Amidst the many disparate matters discussed in Parashat Pinchas, we read of Moses being informed by God that he will die before being permitted to enter the Promised Land.
We then hear Moses ask God to appoint a new leader for the people. God agrees and appoints Joshua. In the plain reading of this story, the Torah depicts Moses as accepting God’s decision with regard to his own death, as well as God’s choice as to his successor. Indeed, Moses even goes so far as to transfer his authority to Joshua with willingness and generosity.
Seemingly, Moses understands that all things pass — nothing and no one lives forever — and for the people to follow in a new direction, they will need to trust their new leader and his vision.
However, the tradition is not univocal on this point. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg shares a midrash that puts a different spin on the story. In this reading, Moses recognizes that he must relinquish his leadership to Joshua but, still fully vigorous at the age of 120 and, even more importantly, still eager to fulfill his dream of entering the Promised Land, he is not ready to exit stage right.
Therefore, according to this telling, Moses begins bargaining with God. He offers to relinquish his leadership to Joshua, but rather than accepting his own death, he counters by asking that he be allowed to continue living as an ordinary person, one of the many Israelite followers of the community’s new leader. The rabbis describe God as seeming to agree.
Thereupon, God calls Joshua to the Tent of Meeting, a place within which God had previously had innumerable private encounters with Moses. When Joshua exits the Tent, Moses, who has been waiting outside, immediately asks: “What did God say to you?” But when Joshua replies that on many prior occasions when, as Moses’ assistant, he had sat outside, Moses had invariably explained that he could not reveal the content of his privileged communication. Now the torch had been passed and, Joshua replied, he must act in the same way. Moses, burning with jealousy, turns to God and says: “Better that I should die than live and envy Joshua.” And so, the rabbis teach, only then did Moses ascend the mountain, lie down and die.
Hertzberg has focused his commentary on a midrash that tells of Moses’ all too human response to being denied the right to enter the Promised Land on his own terms. Moses’ response is understandable and familiar to us. After all, change is difficult, particularly when we feel that were it not for the new reality, we would surely have seen our dreams fulfilled. Alas, life is full of change, and too short. As Ecclesiastes (1:8) admonishes, “All things are full of weariness; man may not give their story: the eye has never enough of seeing, nor the ear of hearing.”
The qualities required for communal leadership today are in many ways similar to those of the biblical period: a willingness to lead and a commitment to the task at hand, to be sure, but also a clear appreciation that one’s ultimate responsibility is to lead people in keeping with communal ideals, not to perpetuate what has always been done for the sake of institutional or personal ego.
The message of this week’s Torah reading is not the more things change, the more they remain the same. Rather, Parshat Pinchas teaches us that change is inevitable and our community requires a vision and a path appropriate to its time.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)