The Haftara for Simchat Torah (1): From Moshe to Yehoshua

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Translated by David Strauss




            The first chapter of the book of Yehoshua constitutes a natural continuation to the story of the death of Moshe, and therefore its having been chosen as the haftara for Parashat Ve-zot Ha-berakha need not surprise us.  Indeed, the haftara suits the parasha, and the parasha suits the haftara.  There is, however, a certain problem with the prevalent custom: it contradicts an explicit Gemara.  The Gemara in Megilla (31a) unequivocally establishes with respect to Simchat Torah: "The next day [i.e., the day after Shemini Atzeret outside of Israel] we read Ve-zot Ha-berakha and we read as the haftara Va-Ya'amod Shlomo." Already the Tosafot (ad loc.) note the difficulty:


In some places it is customary to read as haftara "Va-Yehi Acharei Mot Moshe."  This, however, is a gross error, for the Gemara does not say this.  Some say that Rav Hai Gaon instituted reading Va-Yehi Acharei Mot Moshe, but we do not know the reason that he changed the order in the Gemara.


            The truth is that the custom of reading the first chapter of Yehoshua as the haftara for Zot Ha-berakha is indeed documented already in the Gaonic period.  For example, Siddur Rav Sa'adya Gaon simply records our custom, whereas Seder Rav Amram Gaon cites the two customs.  Rishonim, like the Rambam and the Rosh, also mention both possibilities.  It is clear then that our custom became more and more dominant over time.[1]


            At the heart of the issue is the question what do we wish to focus on in this haftara – the matter of the holiday, in which case we should choose a haftara that deals with a blessing that was given to the people, which is the original reason for reading Ve-zot Ha-berakha on Shemini Atzeret;[2] or do we prefer a chapter that reflects the contents of the parasha.  For we are dealing here with a unique situation in which the reading for the Yom Tov is also one of the weekly parashiyot.  Now, according to the thesis I developed in my course on the haftarot (, that the primary function of the haftara is to relate to the existential condition of man in the framework of the yearly cycle and the cycle of life, rather than to serve as an interpretation of the Torah reading, it is clear that the scales should be tipped in favor of the holiday.  The haftara should then reflect Shemini Atzeret, rather than relate to the contents of Zot Ha-berakha.  Indeed, the Gemara accepts this approach and establishes the haftara according to the special significance of the day, similar to Shabbat that falls out on Chanuka, Rosh Chodesh and the like, and it does not consider the parasha.  Our custom, however, requires clarification, for it gives priority to the parasha over the day.


            This, however, is clearly not the case.  Our custom does not give preference to the connection to the parasha over the existential messages connected to the yearly cycle.  Rather, our custom sees the connection between the haftara and Parashat Ve-zot Ha-berakha as bearing an existential message, owing to the fact that the parasha seals the Torah.  Our interest lies not in the plot of the parasha, but in the fact that it serves as the Torah's conclusion.  Therefore, the more that the day assumed the character of the holiday of Simchat Torah, rather than the day on which by chance we finish reading the Torah, the more the inner logic of the institution of reading a haftara allowed, and perhaps even necessitated the replacement of the blessing of Shlomo with the beginning of the book of Yehoshua.


            Let us move on now from the discussion of the selection of the haftara to an analysis of its contents.




            The transfer of leadership from Moshe to Yehoshua was natural and expected – assuming that the leadership should be passed on to Moshe's most distinguished disciple rather than to his son – and was determined by God Himself.[3] Shortly before his death, Moshe too emphasized that he was appointing Yehoshua as his replacement to lead the people in his stead:


And Moshe called to Yehoshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel, Be strong and of a good courage: for you must go with this people into the land which the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall cause them to inherit it… And he gave Yehoshua the son of Nun a charge, and said, Be strong and of a good courage: for you shall bring the children of Israel in to the land of which I swore to them: and I will be with you.  (Devarim 31:7, 23)


            In this he followed the principle that he had received from God who had established at the time of Yehoshua's ordination that he should be appointed leader in the sight of the entire nation:


And the Lord said to Moshe, Take you Yehoshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him; and set him before Elazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight.  And you shall put some of your honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may be obedient.  (Bamidbar 27:18-20)


            Nevertheless, the transfer of leadership is not a bed of roses, and Yehoshua's appointment is not simple in the eyes of the people.  Despite all their bitterness and their complaints about Moshe, who did not hesitate to say to them, "How can I myself alone bear your care, and your burden, and your strife" (Devarim 1:12), and despite all the friction between them, the people of Israel recognized that Moshe's authority drew its force not only from his being the savior of Israel, but also from his being their foremost prophet and Israel's teacher par excellence who had received the Torah.  The combination of these three functions in the same person bestowed authority and meaning upon Moshe's leadership and fortified his position vis-א-vis the people.  And then one day, Moshe died and Yehoshua succeeded him.  Despite all of Yehoshua's virtues and spiritual greatness, he clearly did not reach Moshe's supreme spiritual level.  This allowed the people to refuse to accept Yehoshua as their leader and to challenge him, for there was no denying the fact that Yehoshua was not Moshe's equal.


