The greatness of Moshe is apparent not only in his moments of glory leading the Jewish people out of Egypt toward Mount Sinai, but more so in his graceful acceptance of God’s decree that he would not bring the Jewish people into the land of Israel. Since he failed to sanctify God properly and reflect faith in Him during the episode of “the hitting of the rock,” Moshe will not be able to see the final stage of the redemption of the Jewish people with their settlement in the land. And yet, without waiting for a Divine summons, Moshe turns to God and asks Him to appoint the next leader, someone “who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
While the plain sense of the Torah paints a portrait of a retiring leader with no misgivings or qualms, the rabbis are sensitive to a literary issue that indicates that there is more going on under the surface. After all, why does Moshe take the initiative in broaching the subject with God? And why now, when there is much of the Torah left to go? The Midrash explains that after Moshe observes how the daughters of Tzelofchad rightly inherited from their father, Moshe begins to think about the possibility of his sons succeeding him and so he broaches the issue. But God quickly replies, “He who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit” (Proverbs 27). Moshe’s children are noticeably absent as active players in the Torah’s narrative because, unlike Yehoshua, they didn’t serve their father and learn all they could from him. Since Yehoshua was a faithful disciple of Moshe he would be the successor.
The harsh reality that Moshe faces about his children is an enduring lesson that the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people is not an inherited position; it is open to all. Everyone has an equal opportunity to study the Torah and guide the Jewish people with its teachings. True, there are positions in Jewish life that are hereditary, such as the monarchy and the priesthood. But the leader that influences the destiny of the Jewish people is the spiritual leader, a position held first by Moshe and then by Yehoshua.
This egalitarian notion was best expressed by the most famous rebel and malcontent in the Torah. Korach was right when he said that all are holy and all have God in their midst. Moshe agrees in his response to the report that Eldad and Meidad were prophesying in the camp in which he says, “If only God would make everyone prophets, by causing His spirit to rest on everyone.”
This will also help us to understand a difficult period in Jewish history that I am currently studying with a group of women in my community. In our study of the Prophets, we have recently begun studying the book of Shoftim (Judges). The period of the judges who led the Jewish people after the death of Yehoshua was a turbulent era in which the Jewish people are settled in the land but succumb many times to the temptations of the idolatry that surrounds them. A vicious cycle courses through the book whereby the Jewish people become corrupt; God punishes them by delivering them into the hands of foreign neighbors; the Jewish people cry out to God in their suffering; they are saved by a shofet (judge) who leads them militarily and spiritually; they return to follow God and the Torah for the duration of the judge’s reign; and upon his or her death the Jewish people quickly regress into corruption once again and the cycle begins anew. This cycle repeats itself no less than 13 times throughout the book before the monarchy is started in the next book, Samuel. This leads us to ask: What point is there to the period of the judges? It is nothing more than a tragic era of decline. Furthermore, the Torah makes no mention that a shofet will be the spiritual leader of the Jewish people. The Torah lists a king and a high priest – but there is no mitzvah to appoint a judge as a spiritual and military leader and not just as an adjudicator.
Clearly, the leader called a shofet is someone who is in the model of Moshe and Yehoshua, someone who has developed a personal relationship to God to the degree that he or she has become a prophet and a transmitter of the Torah. These qualities are not inherited but open to all. And so the period of the shoftim is one in which the Jewish people are challenged to create a society in which Torah study flourishes and people have the opportunities to raise themselves to the level of leadership. Before putting them under the rule of a divinely ordained king from the line of Judah, the Jewish people first have the opportunity to have leaders that earn their position through their own efforts and based on their own merits. The shofet is someone who earns his position just as Yehoshua earned his as the disciple of Moshe.