These are a person who cares, someone who pays attention to detail, someone who doesn’t seek the limelight. But how do we say that these are qualities that qualify a person to step into such a difficult leadership position? Arguably one of the most difficult leadership positions ever. Because you know he is stepping into Moses’ shoes, he has got all of this enormous responsibility and the transition and everything as we have mentioned. So how does this qualify him? It seems an unusual way of selecting a leader.
It’s in the small things
But how was Moses selected? According to the Talmud, the selection of Moses took place when Moses was actually in Midian. Meaning: there was definitely a sense that he was born for this and that there were great miracles around his birth. But according to the Talmud, G-d tested him to ensure that he was ready for the job. He was looking after Yitro, his father-in-law’s, flock and the Talmud says how compassionate and concerned he was. For example, there was soft grazing and tougher grazing; he would allow the babies and the old sheep of the flock to go in first to graze the soft grass and then only let the stronger adults graze the hard. He knew that if the stronger adults went in first they would take all the soft grazing and that would make it difficult for the other sheep. Then he found one of the sheep ran away from the flock and he chased after it and he found that it was trying to find water and then he carried it to the water. And it says there that G-d doesn’t give a person a great responsibility to do unless he has tested him with something small. And it was in Moses’ integrity for doing a good job for his father-in-law, it was in his compassion and concern for the sheep that G-d saw the seeds of greatness that would allow him to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt and into the desert.
And often we are tested in those small ways, because it’s the small things that tell us about a person, particularly when a person thinks perhaps this is not something important. Those areas that people often underplay and say well they are away from the limelight, it’s not really going to get any great praise and it’s not so important – that’s where a person’s integrity and greatness is actually tested. So, in fact, Joshua through his commitment to those details showed that he was a person of concern; he was a person with attention to the small things; he was a person filled with integrity and with humility and that is what qualified him. That is what G-d is looking for in a great leader – not someone who is out there to grab the limelight, not someone who thinks only the big things are important. A person who thinks only the big things are important are just for themselves, and G-d is looking someone who is in it for the cause.
So if you are in it for the cause big and small makes no difference. If there is a principle of integrity, there is a job to be done, there is something that has to get attended to and you are in it for the cause you will give equal effort. If you are in it for yourself, well then if it’s a big thing that grabs the headlines that people will notice then you put effort into it. And the problem with integrity is that it’s not divisible, there is no integrity that flows through everything that a person does, and no humility and commitment to the cause that flows through everything that a person does. It cannot ever be translated into any area of life, it cannot be compartmentalised.
So that is why Joshua was chosen. We may say that it’s inappropriate. No, it was his dedication to Torah learning, it was his dedication to ensuring his place was neat, it was making sure that everything got done, it was the humility or ordering the benches and cleaning the tables that actually showed here was somebody who was purely dedicated for the cause. Similarly to Moses who was dedicated to the cause for the sake of heaven. Moses’ dreams were shattered, he couldn’t enter the Promised Land, still next thing you know, G-d appoints a leader. And Moses want to see a leader because now we have got to hand on over. And he was committed to the cause. G-d was looking for someone who was equally committed to the cause and he saw that in Joshua.
The loyal guardian
There is another dimension to Joshua being in this tent of learning and being close to Moses. He was a loyal student. What the people needed more than anything else then was a loyal student who would continue the traditions of the past because it’s all based on that tradition that everything that we have is rooted in Mount Sinai. The traditions that we received, the Torah, the written law, the oral law and all of the traditions that came along with it and they needed someone loyal to that. And Joshua was loyal to that, he was loyal to Moses. In fact, the Talmud describes that Moses was like a sun, and Joshua was like the moon. The moon only reflects the light of the sun. And so when transferring the light of G-d’s Torah to the next generation, he was there not only as a political leader but as a religious leader to continue the traditions of the past and to ensure the values of the Torah. The whole enterprise of the Jewish people was not to just create another people who were going to enter in the land but a people who would be the guardians of this value system that G-d had given them at Mount Sinai. There is no point in appointing a great political and military leader if all of these values are going to be left behind. That was Joshua’s task. And in Joshua chapter 1, G-d tells him to be strong and courageous to do your job to conquer the land. And then He says to be very strong and courageous to actually teach the people the Torah and ensure that they continue in the path of the Torah because that’s going to be even more difficult. That task of spiritual leadership. And what qualified him so magnificently was that he was really a Talmid, a student. He was someone who drew everything from his master, from Moses, and that would ensure the continuity that was necessary. And part of that continuity is the humility. What connects these two themes, someone who attends to the small things and someone who is a loyal student, is humility which is the defining quality of Moses.
Moses was very humble. His defining quality was humility because he had to receive the Torah and to be the loyal conduit through which the Torah came into the world. And now Joshua also had to be that loyal conduit through which the Torah that he had been taught from his master, from Moses, could continue to flow to the people. The people had been learning it in the desert for all these years, but he was now the ultimate one responsible to ensure the continuity of it, and to ensure the continuity of the people and all of the values upon which they were based. So it was in the merit of this that he was chosen for this great position, to step into the shoes of Moses. He was chosen because of his attention to the small things, because he was a loyal student and ultimately because of his deep, deep humility.
What we must take from this is to live by the example of Joshua and Moses. In other words these are lessons for all of us because we are all leaders and we are all followers. Let us walk in their footsteps and reach for the kind of greatness that they inspire us to do.