Pinchas: A new generation

The Torah tells us that Moses had lost none of his vigor on the day of his passing, why then did he slow down three years before his passing?

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, | updated: 21:48

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

A new generation had emerged in the desert as Moses neared the end of his life. His siblings Miriam and Aharon had passed on. His nephew Elazar was now high priest and Elazar’s son, Pinchas, had joined the ranks of the priesthood. Shortly after Aharon’s passing, we notice signs of Moses pulling back. 

When Jews are attacked, it is the people, rather than Moses, who make a pact with G-d to donate the spoils should they defeat their enemy. When they approach the Amorites, the people, rather than Moses, petition Sichon, the Amorite king, for rights of passage. When G-d instructed Moses to avenge the Midianites, he said the attack would only succeed if the Jewish people would regard the Midianites as enemies. Most telling was the method by which Moses and Elazar performed the census of the people. They gathered the tribal princes and instructed them to perform the count.

Moses, who singlehandedly faced off against Pharaoh in Egypt and at the Red Sea, Moses, who singlehandedly stared down the rebellions of Korach and the spies, Moses who brought Manna from heaven and made water flow from a rock, was standing back. What was going on?

Getting Old?
One could be excused for assuming that old age had caught up with Moses and he had lost his nerve. But nothing could be further from the truth. When the Jews squared off against Og, the giant king of Bashan, it was the elderly Moses who slew the giant Og. He took a sword ten cubits long, held it above his head, which was itself ten cubits above ground level, and jumped a height of ten cubits, swinging at Og’s ankle, and toppling him to the ground, where he died. This is not the feeble act of a weakened old man.

The Torah tells us that Moses had lost none of his vigor on the day of his passing, why then would he have slowed down three years before his passing?

Rashi, the famed Biblical commentator, makes a powerful statement. It doesn’t matter whether Moses led the charge, or the people led the charge because the leader is the people and the people are the leader. This is a profound and eloquent statement, but it needs to be unpacked. What does it mean? On the surface, there is a huge difference between Moses and the people. Furthermore, if there is no difference between them, why don’t we see examples of the people leading the way for any of the crises they faced over the past forty years?

Making Space
Moses was a man of G-d through and through. Nothing could make Moses step back from his G-d given mission. If it were a matter of fatigue, Moses would have pushed through it. If it were a matter of weakness, Moses would have found the strength. Moses never spared a thought for himself. For Moses, it was never about him. His entire focus was on G-d.

If Moses stepped back at this point in his life, it was because G-d had told him to. It was time for the people to step up and learn how to take care of themselves. Moses wouldn’t be here forever. One day Moses would pass on and if he wouldn’t train them to solve their problems, they would never know how. The new generation would need to fight many battles when they would enter Israel and they needed to learn how to solve their own problems. It was time for Moses to step aside and train a new generation. 

Moses wasn’t tired. When it was time for him to act, such as slaying Og, he didn’t waver and jumped into the fray. He stepped aside on these occasions only because G-d instructed him to train the new generation.

This answer makes sense, but it raises another question. Why didn’t Moses pray that G-d perform miracles through Joshua as G-d had performed them through Moses? This way the people would not need to learn how to solve problems. They would be well led by Joshua.

The New Generation
We keep referring to the people as a new generation. This is not only because the generation that left Egypt had passed on and this was a new generation, but also because they were not their parents’ successors. The generation that left Egypt, embarked on a desert journey with no water and few provisions. When Moses instructed them to journey forward at the Red Sea, Nachshon and others jumped into the waters until it reached their nostrils in complete faith that the waters would split.

That generation was trained by Moses. Just as Moses never thought of himself and was guided only by what G-d wanted, so were his people. It is true that they complained many times, but these complaints were largely driven by the non-Jews who left Egypt alongside the Jews and traveled with them. The Jews themselves, would not have complained on their own.

That was the old generation. But the new generation was different. They were not as spiritually developed and did not have the same level of subservience and reliance on G-d. The old generation was able to sit back and watch G-d wage their battles, as they did at the Red Sea for example, but the new generation lacked that kind of kind of trust. When they felt endangered, they were spurred to action. They couldn’t sit by waiting for G-d to save them.

This was a new kind of people and they needed Joshua, a new kind of leader. Joshua would help them take action. He would lead them in battle and show them what to do, rather than exhort them to sit back and trust that G-d would fight their battles. To transition into this mindset, it was necessary for Moses to change his leadership style toward the end of his lifetime. Thus, he allowed the people to send diplomatic missives to the Amorites, to fight the battle against Midian, and to take their own census.

An Improvement
While the spiritual consistency of the new generation was perhaps lower than that of their forbearers, this did not mean that they were inferior. There are two ways to worship G-d. The first is to receive from above. Whether it is guidance, instructions, or miracles, G-d bestows, and we receive. The second is when G-d steps back and expects us to step up.

This is the difference between the miracles of the Exodus and the miracles of Purim. In the former, the people were mere recipients, In the latter they were the actors. This is also the difference between the written Torah and the oral Torah. In the written Torah, G-d teaches, and we receive. In the oral Torah, G-d leaves matters ambiguous and wants us to clarify them. It is messier and harder, but it is worthwhile.

This is why Rashi wrote that the leader is the people and the people are the leader. Whether we embrace G-d from a standpoint of complete surrender and acceptance or from a space of initiative and action, the key is that we are trained by the leader. So long as we take proper direction, we will walk with G-d.

Our generation is certainly marked by initiative and self help. Look at the return to our homeland. This can be a good thing if we channel it in the right way. So long as we take our guidance from the Torah, our path will lead us directly to G-d.





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