July 16, 1998
Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)
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The Right Leader for the Right Time
By Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin
People often complain that if we only had leaders like those in past generations, we would not have the problems we face today. It seems to be a chronic malady that we never are satisfied with the leaders of our own time. Yet, an old Jewish adage states, "each generation receives the leader it deserves." In truth, nowhere is this fact so apparent as in this week's Torah reading.
Few biblical stories are as sad as the account in this week's parasha, which describes how Moses could not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land (27:12). Yet, in the midst of this traumatic moment, Moses showed the measure of his greatness. The parasha relates how, instead of bemoaning his own fate, Moses concentrates on appointing a successor (27:15-23). Our own Sages in the Midrash suggest that this is the highest form of altruism, stating: "This tells us the praise of the righteous. When they are ready to part from this world, they put aside their own needs and concern themselves with the needs of the community."
Although our Sages praise Moses, his successor, Joshua, does not seem to fare as well. The Talmud, in Baba Batra 75A, remarks, "The Elders of that generation said: The countenance of Moses was like that of the sun; the countenance of Joshua like that of the moon. Alas, for such shame!"
Rashi, the classical commentator, in interpreting this Talmudic passage, explains that the Elders were depressed and frustrated because they realized that Moses could never be replaced. No matter how great Joshua was, he simply was not another Moses, and, thus, the level of Jewish leadership must decline like the moon in comparison to the sun.
The 19th century of Musar (Jewish ethics) offers an even more critical interpretation, suggesting that Joshua could have truly replaced Moses, but he never rose to the challenge, remaining like the moon, never as brilliant as the sun.
Not all commentaries, however, agree with this critique. Instead, some of the greatest commentators suggest that the Talmudic passage should be read not as a negative assessment of Joshua but as an indictment of the Elders. The "shame" and "reproach" refers to the fact that the Elders did not give Joshua an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership qualities. As is often the case, the Elders of a generation find it too difficult to encourage a younger leader, feeling that the new leader is not worthy of their support. True, the Elders missed Moses, but Joshua deserved their help, and this they tragically were unable to offer.
Moreover, the Elders did not assess the situation properly. As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land, they needed a commander equipped with the ability to communicate with the masses. Under these circumstances, Joshua, not Moses, was the better leader.
The 19th-century biblical commentator, the Malbim, remarks that Joshua's charisma, his warm, congenial and dynamic personality, provided leadership that everyone could identify with, whereas Moses possessed an aloof personality that only the intellectual elite could approach.
The Hatam Sofer, another 19th-century commentator, reinforces this idea when he interprets the expression in the Talmudic passage, "the Elders of that generation," as referring to a few special leaders who learnt directly from Moses and had a personal relationship with him. The masses, however, were awed by Moses and turned instead to his pupil, Joshua, for advice and guidance.
All too often, we are critical of leaders, comparing them to a glorious past, and we see only deficiencies. Yet we must remember that each generation receives the leadership it needs. Joshua was not a failure at all, but the Elders of his generation judged him harshly and incorrectly because they wanted another Moses. Israel, however, did not need another Moses. Rather, it needed Joshua. And in God's infinite wisdom, Israel received exactly what Israel desperately required.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.