PARASHAT PINCHAS: Continuity, tradition and responsibility

A leader who acts with integrity and justice radiates these values upon the entire nation and illuminates their lives.

July 17, 2019 18:57
3 minute read.
PARASHAT PINCHAS: Continuity, tradition and responsibility

‘LION BETWEEN Sun and Moon,’ by Jaroš Griemiller, 1578: ‘Moses illuminated as the Sun illuminates the day, while Joshua illuminated as the Moon illuminates the night.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, deals with preparations for the change in leadership of the Jewish nation. Moses, its first leader, the only one called “Rabbeinu” to this day, the one who led the nation when it was liberated from Egypt and during its 40 years of wandering in the desert, receives a message about his imminent death. His reaction is amazing. Instead of begging for his life, Moses turns to God with this request: “Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-17).

Moses does not worry about himself. He worries about the fate of the nation. He asks God to choose a dedicated leader for the nation. And his request is answered as God tells him: “Take for yourself Joshua the son of Nun, a man of spirit, and you shall lay your hand upon him.... By his word they shall go, and by his word they shall come” (Ibid:18-21).

A midrash on the book of Numbers, called Sifri, compares Moses to Joshua with the following description: “The face of Moses was like the Sun; the face of Joshua was like the Moon” (Sifri, Numbers, paragraph 140).

Joshua did indeed take Moses’s place, but that didn’t mean they were equals. There was a big difference between Moses and Joshua, like the difference between the Sun and the Moon. Why were the Sun and the Moon used to illustrate the difference between these two men?

Simply, the sages of the Midrash meant to say that a leader illuminates for the entire nation the path it should take. He does this not only by the political decisions he makes but also as a role model. A leader who acts with integrity and justice radiates these values upon the entire nation and illuminates their lives. Therefore, say the sages, Moses illuminated as the Sun illuminates the day, while Joshua illuminated as the Moon illuminates the night – with a much weaker light.

On another level, the comparison between the Sun and the Moon shows us the relationship between Moses and Joshua in a new light. As Rabbeinu Behaye Ben Asher (Spain, 1255-1340) said in his commentary on the Torah: “Just as the light of the Moon does not come from itself, [but] only gets its light from the Sun, so does Joshua get from Moses” (Commentary of Rabbeinu Behaye on Numbers 27, 20).

Joshua was the Jewish nation’s second leader. He faced different options of leadership methods. He could have gone in a direction that differed from that of the previous leader, Moses. Joshua was “a man of spirit,” and we might have expected him to be innovative in his leadership. But Joshua chose to be a student of Moses and continue on his path. He chose to be like the Moon that gets its light from the Sun.

If we thought that the comparison between Moses and Joshua is an attempt to describe Joshua’s comparative weakness, we now understand that it is actually praising Joshua who chose to continue Moses’s leadership and learn from him rather than create a new and independent path.

Joshua teaches us how to see leadership roles. We are all, actually, leaders – of students, of our families, of ourselves. First and foremost, leadership demands responsibility. The preservation of continuity and tradition is the first condition of behaving responsibly. Truthfully, leadership in different times demands different modes of action. Leadership in a monarchic culture is not the same as leadership in a democratic and free culture. And blind comparisons can’t be made between different generations. But every change has to be made responsibly and carefully, with the underlying goal being the preservation of tradition.

Joshua, who preferred getting his light from Moses, is the ideal leader whom God appoints to follow Moses, therefore, he is also the ideal role model for each and every one of us.

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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