Succeeding Moses

Pinehas By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On Jul 10, 2004 / 5764 | A Taste of Torah

The Five Books of Moses bears this title because of the prominence of the man, Moses. Those who accept the traditional view of the origin of the Torah, also accept this nomenclature as a matter of course. Moses transmitted the Torah to his people and taught it to them. However, not accepting this view of the Torah’s origin does not in any way diminish the role of Moses in telling the narrative of the Torah. He is the central human character in every book, starting with Exodus.

At this week’s Torah reading, the story of Moses and his people comes to a key juncture. Moses, until now, has led the people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the edge of the Promised Land. He has exercised every leadership role simultaneously – prophet, general, judge and teacher. The only exception to this vast portfolio of responsibilities is the role of kehunah, or priest. Yet, even so, the fact that Aaron holds this office, can be seen as Aaron acting in place of Moses, just as Aaron served as his spokesman to Pharaoh.

At this point in the story, which is near the end of the Book of Numbers, the Israelites are not the same people as the Israelites who left Egypt forty years prior. The Exodus generation has passed on. So have Miriam and Aaron. God now designates a person to lead the people as they go forward. God also designates successors, specifically for Moses and Aaron. Pinhas, Aaron’s grandson, is named as the next to be appointed to the priesthood, a position that will become hereditary, subject to a covenant between the family to which the current priest belongs, and God. ( 25:13). Joshua is to be the successor to Moses, designated to lead the people into the Promised Land. Yet, Joshua is not permitted to be a new Moses. Moses is to invest him with some of his own authority (27:20), and Joshua’s decisions will be subject to divine intervention through the oracular powers exercised by the High Priest (27:21).

Moses set an example for future generations of leaders by the qualities he embodied. But, he did not set an example by the roles he filled, which were separated out into distinct jobs. For most of Jewish history, the division of labor between Joshua and Pinhas, has persisted. No one man (or woman, as in the case of Deborah, or Queen, as in the case of Shlomzion in the Hasmonean period) was both priest and chief executive. The unfolding of the succession to Moses illustrates a key lesson: there are some leaders who are exemplary, but their examples should not be completely followed. The totality of their lives and actions should not, and cannot, be the model for future generations. The individual who can be like Moses in all manifestations is rare to the point of non-existent. To accord a person, even someone outstanding, with all the powers of Moses, is to risk the abuse of that power.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.