“Moses Names Joshua to Succeed Him” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860
“Moses Names Joshua to Succeed Him” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

Changing of guard in the Torah reveals two very different forms of leadership

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Numbers 25:10-30:1

Leadership is a central theme of the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers). True to its name, Bamidbar spans the majority of the 40 years the People of Israel spent in the midbar (desert), demonstrating the generation gap between those who left Egypt and were fated to die in the desert and the next generation who would enter the Promised Land.

In Bamidbar, top-down religious and political leadership is consecrated in the form of priests, Levites and tribal chieftains, challenged through various rebellions and insurrections, and reestablished.

Parashat Pincas is situated toward the end of the book, and illustrates a changing of the guard in leadership from the older generation to the new.

“God said to Moses, ‘Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was. For, in the wilderness of Zin, when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water.’” (Numbers 27:12-14).

Why now, at this specific point, does God remind Moses he will not be the one to lead the new generation into the Land?

The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter) explains that the pronouncement of the impending death of Moses follows the events of Pinchas to indicate that now a new leadership has been established by the new generation entering the Land. The older generation was given Aharon as the priest, and this generation was given Pinchas as theirs.

Yet, the Sfat Emet points out, there exists a stark change in the nature of this religious leadership. Aharon’s priesthood was conferred as a gift from Above. Pinchas, however, merited the priesthood because of his actions; this signified a shift in the new generation, an awakening from below.

We can see resonances of this awakening from below much earlier, in the leadership of Miriam. The Esh Kodesh (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira) compares Miriam’s religious yearning to the well that gushed forth in her merit, quenching the thirst of the Jewish people during their 40 years in the desert. Miriam, he explained, was moved by an awakening from below.

He writes: “While Miriam was alive … she performed even those deeds that she was not obliged to perform. It was obvious that the force driving her to such exalted heights of piety was an exceptional yearning that gushed out from within her. With it she was able to inspire the whole Jewish people with a longing to yearn for God, and to prepare themselves to receive the supernal Light that our teacher Moses was to bring down for them.”

Not only did Miriam’s inner wellsprings inspire the Jewish people, but they were essential to their religious survival (just as water was essential for survival in the desert). “But once Miriam died, the Jewish people were no longer able to access this great yearning and so they were no longer properly prepared to receive the Light that Moses brought down from above.”

In Pinchas, the daughters of Tzlofchad continue Miriam’s legacy. As women, they were not commanded or included in the Torah of inheritance of the Land (the preceding section that parceled out family inheritance). The driving force of their request persisted up the ladder of the judiciary system, until it was presented before Moses. They intuited what Moses did not. God justified their claim to Moses from Above, yet it was through their awakening from below that they set halachic precedent for generations of women to come.

Aharon now gone, Pinchas merits the role of priest by taking action into his own hands.

Miriam now gone, the daughters of Tzlofchad come forward and bring forth Torah from their inner wellsprings.

Although Moses leads until his death, using his final days to bring the word of God from Above to the Jewish people, we can see Moses’ sun setting and the new dawn rising in these final chapters of Bamidbar.

It is precisely following the actions of Pinchas and, more proximately, the quest of the daughters of Tzlofchad that God reminds Moses that his holy mission — bringing Torah from Above — will end in the desert. He is not the one to lead this new generation into the land of Israel.

The new generation will not, or cannot, access the word of God from on High. Rather, it will be guided solely by an awakening from below, from those in their midst whose inner drive seeks to upset the status quo when needed, who may not always follow the protocols set but get the job done.

Maharat Victoria Sutton
Maharat Victoria Sutton

Maharat Victoria Sutton is the former director of education and community engagement at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.