Amidst all the many quite disparate matters discussed in Parashat Pinchas, is the account of Moses being told by God that he will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land and Moses' request that a leader be appointed in his place. God responds by appointing Joshua as the successor. Moses accepts the choice and agrees to confer upon Joshua "of his glory" so that the entire Jewish people will know that Joshua is now the possessor of the same authority that once belonged to Moses, and they will, therefore, follow the new leader. (Num. 27:13-27) In the plain text of this account, Moses is portrayed as accepting God's decision willingly, and he even transfers authority to Joshua with willingness and generosity. However, a midrash tells a different tale. In its version, Moses knows that he must relinquish the leadership to Joshua, but he does not want to die. He is still fully vigorous at the age of 120 and, more important, he is overwhelmingly eager to live to enter the Promised Land. Moses, therefore, tries to bargain with God. He offers to relinquish the leadership but to continue to live on as an ordinary person, one of the followers of the new leader, Joshua. Adonai seems to agree. Adonai calls Joshua to the Tent of Meeting, where God had had innumerable private encounters with Moses, and Moses now waits outside. When Joshua comes out of the Tent of Meeting, Moses immediately, and inevitably, asks him: "What did God say to you?" Joshua replies that on the many occasions when, as Moses' assistant, he sat outside, he was usually told that Moses could not reveal the content of his privileged communication to anyone who was not there; now Joshua must act in the same way. Moses is shattered because he feels a burning jealousy. He turns to God and says: "Better that I should die than I should live and envy Joshua." And so, Moses ascends the mountain and lies down to be gathered to heaven by God. The exact words of the midrash are: Better that I should die than I should live one day in angry envy of someone else.
The moral of the story is obvious.
Arthur Hertzberg has focused his commentary on a midrash that tells of Moses' real response to being denied the right to enter the Promised Land and his envy of Joshua.
As an educator, I am constantly reminded of our responsibility to develop leadership for the future. With our current concern for the survival of the Jewish people comes the need for members of our community to serve as leaders. What does the Torah teach us about leadership and how it can be developed?
Moses serves as an example of one of our early positive role models. Perhaps because of his imperfections, he provides us with all the attributes we might want to see in a leader today. He demonstrates commitment, loyalty, a willingness to lead, and frustration when faced with lack of trust by his followers. We see a person with normal human frailties, who in the end has to take responsibility for his actions.
According to the text, when God tells Moses that he will not enter the Promised Land and that Joshua will be his successor, Moses accepts God's choice. This may appear to be too severe a punishment for the incident that occurred at Kadesh. It may be that this was not just a punishment but, as Pinchas Peli has suggested, an acknowledgment that Moses had "lost his touch." It was time for a new leader. New leadership is part of the natural phenomenon of growth and change, as we have seen within our own Reform movement during the past year.
Moses participates in the transfer of leadership to Joshua by investing him with his authority. However, Joshua must still earn the respect and following of the people, as leaders today must do. The qualities of the leaders we need today are similar to those of our biblical leaders: a willingness to lead, a commitment, and a lack of perfection to which all humankind can relate.
For further reading: Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture, Pinchas H. Peli (Washington, D.C.: B'nai B'rith Books, 1987)
Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568