With the parsha of V'Zot HaBracha the Torah reaches its conclusion. While the vast majority of the parsha records Moshe's final blessings to each of the tribes, the parsha also records Moshe's death itself. The inevitable transpires: Moshe dies and is replaced.
Surely the death of such an unparalleled leader created a vacuum that is hard for us to imagine. Moshe wore so many hats: he was teacher, warrior, and perhaps king.(1) He was a spiritual and religious leader par excellence, but at the same time he was a man of action. It was he who facilitated and oversaw the transfer of an enormous population from Egypt to within a shadow's distance of the Promised Land. This was not merely a population transfer, it was a transformation from slavery to freedom, from a people who were weak and meek - to a people who became partners with the Almighty at Sinai. This transformation went far beyond the geographical, economic or political; it was an existential metamorphosis which impacted the core of the national psyche, the very soul of a tattered nation. Such change requires a special leader.
Of all the facets of Moshe's personality, the one recorded for posterity, which became his defining appellation, is "Moshe Rabbeinu" - our teacher, our Rebbi. He is the man who ascended Sinai and brought down the Torah. His successor, no matter how talented, no matter how well-trained for the post - would take up the position with the knowledge that in any comparison they would fall short; others could learn Torah - but who else could wrest it from the hands of angels and bring a piece of divinity to earth?
R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: When Moshe ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He, 'Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of woman amongst us?' 'He has come to receive the Torah,' answered He to them. Said they to Him, 'That secret treasure, which You have hidden for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You desire to give to flesh and blood?! What is man, that You are mindful of him, and the son of man, that You visit him? [Tehilim 8] O Lord our God, How excellent is Your Name in all the earth, who has set Your glory [the Torah] upon the Heavens!' 'Return them an answer... (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 88b)
The task of filling Moshe's shoes fell upon Yehoshua ben Nun. He was a warrior and a scholar, a man who in many ways stood head and shoulders above his peers. Not only was he Moshe's most devoted student, he had already successfully led the Israelites in battle, defending the nation against the onslaught of Amalek, and withstood the evil council of the other spies with whom he had scouted out the Promised Land. Nonetheless, when the leaders of that generation compared him to Moshe, they lamented their loss:
"And you shall put of your honor upon him' - but not all your honor. The elders of that generation said: The countenance of Moshe was like that of the sun; the countenance of Yehoshua was like that of the moon. Alas, for such shame! Alas for such reproach! (Talmud Bavli, Baba Batra 75a)
Yehoshua glowed - but his glow was dim in comparison(2) to Moshe. The loss was traumatic: The people mourned Moshe, and learning ceased - as is the custom when any major figure passes away:
Our Rabbis taught: When a chacham dies, his beth midrash is idle; when the av bet din dies, all the batei midrash in his city are idle and [the people of the synagogue] enter the synagogue[s] and change their [usual] places: those that [usually] sit in the north sit in the south and those that [usually] sit in the south sit in the north. When a nasi dies, all the batei midrash are idle ... (Talmud Bavli, Moed Kattan 22b)
How much more so when Moshe died: his death was not only mourned on that day, or for the next few days; to this very day, his death leaves us inconsolable, and, according to Tosfot, the custom to say tziduk hadin in the afternoon service every Shabbat commemorates the day and time of Moshe's death.(3) There are those who refrain from the study of Torah after Mincha on Shabbat as a sign of bereavement for Moshe.(4)
Aside from the expressions of grief and loss, rabbinic sources articulate the loss of Moshe in quantitative terms. With Moshe's death, learning and knowledge were severely affected.
Rav Yehudah reported in the name of Rav: When Moshe departed [this world] for the Garden of Eden he said to Yehoshua: 'Ask me concerning all the doubts you have.' He replied to him: "My Master, have I ever left you for one hour and gone elsewhere? Did you not write concerning me in the Torah: 'But his servant Yehoshua the son of Nun did not leave the tent' " [Shmot 33]? Immediately his strength weakened and he forgot three hundred laws and there arose [in his mind] seven hundred doubts [concerning laws]. Then all the Israelites rose up to kill him. The Holy One, blessed be He, then said to him [Yehoshua]: 'It is not possible to tell you. Go and occupy their attention in war, as it says: Now after the death of Moshe the servant of God, God spoke etc. It has been taught: A thousand and seven hundred kal vachomer and gezeirah shavahand specifications of the Scribes were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moshe. Said R. Avahu: Nevertheless Otniel the son of Kenaz restored [these forgotten teachings] as a result of his dialectics...(Talmud Bavli T'murah 16a)
With the demise of Moshe, Torah was forgotten; interestingly, it was not Yehoshua who restored the learning, but Otniel. Perhaps Yehoshua, who was arguably the closest person to Moshe still alive, took Moshe's death harder than others;(5) be that as it may, the people lamented Moshe's demise and Yehoshua's ascension.
