Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Pinchas 5775
As the Israelites move closer to entering the Land of Israel, issues of inheritance come to the fore. This is true regarding the Land itself, on the one hand, but also in terms of leadership on the other hand. Moshe, who will not enter the Land of Israel, raises the question: Who will be the new leader? Moshe insists that the People of God not be left leaderless: “Let God's community not be like sheep that have no shepherd.'” (B’midbar 27:17)
From the manner in which the request is made, and from God’s response, it seems that this is not simply a political or military appointment. The person God chooses will have the unenviable task of filling Moshe’s shoes.
Replacing a legend in any industry is difficult; replacing Moshe seems impossible. In fact, a similar challenge is recorded in the Book of Kings, as the great prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) prepares to leave his student and heir Elisha. The master offers his anxious student one final blessing or wish:
And it came to pass, when they had crossed over (the Jordan), Eliyahu said to Elisha, ‘Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken away from you.’ And Elisha said, ‘I beg you, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.’ (2 Kings 2:9)
In what might at first seem to be a haughty or presumptuous request, Elisha asks not for the power of his master, but for double the power, twice the capabilities of the great Eliyahu. In fact, Elisha was far from haughty or power-hungry. He was fully aware of the greatness of his teacher, of Eliyahu’s unsurpassed gifts as a prophet and leader. If anything, Elisha felt inadequate to step into the enormous void that Eliyahu would leave behind, which led him to seek out some way to compensate for the shortfall in leadership and vision he foresaw. In Elisha’s mind, only an endowment of twice the power, twice the insight and vision, would be enough to compensate for his own lack of talent. Only in this way would he, who paled in comparison to his great teacher, be able to meet the challenge and fulfill the needs of the soon-to-be-bereft generation.
In contrast, when God answers Moshe’s plea for a replacement, God instructs him to take “take Yehoshua son of Nun, a man of spirit,…andinvest him with some of your splendor so that the entire Israelite community will obey him.” (B’midbar 27:18,20)
Why should Elisha, the man chosen to replace Eliyahu, receive “twice the power” of his predecessor, while Yehoshua, the man chosen to replace Moshe, receive only “some of the splendor” of Moshe? To be sure, Moshe’s prophetic ability was unique. No other human being before or since will ever achieve that proximity to God. Therefore, by definition, Yehoshua could not have been given “twice the power” of his teacher. But this does not explain why his mandate was so curiously limited from the outset.
We may say that this conundrum goes beyond the question of succession, and sheds light on the underlying issue that created the need for a change in leadership in the first place: Moshe could not enter the Land of Israel because, simply put, he was too great. The people could not completely understand or properly estimate Moshe’s capabilities. Instead, his unique relationship with God became a crutch that they had come to rely upon too heavily. Had Moshe continued to lead them into the Land of Israel, they would have remained passive, simply standing by and waiting for miracles to solve their problems and fulfill their needs. They would have become spectators rather than participants in Jewish history.
When God gives His commentary on Moshe’s death, He explains that Moshe was “guilty” of using too much of the power God had bestowed upon him. By striking the rock, Moshe and Aharon gave the impression that they, and not God, were the source of this miracle. At this point in their development, the people had to be weaned from their reliance on miracles, from their expectation that miraculous events were the norm. The supernatural seemed natural to them. Now, their impending entrance into the Land of Israel would require them to shift into a different mode of existence: The manna would soon be replaced by agriculture, and their sustenance would no longer be insured through the agency of Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. Rather than waiting for their leaders to perform miracles, the people would now become partners with God.
Eliyahu and Elisha lived in a time of religious anarchy. The people were deeply involved in idolatrous worship, and the novice Elisha would have to seamlessly take up the mantle of leadership once worn by Eliyahu. Elisha was well aware of what lay ahead, and he wisely asked to be endowed with even more power than his teacher: The Jewish People needed to see the power of God; anything less would have fallen short of what would be necessary to stem the tide of paganism that had washed over the nation. On the other hand, Moshe’s generation had witnessed unparalleled miracles each and every day. They had no need for one more miracle. What they needed was to begin a new chapter, in which their own relationship with God would blossom and grow through the continuous acts of faith and adherence that would make up their everyday life in the Land of Israel. Moshe’s unique, miraculous form of leadership was what they had needed in the wilderness; the next chapter would be written in a different style, under the leadership of a man who was endowed with a small portion of Moshe’s spiritual capabilities – but with the capabilities most suited to the life that lay ahead of them in the Promised Land.
For a more in-depth analysis see:
In this section Moshe addresses God in an unusual manner: “Let the Omnipotent God of all living souls appoint a man over the community.”