In this week’s parsha, PINCHAS, we see Moshe passing on the leadership of the Jewish people to his successor. Given that the Torah portion is named after Pinchas, it would seem to make sense to think that the next leader is Pinchas. But that is not the case. Even though we may admire the passion and zeal of a Pinchas, we know that those qualities are not sufficient to make someone a leader. So, instead, Moses confers smicha on Joshua.
We’ve seen Joshua before—in the story of the Golden Calf, he’s the one who points out to Moses that the crowd seems to be riled up. We know that he was also one of the 12 spies, and he is one of the two to have the faith that the Israelites can conquer the land. Midrash also tells us that Joshua learned Torah directly from Moshe. And something you may not know: our sages have said that the face of Moses was like the sun, but that the face of Joshua was like the moon.
Think about that. What is the difference between the sun and the moon?
One rabbi tells us that the sun is the heavenly body that lights up the entire universe, but the moon allows other heavenly bodies to shine. That’s a nice distinction when we think about the differences between Joshua and Moshe. Moshe is the leader who speaks directly with God; he is an almost overwhelming presence, and there’s a lot of evidence that that aspect of his personality kept him separate from the Jewish people, even from his own family.
But Joshua is like the moon. Joshua lets others shine. He allows others to step forward and share in the glory. Moshe, as a brilliant leader and strategist, must have realized that the Jewish people needed a different kind of leader. It was time for the Israelites to be in their promised land, and to take more responsibility for their own actions. They have lived with Moshe and one miracle after another. The time has come for them to experience a new kind of leadership and a new phase in their history. The true leader is the one who can share leadership, and in so doing, can help others also become leaders. Like the moon in the sky, a true leader does not dominate but is able to delegate and share the glory. The Jewish people, with Joshua at the helm, will have to grow up. They are entering a new phase of maturity, leaving behind miracles and a direct connection to God. This is the phase we continue to find ourselves in. It remains our challenge to find and sustain a connection with God.
There is a Midrash that states that Pharaoh was deliberating what to do with his “Jewish problem” in Egypt. He had three advisors: Bilaam, Job, and Yitro. Bilaam gave him advice and ultimately was killed; Job remained silent during the deliberations and was consigned to suffer the punishments that are outlined in the book that bears his name and Yitro fled, earning the merit of having his descendants sit adjacent to the Sanhedrin. Bilaam witnessed everything that occurred, even at the Splitting of the Sea, and made no attempt to reach any conclusion, contrary to the experiences of Yitro. Near the end of today’s Parsha, even as he has failed to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam offers advice which causes many Jewish people to sin and lose their lives.
“Behold it is a nation that dwells alone and is not counted among the other nations” (23:9). The Beit HaLevi noted that Bilaam realized that B’nei Yisrael can only exist as a nation if it does not assimilate with other nations. Truly they must be a “nation alone” – only then will it continue to dwell and exist. However, “among the other nations” – if B’nei Yisrael attempts to become like other nations, they will not be counted! When Jews attempt to become like non-Jews of the world, they do not gain respect in the eyes of the Gentiles. To the contrary, they are looked down upon and reviled.
According to the Midrash, Bilaam was a prophet who curses, and he offered himself out for hire. The Midrash states that Sichon hired Bilaam and Bilaam’s father to curse Moav. Hence we see something that Rashi alluded to in the beginning of today’s parsha when Moav sent messengers to Midian so that the two countries can work together against Bnei Yisrael. Normally these two countries hated each other, but in order to fight Israel they made peace. We see this repeatedly in Jewish history. Several years ago, when Iraq and Iran were conducting a war against each other, but when it came to fighting Israel they become friends and allies. The Moabites, Midianites and Amorites hated each other, but when it came time to face what they perceived as a common enemy they would work together. When the enemy is the Jewish people, we have that unique ability to inspire people to get along with each other!
In this Parsha, we read of the death of Miriam who was Moshe’s sister, but, even more, his confidante. She provided the ear that he needed to be able to manage the challenges of leadership. I think that Miriam told him the truth. She was even willing to suffer God’s wrath when it came to speaking her mind. Soon after her death, Moshe committed the sole sin of his life-striking the rock in order to obtain water from it.
We all need a confidante. For some of us, it’s a spouse. But sometimes that’s a problem. Why? Well. Because there may be times when we might want to speak about our spouse. So, a friend, someone we can be honest with, who can tell us when we’re not being true to ourselves, that kind of friend is so precious.
I had a friend like that, a friend whom I told virtually everything to. I trusted him, and he never judged me, no matter how off the wall I might have been at the time. Jason passed away, and now, looking back, I think that, like Moshe and Miriam, I did not have the time to mourn him appropriately. It was Pesach, and I had sermons to write and services to lead. I was moving my residence. I was overwhelmed with grief, and like many men, I didn’t know how to express that grief. So, I exploded during a family Seder, damaging relationships within the mishpacha for years. I can’t help but connect that event with Moshe and Miriam.
We need to give ourselves time to grieve. We need to recognize the vacuum that the loss of a beloved friend leaves in our lives. We need to be patient with ourselves when we experience feelings of loss and disorientation and grief.
