Parashat Pinhas: A man of spirit

‘Moses, who led the nation devotedly through 40 years of wandering in the desert, is now being told that his role is over. He will die in the desert’

A desert in Israel (illustrative) (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
A desert in Israel (illustrative)
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
In this week’s Torah portion, Pinhas, we read about the difficult message conveyed by God to Moses, the nation’s loyal leader, that he must climb up Mount Abarim and see the Land of Israel from afar. Why from afar? Because he will not be privileged to enter it.
Moses, who when still in Egypt saw himself as committed to the welfare of the nation; Moses, who stood in front of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and demanded the liberation of the nation of slaves; Moses, who liberated the nation, split the Red Sea, received the Torah and gave it to the nation; Moses, who led the nation devotedly through 40 years of wandering in the desert, is now being told that his role is over. He will not reach his destination. He will not enter the Land of Israel. He – the revered leader – will die in the desert.
And what is Moses’s response to this message? Does he pray? Does he plead for his life, for his respect?
He has one request more important than all others:
“Let the Lord… appoint a man over the congregation who will go forth before them and come before them… so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:16- 17).
Moses is disturbed by the knowledge of his death, but not from a personal standpoint. Rather from a national one. He knows full well – and he learned it the hard way – that leading the nation is no easy mission. Therefore, he is concerned. He knows that without a devoted leader, the nation will be “like sheep without a shepherd.”
God responds and reveals to Moses who his successor will be: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘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; he and all Israel with him, and the entire congregation’” (ibid. 18-21)
Joshua the son of Nun, about whom we already heard in the story of the spies, will merit taking over for Moses and bringing the nation of Israel into the Land of Israel.
Why was Joshua privileged to do this? Why was he chosen to lead the nation? God provides us with this answer in His words to Moses. Joshua’s special quality is defined in the phrase “a man of spirit.” Joshua had spirit. He had motion. Those who were near him were inspired by his special spirit.
But what was this spirit?
The sages of the midrash tell us that Joshua would “arrange the benches and spread out the mats in the beit midrash [study hall].” Joshua was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He did not come from a family of leaders or a privileged family. He had devotion. He worried about men and women who came to learn Torah from Moses and took it upon himself to arrange for them to have comfortable places to sit.
This is seemingly a minor act. But the truth is that this is where spirit resides.
Devotion and loyalty were the beacons that lit Joshua’s path. Even in the abovementioned story of the spies, of whom Joshua himself was one, he stood out in his devotion to the task and his loyalty to its goal. He did not look for problems and therefore did not find them.
The spirit that filled Joshua’s heart was one of responsibility. Was he asked to arrange the benches and the mats? We will probably never be able to answer this, but chances are that he did this of his own initiative, out of a sense of responsibility and devotion, and therefore was praised for these acts.
A true leader grows from below and paves his path with the purity of his heart. Traits such as devotion, loyalty, and responsibility are those that help him develop and become worthy of the role.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.