Why was Joshua chosen as Moses’ successor?


great tragedy unfolded when Moses sinned at the Waters of Dispute (Mei Merivah). As the Torah states in our parasha, Pinchas: “You [Moses] disobeyed My command in the desert of Zin when the congregation quarreled, [when you were] to sanctify Me through the water before their [the Jewish people’s] eyes; these were the waters of dispute at Kadesh, in the desert of Zin.” (Bamidbar 27:14)

What exactly took place? Moses violated Hashem’s direct command to speak to the rock and bring forth water (20:8), and instead “raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.” (20:11) As such, Hashem stated, “therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” (20:12) In sum, the Almighty punished Moses by denying him the possibility of leading the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael

A number of years ago, while attending a rabbinic conference, I heard the well-known rabbi and psychotherapist, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka of Ottawa, describe Moses’ sin as a classic case of psychological burnout. In his view, Moses was overwhelmed by the unceasing trials and tribulations of leading the nascent Jewish nation, and proclaimed in a moment of abject despair: “Now listen, you rebels (hamorim), can we draw water for you from this rock?” (20:10) Whether we follow Rashi’s interpretation of hamorim as “obstinate ones” or as “fools,” one thing is clear: Moses no longer had the ability to distance himself emotionally from the people’s slave-mentality-induced behaviors. On measure, their ceaseless complaints and constant murmurings against the Creator and himself were more than he could bear. Hashem knew that this lack of objectivity would prevent him from rendering the crucial kinds of decisions that are the hallmark of a successful leader and, therefore, declared; “you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” (20:12)

Moses’ life’s dream was shattered, for not only was he prohibited from bringing his beloved nation to Eretz Yisrael, he was also personally barred from entering the Land. This idea is underscored in our parasha: “The L-rd said to Moses, ‘Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people [and disallowed from entering; see Rashi’s gloss], just as Aaron your brother was gathered.’” (27:12-13)

Beyond a doubt, a lesser man would have been brought to his knees in self-pity and remorse. Yet, this was by no means Moses’ response to his poignant existential anguish. Instead, based on his unceasing love for his people, he immediately asked Hashem: “Let the L-rd, the G-d of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the L-rd will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (27:16-17)

According to the midrash Tanchuma, Moses initially wanted his sons to inherit his leadership role. The Almighty, however, responded with a different choice: “Take for yourself Joshua the son of Nun, a man of spirit, and you shall lay your hand upon him. And you shall present him before Eleazar the kohen and before the entire congregation, and you shall command him in their presence.” (27:18-19) 

At first glance, Hashem’s choice of Joshua as the next leader of the Jewish people seems perfectly apropos. After all, as depicted at the end of Parashat Beshalach, he was a consummate military leader (“Joshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” — Shemot 17:13) Perhaps more significantly in the overall view of Jewish history, following the Sin of the Golden Calf we are explicitly informed of the special relationship that obtained between Moses and Joshua, and that the latter never left his teacher’s tent of Torah learning (Rashi).

But at least two passages in Rabbinic literature paint a different picture of Joshua’s worthiness to succeed his rebbe. In sefer Mishle 21:20 we find: “Precious treasure and oil are in the dwelling of the wise man (chacham), but man’s foolishness (uchsile) will swallow it up.” The midrash Yalkut Shimoni on this verse presents a startling interpretation, suggesting that chacham refers to Moses while uchsile refers to Joshua for Joshua was not a Torah scholar and “ therefore, the Jewish people called him a fool!”

So why did Hashem choose Joshua as the next leader of the Jewish people? The midrash Yalkut Shimoni provides us with the underlying rationale: “Because he [Joshua] was Moses’ attendant he merited the appointment as leader of the people (literally, zacha l’yerushato).” What did he actually do? The midrash teaches us that “he [Joshua] honored him [Moses], and arranged the covers on the benches [so the classes could be held]. Moreover, he sat at his [master’s] feet.”

Why did these behaviors qualify him to be the next leader of our people? My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (the Rav) provides us with an insightful answer:

“Often, a leader’s successor was chosen not only because of his intellectual prowess but also because of his devoted service to his teacher. When the Baal Shem Tov passed away, the mantle of leadership was not given to Rav Yaakov Yosef, a Torah giant and the author of Toldot Yaakov Yosef. Rather, it passed to the Maggid of Mezeritch, who had served the Baal Shem Tov with great devotion and loyalty. Similarly, Rav Chaim of Volozhin became the successor to his teacher, the Vilna Gaon, partly because he was not only his student but his confidant.

The Rav continues his assessment of Joshua’s candidacy: “Joshua was not a greater scholar than Phineas or Eleazar, but the service of Torah [scholars] is greater than its study (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 7b). Service does not merely signify physical toil; it also represents a special closeness and friendship between the teacher and disciple, a type of partnership. The chosen disciple not only receives information from his rebbe, but absorbs a way of life, until they are practically identical in their essence. Moses knew that through his student-colleague, the Torah would be transmitted to future generations.”

We are now in a position to answer our question, “Why did Hashem choose Joshua as the next leader of the Jewish people?” Based upon the Rav’s trenchant analysis, it is clear that Joshua, and not Phineas, Elazar or even Moses’ sons, was the only person who had completely absorbed Moses’ values and way of life until he was able to emulate his rebbe’s very essence. Little wonder, then, that the midrash Sifrei famously declares: “The face of Moshe was like the face of the sun, and the face of Joshua was like the face of the moon.” In other words, Joshua’s very being ultimately reflected Moses’ knowledge and persona. Therefore, he was the one disciple truly fitting to lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael.