What Is True Leadership?
The Legacy Of Leadership That Moses Passes To Joshua
Rabbi David Block
This week's Torah portion describes some very random stories – like another census of the nation, and the daughters of Zelophehad appealing to Moses for a portion of land. Then, suddenly, the stories culminate with God telling Moses about his pending death. Why does the Torah group all of these stories together, and does it have to do with God also telling Moses to appoint Joshua as the next leader of the nation of Israel?
The Story Behind Moses the LeaderThis week we read about Moses' death – what? We're towards the end of the Book of Numbers, Moses doesn't pass away until the very end of Deuteronomy, the very last chapter in the Torah, we still have an entire book to go. But it's really here.
Vayomer Hashem el Moshe – G-d said to Moses;
Aleh el Har Ha'Avarim hazeh – ascend this mountain of Avarim;
U're'eih et ha'aretz asher natati l'Bnei Yisrael – and see the land that I'm giving to the children of Israel.
V'ra'itah otah – and when you see it;
V'ne'esafta el amecha gam atah ka'asher ne'esaf Aharon achicha – you will be gathered into your people.
That's a euphemism for death, you're going to die just like your brother Aaron did.
Now G-d repeats this command in its proper place right where we'd expect it at the end of Deuteronomy, and, as many of the Biblical commentators point out, the story really doesn't happen here at all, it happens in the very end of the Torah. So why is it here? Why does the Torah choose to tell the story now?
Sometimes the Torah takes a few stories that happen at all different times and puts them together in order to highlight a common theme. After all, the Torah is not just a history book, the stories are there to help guide us in life. Rabbi Fohrman actually talks about this paradigm back in Parshat Noach. So if grouping together out-of-order stories can highlight a certain theme that can teach us something really valuable, the Torah will put them together instead of keeping them all in chronological order.
So maybe that's what's going on here, maybe the story of Moses' death is thematically related to the stories that happened before it here in Parshat Pinchas. But when you take a look at those stories it doesn't seem like they have anything in common with Moses' death at all.
The parsha begins relating the reward for Pinchas' act of zealotry in which he killed two public sinners and ended this devastating plague against the children of Israel. Then the parsha continues with a detailed census of the Israelite camp. And then, it relates a very legalistic narrative of the daughters of Tzelofchad who sought to receive the inheritance of their father when the normal rules of inheritance didn't apply.
Then immediately after these three stories we have this story of G-d's command for Moses to ascend the mountain where he'll die and it seems entirely unrelated to any of these stories. But is there a connection between Moses' death and the three earlier stories? I want to suggest that there may actually be one central theme that wends its way throughout all of these seemingly unrelated stories, and that theme is legacy.
Moses, the Common ThreadLet's look at the first story. After Pinchas' act of zealotry G-d gives him a reward. Hineni noten lo et briti shalom – I am giving Pinchas My covenant of peace. Vehayta lo ul'zaro acharov brit kehunat olam – and it shall be for him and for all the generations that come from him an everlasting covenant of priesthood. Pinchas' reward wasn't just for him, it was for all his future descendants, all of priesthood would forever come from him. He secured his legacy for all time. So that's the first story.
Now let's look at the second story. Right after Pinchas' reward G-d commands Moses to take a census of the people, but this census is very different than the only other major census in the Torah back at the beginning of Numbers. In that earlier census the text only gives us a number of the population of each tribe, here in our parsha it's much more robust, the text lists the names of all of the genealogical descending families of each tribe. 'And this tribe had this many children, and these were their names, and each one of them had this many children, and these were their names,' and so on.
Why does our census include all of these details, all of the names of the different descendants? Well why is there a census here in the first place? We're at the end of a 40-year journey in the desert and the people are about to enter the land, the census is listing the descendants of each tribe who will eventually get their own portion of land in the land of Israel. La'eileh techalek ha'aretz b'nachala – for these people, the people in the census, divide the land as an inheritance. These are the people who will settle the land as representatives of their tribes, as representatives of their families. Essentially, this is a census of the legacy of each tribe, of those who will carry on the names of their parents.
And in fact the third story, the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad make it very clear that the census was really about legacy. Immediately following the census, the daughters of Tzelofchad approach Moses with the following claim: Avinu meit bamidbar … u'banim loh hayu lo – our father died in the desert but he had no sons. No sons to inherit their father's eventual portion of land in Israel. But listen to the words they use to make the claim.
They don't just say, please let us inherit our father's property. Lamah yigarah shem avinu mitoch mishpachto ki ein lo ben – why should the name of our father be erased just because he has no sons? Tenah lanu achuza betoch achei avinu – give us the portion of land as our brothers would have had. What they were asking for in actuality was land, but it wasn't just about wealth, it was about something much bigger, it was about legacy. Why should the name of our father be wiped out? Let us continue it.
G-d lets them, G-d grants their request and He has Moses announce this new rule to everyone. When a father doesn't have sons it goes to the daughters, and if there are no daughters then it goes to [his/the 5:51] father's brothers, and so on. The text is emphasizing that even when the normal rules of inheritance don't apply, there are contingency plans to make sure that everyone gets a shot at continued legacy.
So all three stories really are about legacy. But if you look closely there's also a subtle tension in the text.
Moshe seems to play a prominent role in all three stories, but Moses' own legacy seems to be consistently missing from the stories, and it seems that the text itself does everything it can to draw our attention to it.
