The Search for Moses’ Successor

In identifying Moses' successor, God emphasizes that inspiration, not passion or popularity, makes a successful leader.

Commentary on Parashat Pinchas, Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

This week’s Torah portion continues the controversial story of Pinchas, which began at the end of last week’s portion. In a climate of rampant idolatry, Pinchas, a grandson of Aaron who is known as a great zealot, takes a spear and stabs through an Israelite chieftain who was in the act of consorting with the daughter of a Midianite priest. At the beginning of this week’s portion, which bears his name, Pinchas is rewarded with the inheritance of the priestly line, which began with Aaron.

The portion continues with a description of Israel’s struggles with the Midianites, and then a census is taken as part of the preparation for battle. As a footnote to the listing of the census, a story is told about a man named Zelophehad who died of natural causes in the wilderness without leaving a son. His daughters come to Moses to complain that their family would lose their father’s property because daughters were not allowed to inherit. Moses consults with God, who agrees that the laws need to be changed. Joshua is formally appointed as Moses’ successor, and the portion concludes with a review of all the sacrificial offerings of the festivals.

In Focus

Let the Eternal, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd. (Numbers 27:16-17)


Moses has received notice from God that his death is imminent. Although previously God told Moses that he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land, in this parsha God relents a bit and allows Moses to view the land from the top of Mount Abarim. But, before he ascends the mountain, Moses expresses one concern to God: Who will lead the people after I am gone?

Since he had to ask, it seems the answer is not obvious. Moses asks God to appoint someone, and God responds immediately by identifying Joshua, “who has the spirit in him,” to be ordained as the new leader of the people. Moses does as God instructs. Before the entire people of Israel, Moses lays his hands on Joshua and invests him with the authority of divinely appointed leadership.


What could be on Moses’ mind as his final days draw near? Fear? Frustration? Relief? As God instructs him to ascend the Heights of Abarim for his end-of-life view of the Promised Land, Moses gives some indication of his concerns. He makes a request of God, but not on his own behalf or even for his family. What concerns Moses most at this time is the people of Israel. Who will lead this wayward people after he is gone? And so Moses prays to God: “Let the Eternal, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the community…”(Numbers 27:16)

Who could possibly be a worthy successor to Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher)? Surely the search process would be long. Bring in the headhunters! But the Kotzker Rebbe (a famous Hasidic rabbi) taught that the answer was obvious: Pinhas, the zealot whose name titles this week’s Torah portion. Having just demonstrated his unflinching fidelity to God and qualities of leadership through his single-handed efforts to purge the idolaters from Israel’s midst, he seemed the natural choice. He was rewarded by God and adored by the people. What other choice could there be?

But Moses, after years of leadership experience, realized that the exact characteristics that made Pinchas popular were not the right traits for a good leader. Pinchas was a man who, in a moment of crises, took the law into his own hands. He was certainly decisive, but acted in a rash and extreme manner. Even though his deed may have served to assuage God’s wrath against the people and earned him God’s favor, it was not enough to sustain the people on a day-to-day basis.

Moses himself was never a zealot. His successes as a leader came through consistency of vision and skills of communication and negotiation. He lived his life as a dugma ishit, as a role model of human decency. Moses never pushed people; rather, he led them along. And so Moses’ appeal to God continues, outlining those skills important in a good leader, “…who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”

In response to Moses’s appeal, God identified Joshua Bin Nun as the one to serve as the new leader of Israel. Joshua was not a zealot, but rather, “a man of inspiration”– he had the spirit of God in him. Joshua may not have been the obvious choice; he may not have even been well liked by the people. But with God’s imprimatur, he was the right man for the job.

Another Thing

Moses asks God to choose a leader over Israel to lead them after his death. Moses saw that God had commanded that Zelophehad’s inheritance had been given to his daughters, and he thought: “Now is the time for me to ask God to give my leadership as an inheritance to my children, so that they may lead Israel as I have led them.” But God replied: “This is not My decision. Rather, Joshua, who served you faithfully, did not leave your tent, and learned all the Torah, shall inherit your leadership and shall lead Israel into the Land of Israel (Tz’enah Ur’enah).

Reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.

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