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Moses spoke to G-d, saying, “May the Almighty, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh appoint a person… who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in… and congregation of G-d shall not be as flocks without a shepherd.” (27:15-17).
Once G-d had reiterated to Moses that he would not enter the Promised Land, Moses himself turned his attention to the future of his people. In asking G-d for a successor, he outlined certain qualifications. The leader should ‘go out before them’ – leading them in battle as Moses had done in the wars of Sihon and Og, and Joshua did in the war against Amalek – and not remain in the backlines, leaving the risks to others (Sifrei 139). ‘He should take them out and bring them in’ imply that firstly, his authority should be of such a nature that his decisions and instructions will be followed by all, so that the Israelites should not fall apart through internal divisions and differences of opinion (Deut. 31:23, see Rashi on ibid. 7). Secondly, his own personal merits should be sufficient to save them from harm and bring them to success (Sifrei, ad loc.)
This passage raises the following questions:
1. Why did Moses approach G-d as ‘ the G-d of the spirits of all flesh’? The only other place where he speaks to G-d in this way is when he successfully pleaded with Him to spare the Israelites not involved with Korach’s rebellion: “G-d, the G-d of spirits of all flesh – should one man sin and you become angry with the entire congregation?” (16:22)
2. G-d told Moses to appoint Joshua to lead the people after his death (27:18). Surely Joshua – Moses’ disciple (Ex. 33:11) – was the obvious choice anyway. He had been closer to Moses and more intimate with his way of life than anybody else. He was the only one with forty years of training under the leader himself.
In answering these questions, look at the principle behind the way the Midrash (Tanhuma Korach 7) explains Moses’ plea. As it explains: G-d is not like Man. If a king has to put down a rebellion, he finds himself punishing the innocent with the guilty – as he does not know for certain how to apportion the blame. G-d, who created Man and knows his innermost thoughts does not punish the innocent with the guilty. He can deal with those he needs to without hurting anyone else in the process.
As the Creator, he understands their intimate personality and their most secret contemplations. He knows who is indeed worthy and capable of leadership, even if he has not already demonstrated it. ‘Things are not always as they seem’ – as the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) puts it, in a different context – when recording what today would be called a ‘near death experience’:
R. Joseph, the son of R. Joshua b. Levi, was ill and fell into the state of a coma. When he recovered, his father asked him, “What did you see?” He replied, “I beheld a world the reverse of this one; those who are on top here were below there, and vice versa.” He said to him, “My son, you have seen a corrected world. But what our position there – as students of the Torah?” He answered, “We are the same as here. I heard it stated, ‘Happy is he who comes here possessed of learning, and I further heard it said that martyrs occupy an eminence which nobody else can attain’”.
Thus the most worthy people are not always the most obvious ones. It may well be, in today’s terms, that certain individuals with black hats and blacks coats with two big buttons at the back, may be (unknown to their followers) far distant from the Torah’s real teachings and way of life. At the same time – unknown to the rest of the word – there could be working individuals with the physique and appearance of rugby players who are more genuinely and more deeply into the Torah way of life, and have much more to offer in leadership. Then again, there is a third type: the sort that lives a life of the highest levels of learning Torah and keeping Mitzvot quietly and uncommented-on, but does not have the natural charisma or personal connections in the right places which give him the chance to apply his sterling potential to true leadership. In short, we know people from the outside, but not so easily from the inside. Indeed – we cannot be sure who, in the eyes of G-d, are the most worthy, and, for that matter, which people should be on the list of eminent Talmidei Chachamim (learned scholars).
This principle may be seen in the story of Samuel’s anointing of David, to be King. The Almighty told Samuel to go to the house of Jesse of Bethlehem, ‘because I have seen a suitable personality for a king amongst his sons’ (Sam. I 16:1). When Eliav, his eldest son, passed before him, Samuel said that he certainly should be G-d’s chosen. However, G-d’s reply to Samuel was:
Do not look at his appearance and tall stature for I have rejected him. For it (i.e. the true personality) is not as Man sees – Man sees the eyes, but G-d sees the heart (ibid. 7).
David, the worthy successor to the monarchy was at that moment looking after the sheep – considered too unimportant to come into question. But when he was sent for, He said to Samuel:
Arise! Annoint him, for he indeed is the man! (ibid. 12).
Thus Samuel was guided by G-d to appoint someone who in normal life would have never have come into question for the key position.
This was Moses’ fear. He knew and respected Joshua, his protege, and he had given him forty years training for his role as successor. But the future of the Israelites came before his loyalty to his student. Maybe… maybe… there was someone out there – amongst the myraids – who – unknown to him, would have greater potential as a leader – but had not been brought to his notice. G-d forbid that protexia should be the passport to leadership! Samuel called himself ‘the seer’ (Sam I 9:19) – but he later learnt that he could also make mistakes, as he did by suggesting Eliav as a successor to King Saul.
Moses, however, was aware that even though he was the greatest of prophets (Deut. 34:10), he did not know what went on in the minds of each and every individual, and who was most suited to guide the Israelites from being a nation of wanderers into a nation of settlers into the Promised Land. So he implored G-d to look into all the hearts and minds of all the Israelites so that he his successor would be indeed the most fitting individual to provide that leadership…
May the Almighty likewise provide us with a spiritual leadership of sufficiently high caliber to give our people positive forward-looking leadership, and be recognized and looked up to by all different groups of Jews – as was Joshua in his day.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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