• Rav Yaakov Beasley




In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner







By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Our parasha begins with a selection.  Having risked his life to end the plague caused by the worship of Ba’al Pe’or, Pinchas is chosen by God to take part in a special covenant – a “brit shalom.” Previously, Aharon had died at Har Ha-Hor, and his son Elazar replaced him. According to Chazal, in a tradition also found in Josephus (Antiquities 5:357), the descendants of Elazar/Pinchas served as the Kohanim Gedolim until the time of Eli, who was the first of the house of Itamar to be high priest. His progeny controlled the high priesthood until King Shlomo, and from then on it reverted back into the hands of the sons of Elazar for the rest of Biblical history.

The parasha continues with the second census of the people in Sefer Bemidbar and the request of the daughters of Tzelofchad for a share of the Land of Israel. Hashem then tells Moshe to go up on the mountain and view the Land, as he will die in the desert and will not enter it. Moshe, in response, asks God to appoint a successor. This exchange is full of interest because of what it tells us about leadership. Indeed, confronted with his own mortality, Moshe’s first response is not to think about himself at all. In one of his final acts of leadership, Moshe does not complain or wallow in self-pity. Apparently, his own personal and psychological needs simply do not figure into his thinking.

This gesture demonstrates the mark of a true leader. Great leaders understand that the cause they serve is more important than themselves. Even as they lead, they prepare others to lead, so that, in Moshe’s own words here: “Hashem’s people will not be like a flock without a shepherd.”  After being informed of his upcoming death, Moshe turns to Hashem and requests that He ensure that the people have a proper leader to lead them into battle and face the other upcoming challenges. In response, Hashem directs Moshe to appoint Yehoshua and to place his hands upon him as a statement of passing on the reins of leadership.


The commentators dispute when this episode actually occurred.  The majority of opinions concur that it occurred at the time it is recorded, implying that months before he actually died, Moshe had already gone up the mountain and passed on the leadership to Yehoshua. According to this interpretation, the verses at the end of Sefer Devarim in Parashiyot Vayelekh and Ha'azinu regarding Moshe's ascent and statements to Yehoshua are a second, later story.  The Ramban claims (commentary to Bamidbar 27:12) that this conversation actually occurred a few months later than it is recorded, at the very end of Moshe's life.  Why does the Torah present it here?  Telling this story early completes the narrative and indicates that Moshe indeed fulfilled Hashem's dictates.


If one adopts the majority view, we have already come to the end of Moshe’s tenure here in Parashat Pinchas.  Even according to the Ramban, it is striking that Hashem chooses to command Moshe regarding his death at this point.  The gradual removal of the leadership responsibilities that began in Chapter 11 culminates with this exchange.

Despite Moshe’s apparently selfless behavior, the Rabbis hear some fascinating undertones in the parasha.  Within the context of Moshe’s prayer that Hashem appoint a successor to him, they find several hints that, in fact, Moshe had other hopes.  One hint is found in Hashem’s command to Moshe: “After you have seen [the land of Israel from afar] you also will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aharon was.” Rashi, intrigued by the apparently superfluous word “also,” makes the comment that “Moshe desired to die as Aharon had died.”  In what manner was Moshe envious of his brother? Did he wish to die painlessly like Aharon? Did he envy his brother's popularity? (The Torah states that when Aharon died, “all the children of Israel mourned him, something the Torah does not say in Moshe’s case).  Neither appears plausible.  Moshe, who did not seek leadership or popularity and risked his life entering the palace of the greatest dictator of his time, would not strive for these things at the end of his life. 

The Ketav Sofer, a nineteenth century commentator, gives a fascinating interpretation as to the source of Moshe’s envy. Aharon had the privilege of knowing that his children would follow in his footsteps. His son Elazar was appointed Kohen Gadol in his lifetime. To this day, Aharon’s direct descendents serve as kohanim for the Jewish People.  Accordingly to the Ketav Sofer, Moshe longed to see one of his sons, Gershom or Eliezer, take his place as leader of the people.


Rashi arrives at the same conclusion by noting a second clue. The passage in which Moshe asks God to appoint a successor follows the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, who asked that they inherit the share in the Land of Israel that would have gone to their father had he not died. Rashi links the two episodes:


When Moshe heard Hashem tell him to give the inheritance of Tzelofchad to his daughters, he said to himself, “The time has come that I should make a request of my own - that my sons should inherit my position.” God replied to him, “This is not what I have decided. Yehoshua deserves to receive reward for serving you and never leaving your tent.” This is what Shlomo meant when he said, “He who keeps the vineyard shall eat its fruit, and he who waits on his master shall be honored.” Moshe’ prayer was not granted.


Thus, with their ears attuned to every nuance, the Sages and Rashi reconstruct a narrative that lies just beneath the surface of the biblical text. Despite all external signs, perhaps Moshe inwardly disappointed that neither Gershom nor Eliezer inherited his role.  What, indeed, happened to Moshe children?  According to one midrash, the priest who served in the story of Micha’s efod in Sefer Shoftim (chapters 17-18) was none other than Moshe’s own grandchild!


"And Yehonatan son of Gershom son of Menashe (the nun is dangling), he and and his sons were kohanim to the tribe of Dan" (Shoftim 18:30) - And was he the (grand)son of Menashe - wasn't he Moshe's grandson?  Rather, since his actions (idol worship) were those of Menashe (the idolatrous king of Yehuda), he was called Menashe ... (TB Baba Batra 109b)


Based on the fact that Moshe’s sons did not follow in his footsteps, the Talmud asks: “Why do the children of scholars often not turn out to be scholars themselves?  Rabbi Yosef said, ‘So that it not be said that the Torah came to them by inheritance’’ (Nedarim 71a).

Whatever his internal feelings, externally Moshe heroically maintains concern for one thing and one thing only: the future welfare of the Jewish People: "Moshe spoke to Hashem, saying: Hashem, God of all spirits should appoint a man over the congregation ... so that the congregation of Hashem should not be like sheep without shepherd" (27:15-17). Chazal point out that this is the only place in the entire Torah that it states "Va-yedaber MOSHE EL HASHEM LEIMOR." Usually, we read "Va-yedaber Hashem el Moshe leimor." Here, on behalf of the people, Moshe makes a demand of Hashem, just as Hashem had made demands of him. Moshe asks that Hashem prepare a leader for Bnei Yisrael who will be willing and able to carry the mantle of leadership forward.

There is no more fitting way to conclude our study of the tragic erosion in the leadership position of Moshe than with this final act of heroism shown by Moshe Rabbeinu, in spite of everything he has lost throughout the long process we have outlined. As Chazal state: "[This section] comes to highlight the praise of the tzaddikim; when they are about to depart from this world, they abandon concern for their own needs and involve themselves in the needs of the community" (Sifre, Pinchas 138).  Drawing our attention to the end of the narrative, Chazal noted the difference between the Divine command to Moshe “lay your hand” (singular) on Yehoshua, and its actual implementation, “He laid his hands” (in plural form).  We conclude with Rashi’s inspiring words, which not only resolvess the grammatical issue, but inspires us with an insight into Moshe’s internal thoughts:

“He laid his hands” – generously – in much greater measure than he had been commanded … making him as a vessel full to the brim and heaped up; so, too, he filled him with a generous helping of his wisdom. 

Moshe overcame all pangs of envy and demonstrated generosity and magnanimity in ordaining his successor.