Want to be a leader? Be a Joshua (not a Moses)

Want to be a leader? Be a Joshua (not a Moses)

Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

“And never again arose in Israel a Prophet like Moses, who God knew face to face.” So says one of the last verses in the Torah, Deuteronomy 34:10. The Torah instructs us that neither we, nor anyone else, could hope to match Moses.

So who can we look to as a more human example of leadership in our sacred text? His successor, Joshua.

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Numbers 27:15-23), God officially names Joshua as the next leader after Moses. This makes him the initial leader of Israel when the people enter the Promised Land, and indeed he gets his own book, the Book of Joshua, to tell all about it. But even before this parsha, the Torah foreshadows Joshua’s special nature and sets him up as someone to look out for. While he is generally a dark horse compared to the big three — Aaron, Miriam, and Moses — there are big moments that show his leadership potential.

First, Moses was already relying on him as early as receiving the Ten Commandments. For the first set, he was on duty halfway up Sinai. This also means that he was not a participant in the Golden Calf, so that’s two points in his favor immediately out of Egypt. Joshua has a name change, in the tradition of Avram/Abraham and Jacob/Israel, from Hosea (Salvation) to Joshua (a composite of God and Salvation, indicating God is Salvation). Joshua is chosen to be a leader, along with Caleb, as one of the scouts to check out the land. And, along with Caleb, he urges the Israelites to have faith in God and enter the land, rather than listen to the other scouts, who lose their faith in fear and anxiety.

None of these anecdotes, nor indeed the Book of Joshua itself, clearly state the qualities Joshua had that made him an effective leader. They do not show us what we could try to emulate ourselves. As Joshua’s character is expanded by midrash and commentary, here are some of the lessons his leadership qualities teach by example.

Our beginnings do not have to define us. Joshua was born a slave. He had the same experiences as all the other Israelites, whose slave mentality made them unfit to settle the Promised Land. But he was able to overcome that mentality and believe in something more within himself. You do not need to be born a leader.

We can be in the right and in the minority. Joshua was in the minority with the spies who came back from the Promised Land, but he held on to his convictions, which he knew to be true anyway. A leader may find themself standing for what is right even against popular opinion.

Leadership and life goals can take time. Joshua was 20 years old when he left Egypt. After the 40 years of wandering, he was 60 when he took on the mantle of leadership. It is rarely the first position or job that defines a person. Sometimes it takes time, even decades, to come into your own.

There is great honor in being a supporter. We don’t have to be Number One to matter. Be it completely behind the scenes, or in public support, there is great honor in supporting and enabling a vision we believe in. Just compare Joshua to Korah: both held honored positions of authority, Korah even more than Joshua. One was unhappy with his lot, and one excelled within his position. If we don’t want to be swallowed up by envy, jealousy, or the earth, let’s be like Joshua rather than Korah.

People believe in a leader who has faith in their beliefs. To quote Alexander Hamilton (within the musical, but the point is valid historically), “I have never agreed with Jefferson once. We have fought on 75 different fronts! But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.” You can’t lead without knowing where you are going.

And finally, be yourself, not someone else, both in leadership and in life. Joshua was not Moses. And he didn’t try to be. Instead, he was the best Joshua he could be. I am sure that, like me, you can think of first-hand and historical examples of leaders who failed because they attempted to be their predecessor. The greatest lesson of examining Joshua’s character is one that isn’t bound to leadership, but intrinsic to life.

Believe in yourself. Because if you don’t, how can anyone else?

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