The saddest part of our parasha is Hashem’s declaration to Moshe forbidding him from entering Eretz Yisrael:
Hashem said to Moshe, “Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to b’nai Yisrael. And when you have seen it, you, too, will be gathered to your people, just as Aharon your brother was gathered.” Bamidbar 27:12-13
One can only imagine the sorrow Moshe felt upon being banned from the Land he longed to explore, his dream crushed. But despite his personal misery, Moshe’s first response was to seek assurance from the Almighty that the Jewish people would have the fitting leader to bring them into Eretz Yisrael:
Let Hashem, 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 Hashem will not be like sheep without a shepherd.
Rashi notes that Moshe’s response to Hashem’s decree is emblematic of the manner in which tzaddikim react when their death is imminent. Perhaps because of Moshe’s consummate altruism, the Almighty immediately consented to his request: “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Take for yourself Yehoshua the son of Nun, a man of spirit, and you shall lay your hand upon him’.”
At first glance, Hashem’s choice of Yehoshua as the next leader of the Jewish people seems perfectly apropos — Yehoshua was an outstanding military leader and, following the Sin of the Golden Calf, we are explicitly informed of the special relationship that between Moshe and Yehoshua.
There are, however, passages in Chazal that paint a very different picture of Yehoshua’s worthiness to succeed his rebbe. In Sefer Mishle 21:20 we find this:
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, “Chacham, this refers to Moshe; uchsile, this refers to Yehoshua, for he was not a Torah scholar. Therefore, the Jewish people called him a fool!”
An even more powerful indictment against Yehoshua’s candidacy is found in the following Talmudic passage:
Rab Judah reported in the name of Rab: When Moshe departed [this world] for the Garden of Eden, he said to Yehoshua: “Ask me concerning all the doubts you have [concerning any halacha].” He replied to him: “My Master, have I ever left you for one hour and gone elsewhere? [That is, I have no doubts.] Did you not write concerning me in the Torah: ‘but his attendant Yehoshua, the son of Nun, a lad, would not depart from the tent?” Immediately the strength [of Moshe] weakened, [since it seemed that Yehoshua no longer needed him,] and [Yehoshua] forgot three hundred laws and there arose [in his mind] seven hundred doubts [concerning various areas of Torah]. Then all the Jews rose up to kill him.
Why, then, did Hashem choose Yehoshua as the next leader of the Jewish people? The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, provides us with an insightful answer to this question:
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 Yehoshua’s candidacy: “Joshua was not a greater scholar than Phineas or Eleazar, but the service of Torah [scholars] is greater than its study]. 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.”
Based upon the Rav’s trenchant analysis, we are better able to understand Hashem’s choice of Yehoshua to be the next leader of the Jewish people. Yehoshua, and not Pinchas, Elazar, or even Moses’ sons, was the one person who had completely absorbed Moshe’s values and way of life to the extent that 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 Yehoshua was like the face of the moon.”
This teaches us that Yehoshua’s very being reflected not only Moshe’s knowledge, but his entire persona. As such, he was the one disciple who was truly fitting to lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael.