July 23, 2022 | 24 Tammuz 5782
Torah: Torah Portion: Numbers 25:10-30:1; Triennial 28:16-30:1
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Moshe’s Forced Retirement
At the end of the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness, Moshe’s job is terminated prematurely. He is not ready to die, and he wishes that he could accompany the Israelites in the next stage of their journey. But his time has come. Moshe, who initially resisted his leadership role at the burning bush—“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh” (Exodus 3:11)—now realizes with the same degree of humility that he is no longer suited for the task. He will not be permitted to enter the land, and someone else will lead the people in his stead. The midrashic account of the transfer of power from Moshe to Joshua in this week’s parashah offers us a valuable lesson in how we let go and move on, even when we are not quite ready.
Moshe wishes he could keep leading the people. As he later tells them, he pleads with God, “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:25). The midrash explains that even in our parashah, when bringing the case of Tzlofchad’s five daughters before God, Moshe retained the hope that he would be the one to oversee the conquest and division of the land. In ruling about the case of the five daughters, God commanded Moshe, “You shall indeed grant them a portion” (27:7). Moshe heard this and grew excited, hoping that God’s words might be interpreted literally and that it was indeed he—Moshe—who would grant Tzlofchad’s daughters their portions following the conquest. “Behold I am entering Israel,” Moshe thought, as per the midrashic account (Tanchuma Pinchas 9). In response, God assured him, “My decree remains in place” – it was not Moshe himself who would assign the land to the daughters, but his successor. The midrash, picking up on the juxtaposition of the case of Tzlofchad’s daughters with the story of Moshe’s request for a successor in the very next biblical passage, notes that it was God’s reiteration of Moshe’s forced retirement that prompted Moshe to plead with God to choose a new leader.
To Moshe’s credit, he is able to put aside his own pain and dejection about his job termination and focus on the people’s needs. Notably, it is not God who instructs Moshe to appoint a successor, but rather Moshe who initiates this transition: “Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community…’” (27:15-16). Moshe is more concerned about the people than about himself; he is more committed to ensuring that they have a leader than to trying to retain that role. In nine concise but poignant verses, the Torah describes how Moshe appeals to God to appoint a new leader “so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd” (27:17). As the midrash on this biblical passage teaches, “This is to apprise us of the virtues of the righteous, that when they are about to die, they put aside their own concerns and occupy themselves with those of the congregation” (Sifrei Bemidbar 138).
When Moshe invests Joshua with the authority to rule, he does so wholeheartedly. Immediately after God finishes instructing him regarding the transfer of power, Moshe complies: “Moshe did as the LORD commanded him. He took Joshua…He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him—as the LORD had spoken through Moshe” (27:22-23). Moshe’s lack of hesitation suggests that he is no longer thinking about his own regret at having to give up his role, nor is he resentful that his own sons or nephews were not chosen for the job. As the midrash puts it, “He did so with joy, undiluted with regret for his son and his brother’s sons” (Sifrei Bamidbar 141). Perhaps Moshe’s awareness that his own authority as a leader comes from God enables him to put himself and his own needs aside.
When Moshe places his hands on Joshua’s head, he seeks to fill Joshua with the same divine spirit that has accompanied him ever since God promised him at the burning bush, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:11). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) notes that whereas God commanded Moshe to “lay your hand” (27:18) upon Joshua, Moshe in fact “laid his hands” (27:23) upon him. In resting not just one hand upon his successor’s head, but two, Moshe wished to impart to Joshua even more than God commanded him. He infused him not just with the divine spirit, but also with all the Torah he had received on Sinai. The very first Mishnah in Pirkei Avot teaches that Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua. The midrash explains that this moment of transmission took place here, in our parashah, when Moshe brought Joshua before Elazar the priest and before the whole community and laid his hands upon his head. In placing his hands upon Joshua’s head, Moshe made Joshua into “an overflowing vessel of Torah” (Sifrei Bamidbar 141), capable of ruling independently in matters of law much like his teacher Moshe.
The Talmud cites this moment of transition as evidence that “a person does not grow jealous of one’s student” (Sanhedrin 105b). A good teacher is not threatened by a great student, and this is true of a leader and his successor as well. As Moshe’s example teaches us, a hallmark of a good leader is that one cares more about the mission than about his or her own involvement in it. Moshe’s genuinely generous transfer of authority to Joshua is a reminder of the consolation that may come after we are forced to give up our role in an enterprise in which we are deeply invested. Though we may no longer be involved, we can hopefully rest assured that the enterprise will continue in good hands in our absence. Even after Moshe breathes his last breath, God—“Source of the breath of all flesh” (27:16)—will guide Moshe’s successor as the people of Israel realize the next stage of the covenant, making their home in the Promised Land.
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