What was it that made Yehoshua uniquely capable of stepping into Moshe's role? When it came to scholarship, Yehoshua was not necessarily the greatest living scholar; as we have seen, arguably Otniel was superior. Elsewhere, Rashi implies that Pinchas was superior to Yehoshua as a scholar.(6) Rashi applies a verse in the book of Malachi to Pinchas:
The Torah of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many away from iniquity. For the priest's lips should guard knowledge, and they should seek the Torah from his mouth; for he is a messenger (malach - angel) of the God of Hosts. (Malachi 2:6-7)
The priest in question who had the true Torah in his mouth was Pinchas. The verse is associated in the following passage where an additional aspect is revealed.
No other people sent to perform a religious duty and risking their lives in order to succeed in their mission can compare with the two men whom Yehoshua the son of Nun sent; as it says, 'And Yehoshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two spies heresh' (Yehoshua 2:1). Who were they? Our Rabbis taught: They were Pinchas and Calev.... When the [king's men] came to seek them, what did Rahav do? She took them away to hide them. Pinchas said to her: 'I am a kohen and kohanim are compared to angels; as it says, "For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the angel of the God of Hosts" (Malachi 2:7), and an angel, if he wishes, can be visible, and if he wishes he can be invisible...' (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 16:1)
Not only does Pinchas speak true Torah, he is compared to an angel of God. The parallel with Moshe should not be missed: Moshe, too, was angelic, in the sense that he subsisted without food or drink for forty days and nights on Sinai.
R. Tanhuma in R. Eleazar's name and R. Abun in R. Meir's name said: The proverb runs, 'when you enter a town, follow its customs' ('When in Rome, do as Rome does.') Above [in the celestial sphere] there is no eating and drinking; hence when Moshe ascended on high he appeared like them [the angels], as it says, Then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights; I did not eat bread nor drink water [Devarim 9: 9]. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 48: 14)
Despite being the teacher of his generation, and all subsequent generations, Moshe passed the Torah specifically and exclusively to Yehoshua. Others studied, and some excelled, but the tradition - the mesorah - was passed from Moshe to Yehoshua.
Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua, and Yehoshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly. (Avot 1:1)
In fact, rabbinic literature may exacerbate the problem: When the Talmud describes the scene of the Torah being taught in the beit midrash of Moshe, one person is conspicuously missing:
Our Rabbis learned: What was the procedure of the instruction in the oral law? Moshe learned from the mouth of the Omnipotent. Then Aaron entered and Moshe taught him his lesson. Aaron then moved aside and sat down on Moshe' left. Thereupon Aaron's sons entered and Moshe taught them their lesson. His sons then moved aside, Eleazar taking his seat on Moshe' right and Ithamar on Aaron's left. R. Yehuda stated: Aaron was always on Moshe's right. Thereupon the elders entered and Moshe taught them their lesson, and when the elders moved aside all the people entered and Moshe taught them their lesson. It thus followed that Aaron heard the lesson four times, his sons heard it three times, the elders twice and all the people once. At this stage Moshe departed and Aaron taught them his lesson. Then Aaron departed and his sons taught them their lesson. His sons then departed and the elders taught them their lesson. It thus followed that everybody heard the lesson four times. From here R. Eliezer inferred: It is a man's duty to teach his pupil [his lesson] four times. For this is arrived at a minori ad majus: Aaron who learned from Moshe who had it from the Omnipotent had to learn his lesson four times how much more so an ordinary pupil who learns from an ordinary teacher. (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 54b)
Where was Yehoshua during this process? He seems nowhere to be found! The Rambam addresses this problem indirectly in his description of the transmission of the Oral Law:
Elazar, Pinchas and Yehoshua all three received from Moshe. To Yehoshua, who was Moshe Rabbenu's student, he [i.e., Moshe] transmitted the Oral Torah, and commanded him regarding it. (Rambam, Introduction to Mishne Torah)
We see from the Rambam's formulation that while Moshe taught many people, Yehoshua, above all others, was his student. And only Yehoshua was entrusted with the mesorah - the oral tradition. Evidently, this is the Rambam's understanding of the Mishna in Avot - "Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua, Yehoshua to the elders." In a subsequent passage, the Rambam writes that Pinchas received the tradition from Yehoshua, which is remarkable statement, considering that Pinchas, too, had learned directly from Moshe.(7) As we saw above Moshe Rabbenu had one primary student, Yehoshua.(8)
Surely there were others who learned from Moshe; why was Yehoshua singled out - especially if others may have been superior?
