At this stage of the Torah’s narrative the people of Israel are at the end of their sojourn in the wilderness. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Exodus, and Moses is approaching his 120th birthday. The Lord instructed Moses to climb a mountain from where he could gaze upon the land of Israel. “And you shall see it, and you shall be gathered to your people, also you, as was gathered Aaron your brother.” (Numbers 27:13)
Moses did not plea to change this decree. He accepted that his time had come and that he would not enter the Promised Land, but there was one issue weighing on his mind. Who would succeed him and lead the people into the Promised Land? No one knew better than Moses the challenges of serving in his role, and he wanted to ensure that the leadership would remain suited to the needs of people. Moses expressed this desire to the Almighty: “Let the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly, who may go out before them and come before them, and who will lead them out and bring them in…” (Numbers 27:16-17)
God responded to this plea, and Moses was instructed to bring out Joshua and confer the leadership upon him in the presence of all the people.
Why Joshua? What qualities did Joshua have that made him the candidate of choice? We know very little of Joshua, and from what we can gather Joshua is a quiet person who doesn’t enjoy the limelight. Surely there were many very qualified people who could have ably filled the role of leadership after Moses?
In fact there are two other models of leadership presented to us in the context of this week’s reading, and both were overlooked when in came to succeeding Moses. The first is Pinchas. In his zeal to protect the glory of God Pinchas drove a spear through those who flaunted openly the rule of God. Pinchas was decisive, determined, and his actions brought to an immediate end a terrible plague that was sweeping through the people and which had already claimed 24,000 victims. Pinchas was commended for this action, awarded with a covenant of peace and he became an eternal symbol for truth. But Pinchas was not considered as a replacement for Moses.
Later in the reading we encounter the daughters of Tzelophechad, a man who died in the wilderness and left 5 worthy daughters who were determined to inherit their father’s estate. They petitioned, and achieved their objective, demonstrating passion for God’s land, for community, for social justice, as well as a capacity for political activism. They too were commended, and several laws of inheritance are recorded in the context of their petition for eternity in the Torah. But they were also not considered for succession of Moses.
Pinchas demonstrated worthy qualities, but these were suited to particular circumstances. The daughters of Tzelophechad similarly expressed devotion and care, but this was not was fit the bill. In the end it was a quality of understanding the diverse nature of people, the ability to appreciate the different outlooks and perspectives of individuals, that won the day. Joshua had been an attendant to Moses and had surely picked up many of his qualities from this extended internship. He had learned from the best, saw in practice for four decades how Moses had deftly guided, served, and understood the needs of the many individuals comprising the nation. This capacity to appreciate diverse personalities and views, being a “man of spirit,” was the reason Joshua was chosen.
It takes such a heart to properly lead a nation, but similar qualities are needed in every position of leadership, whether it means leading a family, a workforce or any team. One must not merely tolerate different perspectives, but appreciate that they express the diversity that makes a more complete and creative group.