|When Moses asked G-d to appoint a successor, the Midrash says that G-d answered Before you command Me concerning My children, command My children concerning Me. Moses proceeded to command the Jewish people concerning the laws of the daily and holiday sacrifices. What quality must a Jewish leader possess? When the Jewish people feared that Moses would not return from Mt. Sinai, they asked his brother, Aaron, to create something (this was actualized in the Golden Calf) to fill the void. They didn’t ask for a human replacement, they asked for a god, some idolatrous intermediary that (they believed) had power to help them, as Moses did, to connect to G-d.
When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us a god that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him. (Exodus 32:1)
It’s crucial to note that they asked for something that would “go before us.” When Moses was with them, they viewed his leadership as going before them—accomplishing what his followers couldn’t—and that is what they felt they were missing now.
Moses did eventually return and years later, before he died, he asked G-d to appoint a successor. What qualities did he request his successor possess? He asked for a leader “who will go out before them and who will bring them out and bring them in.” (27:17) The leader’s job is not merely to walk “before” the people, rather he was to remain with them—approachable and in their midst at all times. He would help bring them in and out by serving as a model to be emulated and as a guide and teacher but the actual going in and out they would have to do for themselves.
The Talmud instructs us that when a family member is sick one should go to a sage and ask for mercy. One explanation is that from the sage one can learn the ways of prayer so that the man or woman themselves can ask for mercy for their sick relative. The ideal is not that the sage prays instead of the person, rather he merely serves as an instructor of prayer and teaches the person how to pray.
Why was Joshua chosen as a successor? He demonstrated that he understood that a leader does not act instead of the people, but rather provides a model to follow. Because he understood this more clearly than any of his contemporaries, he was chosen to succeed Moses. This has applications for contemporary Jews. Some people feel that the Rabbi is the one who does Mitzvot on their behalf. They pay dues at a synagogue with the understanding that they are absolved from any observance—after all that’s what the Rabbi is paid to do. Shabbos, kosher, Yom Tov (holidays) or anything else is for a religious functionary. This is a huge mistake, one we have learned from other religions in which a religious official is the only one qualified to do certain things or say certain prayers. The clergyman is the only one expected to be holy and constantly strive in spiritual matters.
Years ago I counseled a couple in which the wife was disappointed by one of her husband’s behavioral patterns. I explained that a part of it wasn’t unique to her husband, it was a “guy thing” and that I too had fallen into that rut in the early years of our marriage. But, I assured her, I sought counsel and worked on it and became a more sensitive husband as a result. She replied, “you’re a Rabbi and work on yourself; how is that applicable to my husband?” I discussed this very point with her and it was a revelation that a Rabbi’s job is to facilitate and instruct but character development is incumbent on us all. The Torah was given to the entire Jewish nation en masse to demonstrate the point that it is applicable to all, not just the ordained.
Many Jews are surprised to discover that a Rabbi doesn’t have to officiate or even be present at a synagogue service, wedding, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, funeral, baby naming or any other community or lifecycle event. He doesn’t have a special prayer pipeline to G-d; all of us have this power within us but it’s easier to outsource it to the Rabbi, which can sometimes be a cause of laziness and shirking one’s Jewish obligations.
Joshua was the heir to Jewish leadership because he was the one who could follow the model of Moses. He, and every bonafide religious leader after him, would educate and be a model for the people, not a conscience soother. Ultimately, the greatness of our leaders will be commensurate with the caliber of their followers.
(Sources: Yalkut Shimoni Bamidbar 228; Numbers 27:17; Bava Basra 116a with the commentary Meiri; Rav Zev Leff)
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