Of course, for those whose faith is strong, God can be a confidante. Praying to, speaking to God in times of difficulty can give us great comfort. But I suspect that there are times when we really need someone who talks back to us, someone who can nudge us back to where we want to be and where we should be. This is not an either/or—we can fill our lives with God AND with the friends so dear to us. Friends are mortal and we have to recognize that they will not be with us forever. But the story in our Parsha makes clear-as crazy as it may seem-that sometimes God is not enough-we need a friend.
The Parsha of Korach describes a mutiny against Moshe and his authority, an authority bestowed upon him by God. It has led our rabbis to comment that this conflict exemplifies an argument “not for the sake of heaven.” Such an argument, we are told, is one whose issues do not endure. Because they do not endure, like Korach and his followers, those arguments are swallowed up by the earth. They disappear, having never had any credibility in the first place. In contrast to such arguments, the Talmud makes it clear that the halachic debates between Hillel and Shammai were in the name of heaven and therefore enduring.
As we consider these different sorts of arguments, we can’t help but think about this distinction-between arguments that endure and those that are lost in time-might be a useful one by which to consider other questions. For example, think, back to the Lincoln/Douglas debates and the issue of slavery. With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, we can now see very clearly that that argument was not for the sake of heaven. Its issues have not endured. Every civilized person acknowledges that slavery is immoral and unjust. Perhaps even incomprehensible. Like Korach, those ascribing to the opposite view have been consigned to the earth’s depths. In fact, there was probably even evidence for this perspective back in the mid-19th century or even before. The founders of this country, rather than defend slavery, worried about the impact of so radical a change on the young country’s formation. Our Constitution never even mentions ‘slavery,’ perhaps an indication pf the moral embarrassment we hope our forefathers felt about the practice. Likewise, 19th century defenders worried about the economic losses the South would suffer if slavery were to be abolished. Such indirection, again we hope, may suggest discomfort with such a vile practice.
Similarly, no one challenges the right of women or people of color to vote, However long and divisive those struggles were, we look back and wonder how anyone could have defended the opposite view. Not for the sake of heaven.
Where, then, is a Machloket L’Shaym HaShamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven? I’m sure we cal all come up with different examples-and as Conservative Jews, we are likely to have different examples than our Reform or Orthodox counterparts. But some occur to me: What characterizes the next life? Why is there evil in the world? How do we understand the nature of the soul? We may never-at least until the Mashiach comes-have the true answers to these questions, but the debates themselves will never be swallowed up by the earth because reasonable people can entertain differing points of view on these subjects. These are indeed Godly discussions and perhaps, regardless of our views on these issues, we can all learn something from them and even from those with whom we disagree.
When Moshe charges the spies to check if there are trees in the Promised Land, Rashi interprets the tree as a reference to righteous individuals who could protect the inhabitants against invasion. Different trees represent different qualities in a human being. The fruit of the tree also would indicate various positive qualities. A leader who is compared to a vine possesses a combination of wisdom and taste. The person is unique in his stature. These were qualities both Yehudah and Yosef had in some fashion. An Eshkol is a cluster of grapes and here you have fruit that is combined together to indicate greater strength and perfection of quality. This individual being compared to an Eshkol is an individual who possesses many good qualities. Our Sages refer to Anshei Ha’Eshkalot : the early Sages whose wisdom was all-encompassing. The further statement by our Sages is that the word Eshkol is an acronym for Ish Shehakol Bo, a man in whom everything exists. This is a person who has good deeds and merit and would stand by his people and by his descendants for many years to come. This comment by our Sages gives us a tremendous insight into the qualities of a true friend and comrade of Avraham’s, a man by the name of Eshkol, mentioned in the Torah narrative. Is it possible that the Eshkol mentioned here is a reference to that Eshkol of Avraham’s time? Is it possible that Eshkol’s merits were still alive in the country so that he was the one who could offer protection and defense against an invasion? We can look at all of these entries in the narrative and put together that Eshkol’s relationship with Avraham would indicate transference of the merits to Avraham’s descendants and not to Eshkol’s.
The text tells us that the spies ascended into the Negev desert area and then he came to Chevron (13:22). The obvious question is why the verb changed from plural to singular in the text. All the spies came to the Promised Land but only one of them went to Chevron, and that one, according to the Gemara (Sotah 34b) was Calev. In that Talmudic reference Rava teaches us that Calev departed from the body of spies and went to pray at the patriarchal graves so that he would be saved from the evil counsel of the spies. The essential teaching of Rava’s statement is that it is possible for one individual to stand up and be against the current when the majority of people are going in the wrong direction. To swim against the current is a very difficult thing to do. There is no question that Calev was seeking divine inspiration and strength from his ancestry in order to fight the current. The usage of the ancestors here is quite appropriate. Not just because we have a concept of the merits of the ancestors, but also because each of our patriarchs swam against the current. Nobody else had an idea of monotheism at that time. They went against the grain of society. That is why they were called Ivrim. They came from the other side of the river. They truly stood out and chartered their own course in life. Consequently, the statement here that the rabbis are teaching us is not only to compliment Calev but also teach us a lesson that it is necessary for the Jewish people to stand up frequently.