Parshat  Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel –  “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take for yourself Joshua the son of Nun, an individual who has spirit within him, and lay (or lean) your hand upon him.  Stand him up before Elazar the Priest and before the entire congregation, and command him before their eyes.  And give of your glory upon him in order that the entire congregation of the children of Israel may obey him. [Num. 27:18-20].

In these three verses we see the “passing of the guard,” the succession of leadership from Moses to Joshua. Embedded within the three different actions which God commanded Moses to perform, we may begin to define three necessary aspects of traditional Jewish leadership. Firstly, Moses was to “lay his hands” upon Joshua, an act which expressed a conferral of rabbinic authority, semikha (literally a laying upon or leaning upon), from master to disciple (cf. Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:1). Since Moses was traditionally known as Moshe Rabbenu (our religious teacher or rabbi) and since Joshua is biblically and midrashically pictured as Moses’ devoted disciple, it is perfectly logical to assume that the first transference from Moses to Joshua was that of religio-legal authority, conveying the law to the next generation and continuing the march of the Oral Law – Torah Se’b’al Peh – from generation to generation.

Moses is then commanded by God to “stand Joshua up” before Elazar the Priest. The Kohen Gadol or High Priest was certainly a leader in ancient Israel – but his Divine service was more spiritual than intellectual, more emotional than legal. His areas was the Sanctuary or Holy Temple. And as the Bible expresses it: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary (a Holy Temple or Synagogue) so that I may dwell among (and within) them”  (Exodus 25:8). The task of the High Priest and the Priest-teachers was to have the wherewithal to constantly bring the living word of God to the people and to inspire them with love of God and love of Torah (the Priestly Benediction). The Rav (Moshe Rabbenu) was expected to teach and interpret God’s word for every generation; the High Priest was expected to ritually perform and maintain the ritual experience from generation to generation, and to inspire every Jew to feel God’s loving presence within him/herself.

And finally, Moses was to “give of his glory (Hebrew hod) upon (Joshua) in order that the entire congregation of Israel may obey him,” as we find referring to King Solomon who was gifted with “the glory of majesty which was unique only to him (Chronicles 1,20,25). It was precisely this glorious majesty which Moses conferred upon Joshua, which can best be translated as charismatic influence. The great British Philosopher and Chief Rabbis, Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory, defines power as a function of strength to overcome one’s enemies whereas charismatic influence secures posterity and continuity. He evokes the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 21:15), which compares the giving over of power to “a pouring out from one vessel to another,” whereas the conferral of influence is likened to “the kindling of one candle from another candle.” When wine, for example, is poured from one goblet into another, the first goblet becomes emptied and devoid of its joy-giving liquid. Similarly, when a political leader leaves office and his successor takes over, no authority remains in the hand of the incumbent.

How different is charismatic influence? After the initial candle has kindled its flame onto another candle, the light of the first candle has in no way become diminished; much the opposite, now there are two candles shining brightly, providing double the amount of light in the room. My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, went even one step further when he interpreted the Biblical text of our weekly portion at the celebration of my class’s rabbinical ordination. The “laying of the hands” is usually interpreted as an inter-generational conferral of authority: the master from a former generation is “handing over” the authority of our ancient tradition (trado in Latin means to hand over) to the younger generation.

However, says Rav Soloveitchik, that is not the picture presented by the biblical text. The Hebrew Samokh (Semikhah) principally means to lean on, so that the picture being conveyed is that of an elderly Moses leaning with his hands upon a younger Joshua. The message seems not to be that of a young Joshua dependent on the authority of an elder Moses; it rather seems to be that of an elder Moses dependent for his support on a younger Joshua. Rabbi Soloveitchik looked at us, his student-rabbis, with great yearning and expectations. “It is I who am dependent upon you. Without you, my Torah and my unique teaching, indeed all of the traditions which I imbibed from the previous generations, will all die with me. You are my insurance policy. It is through you and your teachings that my Torah will continue to live.”

This is why Moses had to put down Korah – who wanted to usurp power for a false end – but encouraged Eldad and Medad, who were influenced by a Divine spirit. And this is the true meaning of our Sages’ adage that a father is never jealous of a child nor is a teacher ever jealous of a disciple. Politics yield power, which disappears in the sand-dunes of times; learning and piety breed influence, which last for all eternity. The Israelite Kings are scarcely remembered while the Israelite prophets and sages are still being studied and interpreted today. Lust for power is ultimately consumed by fiery flames, while the influence of Torah education will enable the light of the menorah to emblazon the path to the tree of life in our return to Eden.


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