Parshat Pinchas - The Puzzling Appointment of Joshua

What should happen when leadership passes from one leader to his successor.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

And God said to Moshe (Moses): "Take unto yourself Yehoshua (Joshua) bin Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, and you shall place your hand upon him. And you shall cause him to stand before Elazar the Kohen and before the entire congregation, and you shall charge him (as your successor) before their eyes. And you shall endow him with your radiance, in order that the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael hearken..." And Moshe did as God commanded him, and he took Yehoshua and caused him to stand before Elazar the Kohen and before the entire congregation. And he placed his hands upon him, and he and charged him, according to that which God said to Moshe. (Bamidbar 27:18-23)

Invoking aggadic interpretations, Rashi explains that Moshe infused Yehoshua with his wisdom (and radiance) far in excess of that which he was commanded, for God told Moshe to place his hand, in the singular, on Yehoshua, whereas Moshe placed both hands upon him (as it is written, "and he placed his hands upon him"), generously and abundantly saturating Yehoshua with his wisdom (and radiance).

This requires explanation, for it would appear at first glance that Moshe did not technically fulfill that which he was commanded; he was commanded to place one hand upon Yehoshua, but he placed two hands upon him. Furthermore, it appears that the order of events as commanded to Moshe was slightly changed upon execution, for Moshe was commanded to first place his hand upon Yehoshua and then to cause him to stand before Elazar and the congregation, whereas the Torah records that Moshe first caused Yehoshua to stand before Elazar and the congregation and then placed his hands upon him. Despite this apparent modification, the Torah states that Moshe followed God's command. How is this to be understood?

Invoking interpretations from Midrash Tanchuma on verses 16 and 21 of the above narrative, Rashi notes that Moshe sought for his own children to succeed him in leadership, and that even though God denied this request and instead designated Yehoshua as the next leader, God declared that "he (Yehoshua) shall stand before Elazar the Kohen, who shall seek direction from the Urim (V'Tumim) before God...", indicating that Moshe's family, represented by Elazar, would retain leadership in the sense that Yehoshua (and future leaders) would need to turn to the authority of Elazar (and future High Priests).

Based upon this concept, it may be suggested that God ideally would have commanded Moshe to vest Yehoshua as the next leader in the seemingly superlative manner that Moshe actually did so, but that as a concession to Moshe such that Yehoshua not overshadow Elazar and Moshe's family did God instead command Moshe to vest Yehoshua with somewhat lesser prominence. By opting to infuse Yehoshua with an overflowing abundance of his wisdom and radiance, Moshe actually fulfilled that which he knew was God's ideal plan. Moshe thus heeded God's will and, in accordance with his usual modest and self-effacing character, bestowed upon Yehoshua an absolute maximal dose of his (Moshe's) own special qualities.

What is the exact significance of Moshe placing one hand versus two hands upon Yehoshua, and of Moshe's causing Yehoshua to stand before Elazar and the congregation prior or subsequent to placing his hands upon him?

It may be suggested that the placing of one hand on Yehoshua and doing so prior to causing him to stand before Elazar and the congregation represents authorization of Yehoshua as the next leader. Moshe was to place his hand upon Yehoshua as a sign of passing to him the mantle of leadership, and Yehoshua's subsequent standing before Elazar and the congregation signaled that he would lead them. The entire process was one of authorization of Yehoshua as leader and appointing him over the nation. It was a succession procedure.

However, Moshe's placing of both hands upon Yehoshua, and Moshe's doing so after causing Yehoshua to stand before Elazar and the congregation, meant something entirely different. It meant that Moshe first needed to get the people's attention, for he was about to do something very special and perhaps unexpected to Yehoshua. Moshe therefore first caused Yehoshua to stand before Elazar and the congregation. Then, in front of the eyes of the entire nation, Moshe infused and saturated Yehoshua with an incredible abundance of his (Moshe's) own wisdom and radiance, representing that Yehoshua was not to be a mere successor, but a man of inestimable and overflowing holiness and greatness on his own. In other words,

Yehoshua, although the ever faithful talmid (disciple) of Moshe Rabbeinu, also became a man of immense kedushah (sanctity) and a Torah authority of his own right, whose robust and distinctive spiritual qualities reflected far more than a mere endorsement and authorization on the part of Moshe. Yehoshua became a ma'yan ha-mitgaber, an independent wellspring of kedushah and Torah, who derived from Moshe but whose preeminence, leadership qualities and religious character were uniquely his own.

This provides a crucial lesson about the cultivation of Torah personalities. Although having a rebbe is an absolute must, without which one cannot accomplish anything of value in Torah, and although one's approach, methodology and worldview must be instilled by his rebbe, a truly great Torah personality develops his own teachings, insights and positions, and he becomes a unique and independent source of Torah guidance and leadership.

This is the eternal lesson of Moshe and Yehoshua, and it is the indispensable recipe for the development of the Torah giants with which our nation has been so blessed.