Parshat Pinchas: After Moshe... Yehoshua


Before its exposition of the holidays and their respective sacrificial offerings, the Torah gives us its only reversal of the most repeated verse in the Torah. Normally it says “And G-d spoke to Moshe saying.” Here it says “And Moshe spoke to G-d saying.”

Moshe’s instruction to God centered around his concern that with his own passing, the people would be left without a leader – like a flock without a shepherd. Understandably, after seeing his brother die, his nephew Elazar fill the vacant shoes, and now his great-nephew Pinchas slated to be the next inline for the High Priest position, Moshe wants to see that the next person is ready to take on the leadership role to complete the project he started: to bring the people to the Promised Land.

In all the pomp and ceremony, perhaps the most significant element of Yehoshua’s new appointment is his being put into a position in which he will direct questions to the Urim V’tumim, the divinely controlled mechanism in Elazar the High Priest’s breastplate that provides a direct line of communication with the Divine.

It becomes the ultimate lesson in irony.

The Talmud (Eruvin 63a) points out that this connection was never utilized. Both Yehoshua and Elazar were punished, in a sense, for speaking out of turn in the presence of Moshe. Yehoshua instructed Moshe to put Eldad and Meidad in jail (Bamidbar 11:28), and Elazar taught everyone the laws of kashering metals in the aftermath of the Midian war (Bamidbar 31:21-24). Yehoshua’s punishment was that he never had children, and Elazar’s punishment was that Yehoshua never needed him.

To be fair, the Midrash Aggadah suggests that Yehoshua never needing Elazar was more of a reward to Yehoshua, as per the verse in Mishlei 27:18, “He who guards his master shall be honored.”

Regardless, the fact is that there was a high anticipation of the new generation of leadership sharing an incredible professional relationship. Aharon and Moshe worked well together because they were brothers and because their personalities complemented one another in many respects.

Would Yehoshua and Elazar have a similar rapport? We never find out.

There’s an old Yiddish saying (some claim German origins) that “A mentsh tracht und Gott lacht - Man plans and God laughs.” [On the internet, I found some people ascribing its origins to Tehillim 33:10 and Mishlei 16:9]

Perhaps we can suggest that even Moshe, in a sense, spoke out of turn to G-d. For all of Moshe’s plans, even Yehoshua did not leave a successor. In this regard maybe the anarchy of the book of Shoftim is partly attributable to Yehoshua’s poor leadership choice.

In the end, our charge is to do our best, in as humble a manner and in as G-d-fearing a manner as we can.

But G-d puts them in our hands when we do our part to make it happen, and when He feels, at this stage, that we are deserving. But we must be doing something if G-d is going to help us fulfill our goals.

A classic Jewish joke has Mendel praying to G-d to help him win the lottery. After months and months and no winning, Mendel comes to the Western Wall and screams at G-d, “After all I’ve done for You! After all the sacrifices and promises!”

All of a sudden, the heavens open and G-d’s voice communicates directly with Mendel, “Mendel you are my most beloved. But for heaven’s sake – buy a ticket!”

We may be most deserving. But nothing’s going to happen just because we are good people. Very few are so lucky.

And for those who are in the trenches, sometimes we walk on a thin line between getting exactly what we want, and becoming destined to never reach that which should have otherwise been our absolute potential.

The words of Micha (6:8) in last week’s haftorah say it best. “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly/humbly with your G-d.”