            Therefore, what was most urgently needed immediately at the beginning of the book of Yehoshua, prior to Israel's entry into the land and the beginning of their conquest, was a reinforcement of Yehoshua's status as leader.  This is the subject of our haftara.  It is important to note that we are dealing with a process that begins in chapter 1, but continues through the first few chapters of the book, so that our chapter is part of a broader whole, as we shall see below.


            The beginning of the haftara emphasizes Moshe's unique level as "servant of the Lord" and Yehoshua's standing as "Moshe's minister":


Now after the death of Moshe the servant of the Lord, it came to pass, that the Lord spoke to Yehoshua the son of Nun, Moshe's minister, saying.  (Yehoshua 1:1)


            The first half of the verse alludes to the problematic challenge of leading the people of Israel as successor to a person who was the servant of God and earning the people's trust in this position.  Let us not forget that the one time that the people thought that Moshe had left them, they went into a panic and lost control, ultimately reaching the terrible sin of the golden calf.  While it is true that forty years had passed since then, it was a new generation, and Moshe had prepared them at the end of his life for his exit from the stage, it is still not clear how the people will react to his death and replacement by another leader.  The second half of the verse, which describes Yehoshua as "Moshe's minister" points to the problematic nature of Yehoshua's appointment.  On the one hand, he was the closest person to Moshe and his most loyal follower, and therefore he was worthy to take his place; on the other hand, this fact is liable to raise concern among the people that his achievements do not follow from his own personality but from Moshe's greatness, and if Moshe is gone, then the source of Yehoshua's strength is gone as well.  In other words, if “Moshe's countenance is similar to the sun, and Yehoshua's to the moon” (Bava Batra 75b), of what value is the moon when the sun no longer shines?


God, therefore, strengthens Yehoshua's hand and stresses by way of a Divine promise that Yehoshua will continue Moshe's accomplishments and merit the same help from heaven:


Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given to you, as I said to Moshe.  From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Perat, all the land of the Chitti, as far as the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your border.  No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life: as I was with Moshe, so I will be with you.  I will not fail you, nor forsake you.  Be strong and of a good courage: for you shall cause the people to inherit the land, which I swore to their fathers to give them.  Only be strong and very courageous, and observe to do according to all the Torah, which Moshe My servant commanded you: turn not from it to the right hand nor to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go.  (ibid. vv. 3-7)


            It is important to pay attention to the many times that Moshe is mentioned in these verses, the key sentence in this context undoubtedly being the assertion that "as I was with Moshe, so I will be with you." If we examine these references, we see that the first one relates to the matter of leadership and promises that Yehoshua will achieve the accomplishments promised to Moshe.  This point is of great importance, for it is not self-evident to the people that the promises given to Moshe are still valid.  Perhaps these things were promised to Moshe owing to his righteousness and closeness to God, rather than promises connected to the actualization of the historical destiny of Israel as a nation! Surely some passages in the Torah leave us with the impression that God's promises to the patriarchs and His covenant with them followed from their personal righteousness.  (It was, therefore, possible to rely on the covenant with the patriarchs even at the difficult hour of the sin of the golden calf, for it does not depend on the people of Israel in and of themselves, but on a commitment to Israel via the patriarchs.) Thus, there is room to think that some of the promises that had been given to Moshe were also valid only under his leadership.  God, therefore, emphasizes that Yehoshua will actualize the far-reaching promise that "every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given to you, as I said to Moshe." The promise had not been given to Moshe as an individual, but as the leader of a nation, and anyone who takes his place as leader will merit to actualize it as the shepherd of Israel.




            The second mention of Moshe in this passage does not relate to the realization of goals, but to the obligations cast upon Yehoshua owing to the Torah that he had received from Moshe: "Only be strong and very courageous, and observe to do according to all the Torah, which Moshe My servant commanded you." Aside from the obligation upon every individual to fulfill the Torah, the emphasis that is placed upon the fact that it was Moshe who had commanded Yehoshua is important in the context of Yehoshua's appointment.  Since his entire standing stems from his being "Moshe's minister," his following in the path commanded by Moshe is what justifies his leadership.  His abandonment of this path, God forbid, would not merely be a religious transgression, but rather it would pull the rug out from under his standing as leader, both according to the truth vis-א-vis God, and vis-א-vis the nation and their expectations.


