Moshe knew that in time the people would need a leader of a different kind. Surely, then G''d knew this as well. G''d indeed waits for Moshe to make the request, though perhaps subtly leading him to that moment by showing him the promised land and reminding Moshe that he would not get to enter it, for his failure to follow G''d's directions exactly when bringing forth water from the rock at Merivat-Kadeish (I could do a whole long tangent on that place name, but I won't. Nevertheless, I commend it to you, if you like such explorations.)
So Moshe asks G''d to designate a new leader, a successor, who is more the warrior than he is. And G''d responds to the request and tells Moshe to designate Joshua.
Even in Moshe's request to G''d, there remains a hint of Moshe's rebelliousness, his not-always-so-good-at-following-orders-exactly streak. For in his asking, Moshe says this needs to be done so that the people will not be like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. G''d took it all in stride, perhaps hoping to impugn only good intentions to Moshe. It might not have been uncharacteristic of G''d to have wondered why Moshe didn't realized that G''d was the shepherd, and that Moshe, too, was just one of the flock, albeit a "some-sheep-are-more-equal-than-others" kind of sheep. And even if G''d didn't wonder, we can.
We can only speculate about Moshe's state of mind at this time. Won't get into the promised land. Impending death--clearly Moshe is not to be immortal, either.
Perhaps Moshe figured he had nothing to lose at this point, might as well have a little fun. Or maybe, just maybe, he was to never learn his lesson. For he does it again. G''d instructs Moshe to
"single out Joshua of Nun, and inspired man, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight..." (JPS, Numbers 27:18-19)
So what does Moshe go and do?
"Moses did as the L''rd commanded. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community. He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him--as the L''rd had spoken through Moses." (JPS, Numbers 27:22-23.)
Did you catch it? It's subtle. And easy to overlook, for the text says that Moshe did as G''d had commanded (though the final clause sticks out a bit.) Moshe laid his HANDS upon Joshua, not his HAND.
Now, the rabbis and others found a way to spin this in the positive. They say that Moshe wanted to show the people that he had full confidence in Joshua, and was investing him with some of his own authority without any reservations or concerns. It's a possibility. Yet it's still a failure to follow G''d's instructions exactly.
Oh, wait a minute. We liberal Jews can spin it in the positive a whole other way. If Moshe rabbeinu himself didn't always follow G''d's instructions to the letter, every jot and tittle, every i dotted and every t crossed, does this not teach us that we need not always be so picayune ourselves? Interesting theory, but requires an awful lot of hubris for any of us to assume that we are just as worthy as Moshe. And that kind of hubris is dangerous. Our world has sometimes been rocked as a result of a few who have justified unconscionable acts believing their holiness, sagacity, and understanding of things supposedly beyond normal human understanding free them of the obligation to follow mitzvot to the letter.
I find neither the hubris of such misguided people, nor the hubris of comparing ourselves to Moshe so that we too, might excuse ourselves from strict observance, tenable. Mystics and reformers alike, you gotta do better than that for rationales.
Why, then, do I not follow the mitzvot in strictest observance to the minutiae? Though I am thankful for and respect thousands of years of wisdom and the construction of a system designed to prevent us from possibly transgressing mitzvot that are often not as clear as they could be, perhaps it is the very fact that the mitzvot are simply not as clear as they could be-whether by intent or oversight--through which I rationalize my selective understandings. It's thin ice, I know, but I like to skate on thin ice every so often.
I'm no Moshe, but I do gotta wonder why he retained this little "I'll do it Your way, but with my own little twist" attitude right up until his end. What is the true lesson to us in this? I'm not sure I know. Still, I think I'll keep looking and reading and trying to figure it out. Maybe you'd like to do the same? Let me know if you find a good explanation.
©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D'mamah
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!
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