Who’s Next? The Change And Challenge Of Leadership

The transition in leadership from Moses to Joshua provides us with a model for contemporary changes in leadership.

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

Pinchas is rewarded for killing the Israelite and the Midianite woman who disobeyed God. (25:10–15)

  • Israel fights a war against the Midianites. (25:16-18)
  • A second census is taken. (26:1–65)
  • The daughters of Zelophehad force a change in the laws of property inheritance. (27:1–11)
  • Joshua is chosen to be Moses’ successor. (27:15–23)
  • The sacrificial ritual for all festival occasions is described in detail. (28:1–29:39)

Focal Point

Moses spoke to Adonai, saying, “Let Adonai, Source of the breath 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 Adonai’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” And Adonai answered Moses, “Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority so that the whole Israelite community may obey. But he shall present himself to Eleazar the priest, who shall on his behalf seek the decision of the Urim before Adonai. By such instruction they shall go out and by such instruction they shall come in, he and all the Israelites, the whole community” (Numbers 27:15–21).

Your Guide

Moses’ foremost concern upon learning that he will soon die is for the welfare of the community. What does this indicate about him as a person? As the head of a family? As a leader?

What assumptions does Moses make about what will happen to the Israelites after he dies?

God says that Joshua is “an inspired man.” Are there other qualities aside from “inspired” that you would use to describe a leader of the Israelites? What does the phrase “inspired man” mean to you?

Why must Joshua also have the decision of the Urim (objects used to ascertain God’s will) after Moses has performed the ritual of succession?

How much authority do you think Joshua should have while Moses is still alive?

What might the consequences, both positive and negative, be regarding the timing of Moses’ death?

By the Way…

When David’s life was drawing to a close, he instructed his son Solomon as follows: “I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man. Keep the charge of Adonai your God, walking in God’s ways and following God’s laws, commandments, rules, and admonitions as recorded in the Teaching of Moses, in order that you may succeed in whatever you undertake and wherever you turn” (I Kings: 2:1–3).

We pray for all who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in our national life. Let Your blessing rest upon them, and make them responsive to Your will, so that our nation may be to the world an example of justice and compassion (Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays, CCAR Press, p. 186).

It being the will of God that our race should exist and be permanently established, God in His wisdom gave it such properties that a human being can acquire the capacity of ruling others. Some persons are therefore inspired with theories of legislation, such as prophets and lawgivers; others possess the power of enforcing the dictates of the former and of compelling people to obey them and to act accordingly (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed).

No Person except a natural born Citizen or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of 35 Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States (United States Constitution, Article II, Section 1, Clause 5).

When Moses here addressed himself to God, he thought that perhaps his sons would succeed him. But God told him that it was not to be as he imagined: “Joshua will be the one to come in your place, not your sons. For he served you many years, rising in the morning to prepare the house of study–arranging the benches, straightening the mats, and doing the same in the evenings. By right he is, therefore, the one to succeed you.” Thus it is written [in Proverbs 27:18], “He who guards a fig tree shall eat its fruit” (Yalkut Shimoni).

Because of not daring to be ahead of the world, one becomes the leader of the world (The Way of Lao-Tzu).

The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on…. The genius of a good leader is to leave behind him a situation that common sense, without the grace of genius, can deal with successfully (Walter Lippman in “Roosevelt Has Gone,” April 14, 1945).

It says, literally, “Appoint someone over the community” [Numbers 27:16]. Moses asked for a man among men; a man, not a superman; a man, not a burning zealot like Pinchas (Al HaTorah, vol. IV, p. 445).

Your Guide

Based on King David’s advice and the Gates of Prayer selection, how do you think faith and religion play a part in governance?

In Numbers 27:20, “Seek the decision of the Urim before Adonai,” the Torah makes a direct connection between God and leadership. How does this compare to the way in which Maimonides understands God’s involvement in the creation of leaders?

God’s description of Joshua as “an inspired man” and the presidential qualifications stated in the Constitution are both vague. What are the advantages of such a lack of definition? What are its drawbacks?

Since the priesthood was an inherited position, Moses had reason to believe that one of his sons would become his successor, as envisioned in the midrash of Yalkut Shimoni. What do you think are some justifications for choosing an individual other than Moses’ son?

How does Moses’ description of the role of his successor, “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,” differ from the statement attributed to Lao-Tzu?

In your opinion, how does Moses fare according to Walter Lippman’s assessment of “the final test of a leader?”

D’var Torah (Commentary)

The Torah teaches, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses…” (Deuteronomy 34:10). His hands-on approach to leading the Israelites to the Promised Land as well as to teaching them what God expected of them is unparalleled by later biblical figures. In his brief prayer (Numbers 27:15–21), Moses demonstrates some of the qualities that made him a great leader: his faith, his understanding of the needs of the Israelites, and his concern for their well-being.

But Moses was so entrenched in who the Israelites had been and whence they had come that he may not have recognized the necessity for a new type of leadership. Moses spoke of the people as continuing to need a shepherd; God, however, knew that more was required for the people to enter the Promised Land. Thus, although Joshua would be Moses’ successor, he would not have the same tasks that Moses had been given. New leadership was necessary to accomplish a new objective. Nonetheless, it needed to be leadership that was also inspired by faith and concern.

Whenever there is a change in leadership, the transition is crucial. This vignette in the Torah presents one model for such a transition. However, every change in leadership — be it in the political, religious, or business arena — produces its own set of circumstances and needs. Our mission is to recognize this reality and to act accordingly. The Torah provides us with models and principles to guide us in that endeavor.

Reprinted with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism.

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