Connecting to Torah Through Leaders and Ceremonies

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Yehoshu’a’s Model of Leadership

Moshe tells Yehoshu’a he will lead the Jews into Israel, 31;7, using the verb form tavo et, most literally “will come with.” In verse 23, he again charges Yehoshu’a, this time tavi, you will bring. Rashi cited R. Yohanan in Sanhedrin 8a, who inferred a change between the two verses. Moshe had assumed Yehoshu’a would lead the people along with the elders, God intervened to tell Yehoshu’a he would and should be a forceful sole leader, would and should use coercive force to impose his will. In the Gemara’s phrase, dabar ehad le-dor, there is one leader to a generation [a political view of the way to run a society we will not explore].

The Sun, the Moon, and Leadership

Meshech Hochmah attributes the change of perspective to Moshe’s misreading of an idea in Baba Batra 75a, the elders mourned the passage of the mantle from Moshe to Yehoshu’a, because Moshe was like a sun, Yehoshu’a like a moon. Meshech Hochmah thinks they were referring to the ability to influence others. The moon’s visible light is insufficient to make another body shine; only the sun does that.

Moshe thought Yehoshu’a was going to be like him, a source of light strong enough to turn others into influencers. He expected Yehoshu’a would inspire and enlighten the elders and they would all lead together. In fact, Hashem made clear, Yehoshu’a had absorbed enough from Moshe to be a source of light, without the ability to lift others to enlightening status.

[Meshech Hochmah would have to explain how the elders led the nation after Yehoshu’a’s passing, but it is not his issue here. He repeats the idea of dabar ehad le-dor, each generation should have only one leader, where he has just made it seem like Yehoshu’a had to be on his own because he was unable to bring others to a leadership level. Perhaps Meshech Hochmah thought Yehoshu’a didn’t reach that level because he didn’t need to, since there is always one leader for a generation.]

Leaders Emulate God, Or Not

Alternatively, Moshe’s view of Yehoshu’a might have been fueled by verse eight, where he says Va-Hashemand God, is the One traveling before you. Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah thought and God means God and His beit din, court. If so, Moshe, who had been guided by God alone, thought that was why he led alone; his disciple was going to have God and the Heavenly Court, and should emulate that with a court of his own.

In verse 23, God corrected Moshe twice. First, he says tavi, bring coercively, because each generation has only one leader, and va-Anochi ehyeh imach, I will be with you, God alone.

[Meshech Hochmah does not connect the two; he treats the idea a generation should have only one leader independently of whether God was going to guide Yehoshu’a with His beit din. I think he was certain nations are best run by one leader with significant enforcement power. Separately, perhaps to reassure Yehoshu’a he would be able to do the job, God decides to give him the same type of guidance as Moshe.]

The idea fits with an odd phrase the tribes of Reuven and Gad use with Yehoshu’a right at the beginning of the book of Yehoshu’a, 1;17: just let God be with you as He was with Moshe, followed in the next verse by their assuring him whoever disobeyed him would be put to death. God’s being with him like with Moshe legitimates Yehoshu’a’s power to punish those who disobey him.

Elazar Did It to Himself

A brief last possibility utilizes an idea in Eruvin 63a, Elazar was punished for teaching halachah in front of Moshe (when the soldiers came back from the war against Midian, Moshe was annoyed with their bringing back plunder, and Elazar then steps in to tell them how to render the pots and pans kosher for use. The Gemara noticed he did not seem to ask Moshe for permission).

The punishment was that Yehoshu’a would not need him as much as planned, a punishment Moshe was not told. He thought Yehoshu’a would work closely with Elazar, the High Priest, to bring the Jews into Israel, making tavo et, come with, appropriate. God phrased Himself according to what would actually happen. [Meshech Hochmah does not explain why Moshe did not know; perhaps God saw no reason to tell him what would happen after he was gone.]

Yehoshu’a was slated to be a more forceful and independent leader than Moshe expected, either because Moshe was mistaken about a leader’s need to be able to lift others, was mistaken about leaders’ need to reflect how God is leading/guiding them, or because Moshe did not know Elazar’s punishment for his impudence.

Learn Some Torah on the Way Out

The parsha lays out the mitzvah of Hakhel, 31;10-13, a ceremony explained in many ways. Meshech Hochmah focuses on the timing, its coming after a year “off,” when farmers could not work the land, were not as involved in business because they had to forgive debts [a wild assumption, but not one I’m going to consider now], leaving their time free to spend on God’s service. During this year off, with no distractions, they understood and absorbed the Torah they studied better and more fully than usual [not the first time we’ve seen his negative view of the distraction of ordinary life; here, he tells us it also weakens Jews’ Torah study].

All of Torah—he says—works to separate people from the desires, lusts, and jealousies their physical beings impose on them. For a year, they were freed of all those; but farming beckoned; a year away left the Jews anxious to get back. Before they did, God had them congregate for one last Torah experience, in the hopes they would carry it with them, to help them avoid drowning in the depths of material appetites. (He says it explains why the Torah specifies converts must come to Hakhel, verse 12; a convert has no official land in Israel, and therefore might not be a farmer. Still, s/he needs to come to Hakhel.)

Jews’ Lasting Respect for Torah

Hashem tells Moshe to write a Torah scroll, to serve as a testimony when the Jewish people sin, a reminder of why their national fortunes are not what they would hope. In 31;26, Moshe presents the Torah to the Levi’im, tells them to take it and put it in the Aron, for it to serve as a witness. In the next verse, he says he knows them to be a rebellious people, already in his lifetime, let alone after his passing.

The Torah can only be a witness to what they are doing wrong if they continue to value it (to me, this seems another instance where Meshech Hochmah’s contemporary circumstances find their way into his commentary). It highlights an aspect of the Jews of Tanach, their having been connected to Torah even during their greatest failures.

When the Jews worshipped the Calf, Moshe told the Levi’im to kill whoever had actively worshipped, and none of the rest of the nation fought them about it. When Moshe had people killed for Pe’or worship, no one protested other than Zimri [and, although he doesn’t say it, no one stopped Pinhas or killed him after]. Later in history, the generation of Ahav was rife and rank with worship of powers other than God, yet Sanhedrin 102b—which says the most significant transgressions of Yerov’am were the least of Ahav’s– also notices Ahav’s respect for Torah (an intricate inference Meshech Hochmah does not summarize).

Step one is that even sinning Jews, who we might have thought would lose all connection to Torah, still respect it and will not simply reject it [sadly, I am not sure we can now say that to the same extent]. Step two, Moshe thinks their sins while he was still alive makes it certain they will do so after he passes away. Embedded in the logic is the respect they had for him, in contrast to other religious leaders (I think he means the founder of Christianity) who were mocked in their lifetime, had lies made up about them after they died, to justify their role as anchor of a religion.

Moshe was different (I think he means, in a way that shows the greater truth of Judaism). The religion he founded was strongest when he was alive, did not need to be retroactively made up.

The Jews’ connection to Torah, as led by Yehoshu’a, in their Hakhel ceremony, and during and after Moshe’s lifetime.

About Gidon Rothstein

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