Between the Lines—Nitzavim-Vayeilekh

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

(במדבר כז יח) ויאמר ה' אל משה קח לך את יהושע בן נון קח לך גברתן כמותך. קח לך אינו אלא בלקיחה לפי שאין חבר נקנה אלא בקשי קשין מכאן אמרו יקנה אדם חבר לעצמו שיהא קורא עמו ושונה עמו אוכל עמו ושותה עמו וגולה לו סתריו וכן הוא אומר (קהלת ד ט) טובים השנים מן האחד (שם קהלת ד יב) והחוט המשולש לא במהרה ינתק

כיון שמת משה היה יהושע בוכה ומצעק ומתאבל עליו במרד והיה אומר אבי אבי רבי רבי אבי שגדלני רבי שלמדני תורה והיה מתאבל עליו ימים רבים עד שאמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא ליהושע יהושע עד כמה אתה מתאבל והולך וכי לך בלבד מת משה והלא לא מת אלא לי שמיום שמת אבל גדול הוא לפני שנאמר (ישעיה כב יב) ויקרא ה' אלהים ביום ההוא לבכי ולמספד וגו' אלא מובטח לו שבן העולם הבא הוא שנאמר (דברים לא טז) ויאמר ה' אל משה הנך שכב עם אבותיך וקם

And the Lord said to Moses: Take for yourself Joshua the son of Nun . . . (Num. 27:18): Take for yourself—a man as heroic as yourself. One can do this only by taking possession, for one cannot acquire a friend except by great effort, as the Sages have said: One should acquire a friend for himself, to study Torah with him, and to reveal his secrets to him, as it is said, Two are better than one . . . (Eccles. 4:9), and . . . a threefold cord is not quickly broken (Eccles. 4:12).

Upon the death of Moses, Joshua wept, wailed, and mourned bitterly, saying, "My father, my father, my master, my master, my father who has raised me, my master who has taught me Torah!" He kept mourning over him for many days, until the Blessed Holy One said to him, "Joshua, how long will you continue mourning? Does his death affect you alone? Does not his death truly affect Me? For from the day he died there has been great mourning before Me, as it is said, And in that day did the Lord, the God of Hosts, call to weeping, and to lamentation, etc. (Isa. 22:12); but he is assured of the world to come, as it is said, And the Lord said to Moses: Behold, you are about to sleep with your ancestors and . . . will arise . . . (Deut. 31:16)."

Almost one year has passed since my late friend and Rabbinical School classmate Rafi Lehmann (z"l) died. The bitterness I felt that day for our collective loss remains, as his cohort has since been ordained and we have begun our careers in the rabbinate without him.

In preparing for Rafi's first yahrzeit on the day after Yom Kippur, I take solace in lessons from the midrash above. The Sages imagine Joshua learning from Moses as "our Teacher" and with him as "a friend"; the younger leader's cries to his "master" and "father" demonstrate the powerful and multifaceted relationship between the two men. Joshua's bereavement eventually evokes an emotional response from God, whose rhetorical questions express both intense sadness and hope. While we can hardly fathom how the death of any individual affects God, this midrash assures us that our deceased heroes have departed from us only in a physical sense. Those who acquired Rafi as a friend expended great effort to match his example of love for Torah, dedication to community, and pious joy for life.

Throughout the coming High Holy Days and beyond, let those of blessed memory inspire all of us to recommit ourselves to continued learning and acts of righteousness in their honor. May the merit of our efforts further establish their sacred legacy.