Moses the Great Leader... With No Legacy?In the story of Pinchas who is the one to deliver the message of Pinchas' reward? It's Moses. Now that's not so unique, Moses is very often G-d's mouthpiece, but if you were Moses and you were making this announcement, you can't help but notice that it's your brother's legacy that's being established. Pinchas was Aaron's grandson, Moses' great-nephew. It might even make Moses start to think of his own legacy, it's great for my brother but what will be of me?
Then in the next story, the story of the census, at the very end of the list we meet the family of Levi, the tribe of Moses and Aaron. The text lists both Moses and Aaron as part of the lineage and then, just like we'd expect, it begins to list the children of that next generation, it lists Aaron's sons. But then as if to be as deliberate as possible, right when we'd expect the list of Moses' children, the census ends.
Moses had children; Gershom and Eliezer, what happened to them? They should be there and their absence is glaring. You know who is taking the census? It's Moses himself along with his nephew Elazar. Again, Moses is the one announcing the legacy of everyone else, and his own legacy is nowhere to be found. If Moses wasn't thinking about his own legacy earlier with Pinchas, he's probably thinking about it here.
So first we have his brother's legacy and then we have everyone else's legacy. The last story is about those whose legacies haven't been accounted for, so maybe Moses' legacy is going to be here? But again look at Moses' role in the final story.
He's the one to whom the daughters of Tzelofchad bring their claim, he's the one that delivers the news to all of the people, guaranteeing legacy for everyone. We, and probably Moses too, can't help but think, what about Moses? Even people who would not normally have legacy here they're ensured legacy, what about Moses? Moses did have sons, what about him?
Inisght into the Leadership Principles of MosesNow, after all this, we get to our story where G-d tells Moses to ascend the mountain where he'll die. Now let's play our game one more time. If you were Moses and you just heard about your own death, and you've just seen Pinchas secure your brother's legacy, you saw all of Israel secure their legacy in the census which you were left out of, and you saw the daughters of Tzelofchad secure their legacy, what would you be thinking? How would you react? It would be the last straw. That's it? I'm just going to die? What about my legacy? How will my name continue?
But that's not how Moses reacts.
Yifkod Hashem Elokei Ha'ruchot l'kol basar ish al ha'eidah – G-d of all living things appoint someone over this people;
V'loh tihiyeh adat Hashem ka'tzon asher ein lahem ro'eh – don't let the people be a flock without a shepherd.
Moses doesn't ask for his own legacy he simply asks for the people, they need a leader. It's almost as though Moses can see it, he realizes that he himself won't have a legacy. But still, look at the word Moses uses for appoint – Yifkod. We've seen that word, that's the word used back in the census when the legacies of each tribe were being counted. Implicit in Moses' words you can almost hear his cry, there's a tinge of longing in his words; Yifkod – G-d what about my Pekudim? Appoint a legacy for me.
Moses' Legacy Hidden in the Transition of Leadership to JoshuaNow, if we just look one verse later we see that the new leader is going to be Joshua, not a relative or child of Moses. Moses' general request for a new leader, that's answered, but it seems that his more subtle plea for legacy goes entirely ignored. But maybe not. Look how G-d responds.
Vayomer Hashem el Moshe – G-d says to Moses;
Kach lecha et Yehoshua bin Nun ish asher ruach bo – take Joshua a man who has spirit in him;
V'samachta et yadecha alav – and lean your hands on him.
A little bit later; V'natata mei'hodcha alav – and give of your own glory to him.
Joshua isn't just a new, totally independent leader from the previous leadership, he's continuing Moses' leadership, he's an extension of Moses' leadership. The verses emphasize that Moses has to pass on that leadership to Joshua. He puts his hands on Joshua, he gives of his glory to Joshua. He takes of himself and he infuses that into Joshua.
Lessons from Moses' and Joshua's Leadership PrinciplesMoses, you do have a legacy. No, it's not a biological legacy, that's not what leadership is about. Leadership is about facilitating the needs of the community. Moses, everything you've done and been for the people, that's your legacy, and that will continue with someone who will devote himself to continue it.
Who was Joshua? He was Meshareit Moshe, he dedicated himself to serving Moses and his mission, he minimized himself for the purpose of serving another. Now, look at Moses' own analogy of what leadership should be. V'loh tihiyeh adat Hashem ka'tzon asher ein lahem ro'eh – don't let the people be a flock without a shepherd.
A shepherd is not about himself at all, he's entirely about the flock. That's what Moses was and that's who Joshua was, he minimized himself for a larger value, for a larger mission. That's the perfect leader, one who makes himself secondary to the needs of the group, that's what was being transferred to Joshua, that was Moses' legacy that was being continued on top of the mountain.
Now look at the name of the mountain on which this all happens. G-d says; Aleh el Har Ha'Avarim hazeh – ascend the mountain of Avarim. Avarim? We just saw that word. Back in the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, G-d says, yes, the daughters of Tzelofchad are right; V'ha'avarta et nachalat avihen lahen – and the inheritance of their father should pass over to them.
Before this they didn't have a claim to the land at all, but that changes here, and the mechanism through which that changes is Ha'avarta. The land transfers over and continues with them. Here on this mountain, Har Ha'Avarim, it's as if G-d is saying, Moses come up to this mountain, the mountain of continuing legacies, on which your legacy will continue.
That's why this story of Moses' death is here in the middle of Pinchas, it's to draw our attention to the story and to tell us, hey, carrying on someone's ideas, someone's ideology, someone's values, that's a way to continue a person's legacy also.
Beyond just biological legacy G-d is teaching us that when it comes to leadership that's the only type of legacy that matters, and that's the legacy of leadership.