Three Views of Yehoshu’a on Moshe’s Last Day

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Ha’Azinu

After the Torah records the song of Ha’azinu, 32;44 tells us Moshe came and relayed it to the people, he and Hoshe’a bin nun. Since we know him as Yehoshu’a, ever since 38 years ago, when Moshe changed his name, commentators wonder why the Torah uses his original name. Their answers offer three perspectives of the next leader of the Jewish people at that moment.

Yehoshu’a Was an Add-On

Kli Yakar reminds us of the explanation of Rava for why Moshe changed his name, Sotah 34a: it was a prayer, Kah Yoshiakha, Hashem should save you from the counsel of the spies. Hoshe’a was going on a fateful trip with them, Moshe sought to help him.  Only now, when all the members of that generation have passed away, can Hoshe’a revert to his “real” name.

[Two problems. First, the whole book of Yehoshu’a uses this name. Second, it seems like the generation of the desert had passed away when Moshe started the book of Devarim, yet he refers to his student/ successor as Yehoshu’a three times earlier in the book.

I can speculate what Kli Yakar would answer, although so can you. My own guess runs along the lines of Moshe having given the  name when Hoshe’a first contended with competitive ideas to those of the Torah, and continues when he takes the reins of leadership. The Torah paused here to remind us the need for a new name started with his interacting with other Jews on matters of Eretz Yisra’el. In this moment, when Moshe is still here, and the first generation has passed away, he has a short space where he can again just be Hoshe’a. Then he has to lead, and again needs the prayer of Yehoshu’a.

But that’s my guess, Kli Yakar doesn’t say.]

Yehoshu’a Was Still or Finally Himself

Chatam Sofer first sends us to Rashi, who says the verse wanted us to know Moshe set up Yehoshu’a to teach in public, to avoid people later dismissing him as unworthy. If Moshe respected him, they could no longer say that. To show us Yehoshu’a did not let it go to his head, Rashi says, the verse gave his original name, to signal he was, internally, the same  he had been before he ever ventured on a path to rule of the Jewish people.

Chatam Sofer’s first idea expands on that. Until now, he suggests, Yehoshu’a needed help to maintain his status, similar to how Bereshit 6;9 says God walked with Noach, taken to mean was supporting Noach. Now, when Yehoshu’a had some sort of parity with Moshe, he could be just Hoshe’a.

Or He Got Too Big for His Britches

Chatam Sofer then writes “or possibly the opposite,”

[To me, a commentarial move to always notice; What does it mean when a reader is equally comfortable with opposing readings of the same text? It suggests he sees value in teasing out all possible meanings of a text, because they have what to teach us. A very modern view of reading, but calls for care, lest we forget that it means we have no idea who Yehoshu’a was in that moment.]

The new idea starts with Targum Yehonatan to Shelach, Moshe called him Yehoshu’a because he saw his humility. At the end of Moshe’s life, R. Yehudah in the name of Rav (Temurah 16a) thinks Yehoshu’a slipped up in that regard. Moshe urged him to ask him any questions, and Yehoshu’a said he had none, because, after all, the Torah itself testifies he attended Moshe faithfully, never leaving the tent.

For that, he forgot three hundred halakhot. [It’s not our topic, but Rav was trying to explain why the first verse in Yehoshu’a makes a point of calling him mesharet Moshe, Moshe’s attendant.] Without humility, he was Hoshe’a, not the Yehoshu’a who deserved Hashem’s help.

[This version explains why he is called Yehoshu’a in his book– the loss of the halakhot helped him recover his character.]

Still a Student

Where Rashi and Chatam Sofer saw Yehoshu’a rising up to Moshe’s level, Netziv thinks he was sticking with his supportive role for a few last moments. In his view, Moshe learned Ha’azinu from Hashem with his full level of prophecy. By the time he came to explain it to the people, he was losing some of his strength or luster (Ha’amek Davar says oro, his light, was already somewhat dimmed), the Divine Voice no longer spoke out of his throat as it had.

To teach the people, he needed help, and Yehoshu’a provided it, shown by using the name of service to his teacher. Yehoshu’a was a spy and a leader, Hoshe’a was Moshe’s faithful attendant, a role he filled here one last time.

[Netziv either thinks Moshe was unable to teach well without prophecy and Yehoshu’a was, or that Yehoshu’a now has the kind of prophecy Moshe no longer does. I suspect the former, meaning Moshe wasn’t a leader or teacher in his person or essence, it was a role Hashem shaped him into carrying out for all these years. Once his prophecy was dimming, so did his ability to lead.

Where Yehoshu’a was more of a leader in his personality, did not need specific Divine help to fulfill the role. It’s a remarkable view of Moshe, and of the question of how vital it is to follow our natures in life, but Ha’amek Davar does not say more on the matter here.]

Which Was the “Real” Name?

Our commentators are divided on whether Yehoshu’a ever became the man’s name fully. Kli Yakar and Chatam Sofer’s first idea seem to think Yehoshu’a was a name given him when help was needed; in situations where he could stand on his own, he was Hoshe’a.

As opposed to Chatam Sofer’s second idea and Netziv’s view, where Yehoshu’a is a name he earns and gets to keep, either by his humility or his readiness to lead the Jewish people.

He started out as Hoshe’a, either grew into being a Yehoshu’a or had the name grafted onto him when particular assistance was the order of the day.

About Gidon Rothstein

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