When the daughters of Zelophehad inherited from their father, Moshe argued: The time is opportune for me to demand my own needs. If daughters inherit, it is surely right that my sons should inherit my glory. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: "Whoever tends the fig-tree shall eat of its fruit; and he that waits on his master shall be honored." (Mishlei 27:18) Your sons sat idly by and did not study the Torah. Yehoshua served you diligently and he showed you great honor. It was he who rose early in the morning and remained late at night at your House of Study; he would arrange the benches, and spread the mats. Seeing that he has served you with all his might, he is worthy to serve Israel, for he shall not lose his reward. "Take Yehoshua the son of Nun..." (Devarim 28:18), in confirmation of the text, "Whoever tends the fig-tree shall eat of its fruit." (Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar 21:14)
The Midrash tells us that Yehoshua was Moshe's constant companion, as the Torah attests in the book of Shmot:
And all the people saw the pillar of cloud stand at the Tent door; and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door. And God spoke to Moshe face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he turned again into the camp; but his servant Yehoshua, the son of Nun, a young man, did not leave the Tent. (Sh'mot 33:10-11) (9)
Yehoshua never left his teacher's side. Yehoshua was the one who set out the benches and tables in Moshe's beit midrash. Before all the other students arrived and after they left, Yehoshua was there. For this reason, and despite the fact that Moshe may have had more talented followers, Yehoshua was chosen by God as Moshe's successor.(10) In fact, this sort of constancy, the dedication to Moshe that distinguished Yehoshua from all the exceptional minds that learned from our greatest master, is the prototype that is institutionalized in the Talmud:
Our Rabbis taught: Who is an am ha'aretz (ignoramus)? Anyone who does not recite the Shema evening and morning. This is the view of R. Eliezer. R. Yehoshua says: Anyone who does not put ontefillin. Ben Azzai says: Anyone who does not have tzitzit on his garment. R. Nathan says: Anyone who has no mezuzah on his door. R. Nathan b. Yosef says: Anyone who has sons and does not bring them up to the study of the Torah. Others say: Even if one has learnt Scripture and Mishna, if he has not ministered to atalmid chacham, he is an am ha'aretz. R. Huna said: The halacha is as laid down by 'Others'. (Talmud Bavli Berachot 47b)
The Jewish view of wisdom is not necessarily what we might expect: erudition is only one part of the equation. To be scholarly - "book smart" - in the absence of serving a sage is insufficient at least, dangerous at worst. Knowledge is not simply a process of assimilating information; it requires the far more subtle skills that can only be acquired by sitting at the feet of a sage. There was never a greater sage than Moshe, nor was there a greater, more dedicated student than Yehoshua. When the time came to replace Moshe, God chose Yehoshua.
And Moshe spoke to God, saying: 'Let the Almighty, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation who will go out before them, and who will come in before them, and who will lead them out, and who will bring them in, so that the congregation of God shall not be as sheep that have no shepherd.' And God said to Moshe, 'Take Yehoshua the son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hand upon him. And give him from your glory, in order that the entire congregation listen...' (Bamidbar 27:15-19)
Yehoshua received the ultimate smicha (ordination): al pi Hashem byad Moshe, at the commandment of God by the hand of Moshe - precisely as the Torah itself(11) was given to the Jewish People.