            Indeed, in the closing verses of the chapter and haftara, we can see the slightly hesitant attitude of the people toward Yehoshua's new leadership.  When Yehoshua turns to the people of Gad and Reuven to fulfill the commitment that they had given to Moshe, the backing that they give to his leadership is full and broad, but conditional:


Pass through the midst of the camp, and command the people, saying, “Prepare your food; for within three days you shall pass over this Jordan, to go in to possess the land, which the Lord your God gives you to possess it.”  And to the Re'uveni, and to the Gadi, and to half the tribe of Menashe, Yehoshua spoke saying, “Remember the word which Moshe the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, The Lord your God gives you rest, and will give you this land.  Your wives, your little ones, and your cattle shall remain in the land which Moshe gave you on the far side of the Jordan; but you shall pass before your brethren armed, all the mighty men of valor, and help them; until the Lord has given your brethren rest, as he has given you, and they also have possessed the land which the Lord your God gives them: then you shall return to the land of your possession, which Moshe the Lord's servant gave you on the far side of the Jordan, toward the sun rising, and occupy it.”  And they answered Yehoshua, saying, “All that you command us we will do, and wherever you send us, we will go.  As we hearkened to Moshe in all things, so will we hearken to you: only the Lord your God be with you, as He was with Moshe.  Whoever rebels against your commandment, and will not hearken to your words in all that you command him, he shall be put to death: only be strong and of a good courage.”  (vv. 11-18)


            First of all, attention should be paid to the fact that Yehoshua mobilizes Moshe's authority and prestige to justify his request; he does not approach them based on his independent status as leader.  Moreover, he does not content himself with a general mention of Moshe as leader, but rather he mobilizes Moshe's designation as servant of the Lord as the basis for their obligation to fulfill the mission that they had accepted upon themselves.  We are left with the impression that at this point Yehoshua feels that he is still in need of Moshe's authority if people are to listen to him.


            The response of the people of Gad and Reuven is very interesting.  On the one hand, they accept Yehoshua's authority and give him their full backing as Moshe's successor, "As we hearkened to Moshe in all things, so will we hearken to you." They promise to strengthen his position, beyond what is stated in the Torah, which does not spell out in detail the punishment awaiting one who rebels against royalty: "Whoever rebels against your commandment, and will not hearken to your words in all that you command him, he shall be put to death."


            On the other hand, their words allude to the points raised above.  First, the very need to emphasize the law governing one who rebels against royalty and his punishment testifies that this appeared to them as a realistic possibility which must be contended with, and that it is possible that some members of the people of Israel will not obey Yehoshua.  So too, even their attitude toward Yehoshua's leadership is still found in Moshe's shadow, and therefore they declare their loyalty to Yehoshua while referring to the leadership of Moshe.  The main point, however, is the explicit stipulation regarding Yehoshua: "As we hearkened to Moshe in all things, so will we hearken to you: only the Lord your God be with you, as He was with Moshe." There is here a declaration of absolute loyalty and readiness to kill all those who rebel against Yehoshua's authority, but it is all conditional: "Only the Lord your God be with you, as He was with Moshe." If they do not feel that God is supporting Yehoshua the way that He had supported Moshe, their loyalty and support will be withdrawn.




            At this point our haftara comes to an end, but the attempt to support Yehoshua and place upon him some of Moshe's glory continues in the coming chapters.  Many of the episodes in these chapters parallel actions taken by Moshe, this in order to fortify Yehoshua's standing.  This is especially evident in chapter 3, which recounts the story of Israel's crossing of the Jordan, when the associations with the parting of the Red Sea are self-evident.  Not only the very parting of the waters into two, but even the wording of the passage consciously parallels the verses in the Torah.  Thus, for example, we encounter the following expressions: "And it came to pass, when the people moved" (3:14), "When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean you by these stones? then you shall answer them" (4:6-7), "And these stones shall be for a memorial" (4:7), "And all Israel passed over on dry ground" (3:17).  If these shared formulations are not enough, Scripture removes all doubt when the prophet himself asserts: "For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan from before you, until you were passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us, until we were gone over" (4:23).


            The purpose of these similarities is also stated explicitly by Scripture both at the beginning and at the end of its description of Israel's crossing of the Jordan.  At the beginning it says: "And the Lord said to Yehoshua, This day will I begin to magnify you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moshe, so I will be with you." (3:7).  And at the end of the section it says: "On that day the Lord magnified Yehoshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they feared Moshe, all the days of his life" (4:14).  Thus it is stated explicitly that it was God's intention to bring the people to recognize Yehoshua's leadership as they had recognized that of Moshe, and that He will work toward that end in His governance of Israel when they enter the Land.  The problematic aspect of Yehoshua's standing is indeed an important issue that occupies Scripture at the beginning of the book of Yehoshua, and Divine providence works to fortify his standing.  In our chapter this is done primarily through the command given to Yehoshua, whereas in the continuation actions are taken to demonstrate to the people the continuity and authority of Yehoshua's leadership.  As we have seen, this goal is indeed reached: "On that day the Lord magnified Yehoshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they feared Moshe, all the days of his life" – Yehoshua becoming the unchallenged leader of Israel.


[1] Comprehensive documentation of the various sources dealing with this issue may be found in A. Ya'ari's Toledot Chag Simchat Torah (Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1998), pp. 55-62.  It should be noted that attempts were made to combine the two customs, as is explained there.

[2] See ibid., pp. 32-34.  It may be added that "blessing" is one of the characteristics that set Shemini Atzeret off as a separate festival.  See Rosh ha-Shana 4b, and Tosafot, ad loc., s.v. PaZaR).

[3] See Bamidbar 27:15-23, and Devarim 31:14.