Parshah Shelach – Joshua: champion of moderation

Parshah Shelach – Joshua: champion of moderation

Chaim Poupko is the senior rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Englewood.

Judging from our history, leading the Jewish people is a unique challenge. Even a cursory reading of the Torah reveals the many obstacles Moses faced shepherding the nation of Israel out of Egypt and through the desert. I’m sure he would be able relate to the story that is told about the American president and Israeli prime minister comparing their jobs. The president comments that it’s not easy to be the president of several hundred million people, to which the prime minister responds, try being the prime minister of 3 million prime ministers.

In this week’s Torah reading, the most difficult events of national rebellion and betrayal climax with the sin of the spies and the people’s ensuing despair. And yet while many other biblical leaders faced similar challenges like Moses to varying degrees, there is one notable exception. Joshua, Moses’ successor, faces no rebellions and no national betrayals of God as he leads the people into the land of Israel and settles them there. In fact, the book of Joshua concludes with “Israel served God all the days of Joshua.” (Joshua 24:31) Moses endured a number of bitter moments of conflict and national sin and even goes so far as to say that God became angry at him because of the people, and here his student faces no such challenges whatsoever. What was it about Joshua that he enjoyed leading a generation so loyal to God and to his leadership?

Looking at the story of the sin of the spies we can find the roots of Joshua’s unique personality and sense of leadership. When the Jewish people accept the negative report of the 10 wicked spies and abandon all hope of settling the land of Israel, there is a notable contrast in the reaction of Moses and Aaron on the one hand and that of Joshua and Calev on the other hand. While the former pair falls on their faces making no attempt to address the people, Joshua and Calev follow the rending of their garments with a rebuttal of the claims of the 10 spies. “And they spoke to the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land.'” (Bamidbar 14:7) One way to account for this difference is to recognize that Moses and Aaron belong to the older generation and had difficulty understanding and relating to the malcontent younger generation in the desert. Joshua and Calev are able to address the people because they belong to this younger generation. According to the rabbis, there was already a prophecy that declared that Moses would not lead the people into Israel, while Joshua would. This episode represents just one of several indicators that Moses and Aaron are becoming increasingly estranged from the younger generation that was expected to conquer and settle the land.

Nevertheless, if we look further at the details of the aftermath of the sin of the spies we find that Joshua and Calev diverge in their responses. Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein observes in his book, “Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People,” that prior to their aforementioned joint statement to the people, it is only Calev who reacts and speaks up when the wicked spies initially give their report. “And Calev silenced the people toward Moses, and said: ‘We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.'” (Bamidbar 13:30) Calev makes a bold stand against the other spies and pointedly exhorts the people to ignore them. Joshua, however, avoids this more confrontational approach and instead joins in the more moderate statement that simply asserts that the land of Israel “is an exceedingly good land.” Indeed, the Torah recognizes these differing approaches later on. In the first chapter of the book of Devarim, Moses observes that the only members of the generation who left Egypt who will enter the land are Calev, who will inherit a special portion in the land because “he followed God wholeheartedly,” and Joshua because he will settle the people in the land. Calev is rewarded for his self-sacrifice while Joshua is not given any such reward. He merits entry not because of his actions. He simply was destined to lead the people there. While Calev’s bold action in defending God’s honor garners praise and reward, it doesn’t earn him any responsibilities because his reaction had no effect on the people. Certainly he sanctified God’s name in his bold gesture standing up for God in the face of rebellion, but in this case such a stance yielded no practical consequences for the people. Joshua, however, walks a different path. He chooses his battles. He doesn’t rebuff the spies and the people once he sees that such an attempt would be futile. He remains silent in order to cultivate his relationships with others, ensuring that he remain an effective leader. Having a sense of politics, he works behind the scenes at this point. Joshua is more focused on educating the people and restoring their sense of priorities as he knows he will be the one leading them.

The success that Joshua enjoyed as a leader can be traced back directly to moments like this one in which Joshua assumes this moderate approach. His commitment to God and Torah was shown not through bold declarations this time, but rather through patience and hard work in the areas of education and spiritual guidance. Joshua’s moderate voice was able to penetrate more deeply than Calev’s loud declaration. In fact, the rabbis say that the elders of this generation observed that the face of Moses was like the sun while the face of Joshua was like the moon. Moses, who received the Torah directly from God, possessed a spiritual intensity that was as difficult to approach as it is to look into the bright light of the sun. Joshua, the student of Moses, was able to reflect this light just as the moon reflects the light of the sun in a fashion that allowed for a closer relationship with the people. Joshua’s moderation was easier to handle.

We hear many voices today, largely due to the proliferation and anonymity of the Internet. And with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, and the PDA, an environment has been fostered in which we face an onslaught of slogans, headlines, and catchphrases from individuals, companies, and organizations competing for our attention to buy their product and or buy into their opinion. The result of this reality is that many important, complex issues are boiled down into bold Calev-type declarations – pithy, declarative slogans and sound-bytes. Nuance and complexity are sacrificed for the sake of one-upmanship and making information easily digestible. So much discourse regarding politics, social issues, and the like, especially in comment threads on blogs, are reduced to the level of what I like to call “bumper sticker sophistication.” Ideological lines are drawn hard and fast in black or white with little room for other opinions or moderate voices in between. There are certainly moments that call upon us to make a bold stand like Calev. But our standard, every-day mode of communication should match Joshua’s voice – a voice that communicates and teaches in a deliberate fashion marked by patience, diligence, moderation, and sophistication.