Yehoshua's task would not be easy. The comparison with Moshe would never be flattering, and the decline in Torah study that followed Moshe's demise compounded the problem. And so, Moshe fortifies Yehoshua with words of encouragement, and calls upon him to be strong:
And Moshe called to Yehoshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel, 'Be strong and of a good courage; for you will go with this people to the Land which God has sworn to their fathers to give them; and you shall cause them to inherit it.' (Devarim 31:7)
Moshe was not alone in instructing Yehoshua to be strong; God Himself did so:
On that day, Moshe wrote down this song and taught it to the People of Israel. And [God] gave Yehoshua the son of Nun orders, and said, 'Be strong and brave; for you shall bring the People of Israel into the land that I promised to them, and I will be with you.' (Devarim 31:22-23)
And it was after the death of Moshe the servant of God that God spoke to Yehoshua the son of Nun, Moshe's accolyte, saying: 'Moshe my servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross over the Jordan, you, and all this people, to the land which I give to them, the People of Israel... Be strong and courageous; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land, which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the Torah, which Moshe my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right nor to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth; but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you?Be strong and courageous; be not afraid, nor be dismayed; for the Almighty your God is with you wherever you go. (Yehoshua 1:1-9)
We are told that Yehoshua never left Moshe's tent, and now, with the very same language, Yehoshua is told that the Torah will never leave him: The same word, 'Yamush,' is used to describe both Yehoshua's devoted service of Moshe and the constancy of Torah as Yehoshua's guiding light. Setteled with Torah, unwavering in his grasp of the mission with which he was entrusted, Yehoshua would be strong and therefore he would succeed:
Our Rabbis taught: Four things require strength, and they are [study of] the Torah, good deeds, prayer, and one's worldly occupation. How do we know this regarding Torah and good deeds? Because it says, 'Only be strong and very courageous to observe to do according to all the law'; 'be strong' refers to Torah study, and 'very courageous' refers to good deeds. (Talmud Bavli Brachot 32b)
We, too, must be strong. Completing any endeavor can induce mixed feelings: the joy of accomplishment, and fear of the future. As we complete the yearly Torah cycle we must pay attention to God's call for strength, and forge ahead to meet new challenges with joy and awe, not self-satisfied complacency. We start anew, once again taking up the study of Torah, rededicating ourselves to delving into our tradition to find greater, deeper meaning. We are charged with same mission that every link in the chain of the mesorah has accepted upon him- or herself: to devote ourselves, as Yehoshua did, to becoming a vehicle for the mesorah, to seek God in the words of the Torah, to take full advantage of the unparalleled opportunity presented by Torah study to peek into God's mind, to share God's thoughts.
CHAZAK CHAZAK V'NITCHAZEK!
1. The verse "And he was king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together," (Devarim 33:5) may apply to Moshe. See Ibn Ezra on the verse. Rashi opines that the verse refers to the King of Kings; however, see Rashi, Sanhedrin 36a , Bimokom Echad.
2. Many of the issues discussed in this shiur were taught by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in a class he gave on Tractate Brachot 32 on March 15th, 1957, entitled Arba Tzrichin Hizuk. The Rov cited a Rabbinic source (which eludes me) that Yehoshua himself insisted that he was inferior to the other students and did not deserve the mantle of leadership.
3. See Menachot 30a, beginning Mikan veilach katav Yehoshua.
4. This practice is codified in the Shulchan Uruch, Orach Hayim 292:2 and Mishna Berura 6-8.
5. From the Talmud Sanhedrin 68a we see that Rabbi Akiva took the death or his teacher Rabbi Eliezer in a harder manner than his colleagues: On the conclusion of the Sabbath R. Akiba met his bier being carried from Caesarea to Lydda. [In his grief] he beat his flesh until the blood flowed down upon the earth. Then R. Akiva commenced his funeral address, the mourners being lined up about the coffin, and said: 'My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof; I have many coins, but no money changer to accept them.'(I have many questions on Torah, but no one to answer them.)
6. Rashi commentary to Avot 1:1. This commentary has been it attributed to Rashi, an attribution which has been debated.
7. When the Rambam works backward and lists the members of the transmission process he states that Pinchas received the tradition from Yehoshua.
8. See the Chida in responsa Yosef Ometz section 34.
9. See Bamidbar 11:28 where the term is also used.
10. Rashi in Avot goes on to explain that Yehoshua displayed more dedication than the others.
11. We are accustomed to this idea because it has been incorporated in the liturgy: When the Torah is raised for the congregation to see, we recite two verses: Devarim 4:44, "And this is the Torah which Moshe set before the People of Israel;" and Bamidbar 9:23, "at the commandment of God by the hand of Moshe."