Parashat Pinhas: Changing of the guard

How different is the realm of influence! After the initial candle has kindled another, the light of the first has in no way become diminished; much the opposite, now there are two shining candles, providing double the light.

"And the Lord said to Moses: 'Take for yourself Joshua the son of Nun, an individual who has spirit within him, and lay your hand upon him. Stand him up before Elazar the Priest and before the entire congregation, and command him before their eyes. And give of your glory upon him in order that the entire congregation of the children of Israel may obey him…' " (Numbers 26:18-20) In these three verses we see "the changing of the guard" - the succession of leadership from Moses to Joshua. Embedded in the three actions which God commanded Moses to perform are profound insights into three forms of Jewish leadership. First, Moses was to "lay his hands" on Joshua - an act which expresses a conferral of rabbinic authority, or semicha (literally a laying on or leaning on), from master to disciple (cf. Mishna Sanhedrin 1, 1). Since Moses was known as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Rabbi, and since Joshua is pictured as Moses' devoted disciple, it is perfectly logical to assume that the first transference from Moses to Joshua was that of religio-legal authority. Moreover, Moses was a prophet who conveyed the Divine word to his nation; since the scholar (hacham) is heir to the prophet, and since the prophet was always expected to be a great intellectual and spiritual personality, Moses was bestowing on Joshua his own authority as religious master and prophet. Moses is then commanded to "stand Joshua up" before Elazar the Priest. The kohen gadol or High Priest was certainly a leader in ancient Israel, but his divine service was formalized and external, very much limited to the Temple. It was necessary for the rabbi/scholar/prophet to be recognized by the High Priest, and vice versa; but whereas the former had to constantly bring the living word of God to the people - and in the process often came into conflict with the ruling authorities and even with the majority - the latter merely had to perform the precise Temple rituals so that the Divine service could be maintained from generation to generation. Joshua therefore had to appear before the High Priest, but he was not given the High Priest's ritual authority. Moses and Joshua were the seat of religious, moral and ethical authority; Aaron and Elazar were the seat of ritual authority. The rabbi/scholar/ prophet was expected to teach and interpret God's word for every generation; the High Priest was expected to maintain the ritual structures. And finally, Moses was to "give of his glory upon [Joshua] in order that the entire congregation of Israel may obey him" (Numbers 26:20). In addition to being rabbi/scholar/prophet, Moses also served as authoritative king (cf. Deut. 33:4, 5), the chief executive of the Israelite nation. This authority was the power he conferred on Joshua. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, defines the distinction between the aspects of Moses's leadership as that of influence versus power. Moses, as master prophet and religious teacher, wielded enormous influence, not only in his generation but in every generation. Moses, as king of Israel, controlled much power, and so - in the final analysis - managed to quell the rebellions of all of his detractors: Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and Zimri ben Sallu. But influence and power are very different kinds of authority. Rabbi Sacks sees this distinction as emanating from the Midrash Rabba (Bereshit 21:15), which compares the giving of power to "a pouring out from one vessel to another," whereas the conferral of influence is likened to "the kindling of one candle from another." When wine, for example, is poured from one goblet into another, the first goblet becomes emptied and devoid of its joy-yielding liquid. Similarly, when a political leader leaves office, no authority remains in the hand of the incumbent. How different is the realm of influence! After the initial candle has kindled another, the light of the first has in no way become diminished; much the opposite, now there are two shining candles, providing double the light. My revered teacher, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, went one step further when he interpreted the text of our weekly portion at the celebration of my class's rabbinical ordination. The "laying of the hands" is usually interpreted as an inter-generational conferral of authority: the master from a former generation is "handing over" the authority of our ancient tradition (trado in Latin means to hand over) to the younger generation. However, says Rav Soloveitchik, that is not the picture presented by the biblical text. The Hebrew samoch (semicha) principally means to lean on, so that the picture being conveyed is that of an elderly Moses leaning on a younger Joshua. The message seems not to be that of a young Joshua dependent on the authority of an elder Moses; it rather seems to be that of an elder Moses dependent on a younger Joshua. Rav Soloveitchik looked at us, his student rabbis, with great expectations. "It is I who am dependent on you. Without you, my Torah and my unique teaching, indeed all the traditions which I imbibed from the previous generations, will die with me. You are my insurance policy. It is through you and your teachings that my Torah will continue to live…" This is why Moses had to put down Korah - who wanted to usurp power for a false end - but encouraged Eldad and Medad, who were influenced by a Divine spirit. And this is the true meaning of our sages' adage that a father is never jealous of a child, nor is a teacher ever jealous of a disciple. Politics yield power, which disappears in the dunes of time; learning and piety breed influence, which last forever. The Israelite kings are scarcely remembered, while the Israelite prophets and sages are still being studied and interpreted today. Lust for power is ultimately consumed by flames, while the influence of Torah education enables the light of the menora to illuminate the path to the Tree of Life during our return to Eden. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.