This Week's Torah Portion: Naming Moses's Successor (Part 39)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.


Devar Torah – Parashath Pinëchas (Numbers XXV, 10-XXX, 1)

One of the themes of our parasha is the naming of Moshe’s successor (XXVII, 15-23). Moshe requests G-d name his successor with the following words:

May Ha-Shem, G-d of the spirits of all flesh [Eloqei harchoth lëchol basar], appoint a man [ish] over the community, who will go out before them and come before them and who will bring them out and bring them in …

As the commentaries tell us, these two verses constitute the resume for the leader of a generation.

The kinnuy, or title by which Moshe refers to G-d, Eloqei haruchoth lëchol basar, bears scrutiny. Rashi defines Elqoei haruchoth in terms of G-d’s omniscience; every man’s mind and heart are revealed before Him. Therefore Moshe, with customary humility, negates his own judgment of character and seeks Divine guidance in seeking a successor.

The Nëtziv, in his Ha‘améq Davar, focuses on the phrase lëcl basar: the spirits of men are, to a greater or lesser extent, drawn after the basar, after personal benefit and enjoyment. The leader in Israel, however, must be that rare individual who best embodies self-disciplined and selfless dedication — an ish asher da‘to ‘aza bëli shum hana’oth ‘atzmo (“man of strong mind without personal benefit”).

The 20th century sage Rabbi Moshe Yëchi’él haLévi Epstein, in his Bë’ér Moshe, explains that the leader must be an ish, which the midrash Tanna dëVei Eliyahu Zuta XVI describes as somebody who is gëvartan and ‘anavtan — embodying manliness and humility.

This concept of manliness must be further explored lest, G-d forbid, it be interpreted as machismo.

The root meaning of gever is “might, power” — a root which the oral tradition uses in interesting ways. Thus, for instance, we learn: “Eizhu ggibbor? Hakovésh eth yitzro” (“Who is mighty? He who conquers his inclination.” Avoth IV, 1). Perhaps more to the point: “Man dë’ithgabbér ‘al yitzreih iqrei ish” – “One who overcomes his inclination is called an ish” (Zohar II, 128a). Only such a person is qualified to wield power in Israel.

The Rebbe explains that a leader in Israel must walk a tightrope between his humility and the necessity to assert his authority for the good of Israel. He finds this hinted in the word ish, viewed as the initial letters of e’mtza y’amin s’mol, the “middle between right and left.”

The Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapiro, offers in his Ésh Qodesh a more subtle point, one less part of the resume than of the “job interview.” He cites a passage in Bërachoth 28a which tells of a visit to Rabbi Eli’ezer by his students when he was on his deathbed. Teach us, they beseeched him, the ways of life that we may merit through them the life of the world to come. Rabbi Eliezer answered them, in part:

Keep your sons from logic and seat them between the knees of a scholar.

The Ésh Qodesh asks why they had waited until this ultimate moment to ask this question. What had they been learning from their Rebbe until now, if not these very “ways of life”? He answers that they were afraid, now that the torch was about to be passed to them, that they would be the leaders of the generation. How were they to discharge this new and heavy responsibility which had always relied on their Rebbe for until now? What were the secrets of leadership?

Rabbi Eliezer answered them: Keep your students from being overly intellectual and analytical. Instead of trying so hard to solve Torah problems according to logical theories (which can be wrong, or, far worse, lead to false pride), make sure they have a Rebbe whom they can ask, and who knows whom to ask.

The Ésh Qodesh then applies this to our parasha. The leader in Israel should be “one who goes out before them,” who eschews logical theories as his primary source of knowledge, but who will know how to use logical theories when nothing else helps. Who will relieve his students of the need for such mental acrobatics by being a rebbe to them, and will teach them how to use their own mental powers and when to do so. In this way, Israel will never be without a shepherd.

G-d’s response to Moshe is instructive in terms of teaching us how to recognize a great man: G-d informs Moshe that Yëhshua bin Nun is an ish asher ruach bo — he fits the “job description”; but how are the rest of Israel to know it?

First, “and you will lay your hand upon him” (ibid.). Yëhshua needs to know that Moshe has confidence in him and considers him equal to the task. Then, “and you will present them before El m’azar the kohén and the Sanhedrin” (v. 9, Ramban ad loc.). Yëhshua must be associated with the other great men of Israel so that they will mutually know and trust one another. Finally, “and you will place some of your majesty upon him so that all of the community of Israel will listen”; (v. 20). Moshe was to give him some of his public functions so that the rest of the people will become used to obeying him.

Moshe followed this advice, as have all the legitimate successors of Moshe and Yëhoshua, generation after generation, down through the ages to our own day.

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