Piety and Learning, Not Power, Is Eternal

July 9, 2014
BY Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Parshat Pinchas

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take for yourself Joshua the son of Nun, an individual who has spirit within him, and lay your hand upon him. Stand him up before Elazar the Priest and before the entire congregation, and command him before their eyes. And give of your glory upon him in order that the entire congregation of the children of Israel may obey him.”

In these three verses we see the “passing of the guard,” the succession of leadership from Moses to Joshua. Embedded within the three different actions that God commanded Moses to perform, we may begin to define three different forms of traditional Jewish leadership. Firstly, Moses was to “lay his hands” upon Joshua, an act which expressed a conferral of rabbinic authority, semikha (literally a laying upon or leaning upon) from master to disciple. Since Moses was traditionally known as Moshe Rabbenu (our religious teacher or rabbi) and since Joshua is biblically and midrashically pictured as Moses’ devoted disciple, it is perfectly logical to assume that the first transference from Moses to Joshua was that of religio-legal authority. Moreover, Moses was a great prophet who conveyed the Divine word to his nation; since the scholar is heir (and even superior) to the prophet, and since the prophet was always expected to be a great intellectual and spiritual personality, Moses was bestowing upon Joshua his own authority as religious master and prophet by the act of his laying of his hands upon Joshua.

Moses is then commanded by God to “stand Joshua up” before Elazar the Priest. The Kohen Gadol or High Priest was certainly a leader in ancient Israel — but his Divine service was formal, ritual and external, very much limited to the Sanctuary or Holy Temple. It was necessary for the rabbi-scholar-prophet to be recognized and respected by the High Priest, and vice versa; however, whereas the former had to constantly bring the living word of God to the people and in the process often came into conflict with the ruling authorities and even with the majority of the Israelites, the latter merely had to perform the precise Temple ritual so that the continuity of the Divine service from generation to generation could be maintained. Joshua therefore had to appear, or be stood up, before the High Priest, but he was not given the ritual authority of the High Priest. Moses and Joshua were the seat of religious, moral and ethical authority; Aaron and Elazar were the seat of ritual authority. The rabbi was expected to teach and interpret God’s word for every generation; the High Priest was expected to ritually perform and maintain the ritual structures from generation to generation.

And finally, Moses was to “give of his glory upon [Joshua] in order that the entire congregation of Israel may obey him.” In addition to being the rabbi-scholar-prophet, Moses also served as authoritative king, the chief executive officer of the Israelite nation. This authority was the power, or glory, he conferred upon Joshua as well. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, defines the distinction between both aspects of Moses’ leadership as that of influence verses power. Moses, as master prophet and religious teacher, wielded enormous influence, not only in his generation, but in every generation, including our own, which still studies Moses’ Divine words. Moses, as King of Israel, controlled much power, and so, in the final analysis, managed to quell the rebellions of all his detractors: Korah, Datan and Aviram, and Zimri ben Salu.

But influence and power are very different sources of authority. Rabbi Sacks sees this distinction as emanating from the Midrash, which compares the giving over of power to “a pouring out from one vessel to another,” whereas the conferral of influence is likened to “the kindling of one candle from another candle.” When wine, for example, is poured from one goblet into another, the first goblet becomes emptied and devoid of its joy-giving liquid. Similarly, when a political leader leaves office and his successor takes over, no authority remains in the hand of the incumbent.

How different is the realm of influence. After the initial candle has kindled its flame onto another candle, the light of the first candle has in no way become diminished; much the opposite, now there are two candles shining brightly, providing double the amount of light in the room. My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, went one step further, when he interpreted the biblical text of our weekly portion at the celebration of my class’s rabbinical ordination.

The “laying of the hands” is usually interpreted as an inter-generational conferral of authority: The master from a former generation is “handing over” the authority of our ancient tradition to the younger generation.

However, says Rav Soloveitchik, that is not the picture presented by the biblical text. The Hebrew word used in the text principally means to lean on, so that the picture being conveyed is that of an elderly Moses leaning with his hands upon a younger Joshua. The message seems not to be that of a young Joshua dependent on the authority of an elder Moses; it rather seems to be that of an elder Moses dependent for his support on a younger Joshua. Rabbi Soloveitchik looked at us, his student rabbis, with great yearning and expectations.

“It is I who am dependent upon you,” he said. “Without you, my Torah and my unique teaching, indeed all of the traditions which I imbibed from the previous generations, will all die with me. You are my insurance policy. It is through you and your teachings that my Torah will continue to live.”

This is why Moses had to put down Korah — who wanted to usurp power for a false end — but encouraged Eldad and Medad, who were influenced by a Divine spirit. And this is the true meaning of our Sages’ adage that a father is never jealous of a child nor is a teacher ever jealous of a disciple. Politics yields power, which disappears in the sand-dunes of times; learning and piety breed influence, which last for all eternity. The Israelite kings are scarcely remembered while the Israelite prophets and sages are still being studied and interpreted today. Lust for power is ultimately consumed by fiery flames, while the influence of Torah education will enable the light of the menorah to emblazon the path to the tree of life in our return to Eden.

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