October 10, 2009 (Israel)
October 11, 2009 (Diaspora)
The book of Joshua sees itself as a direct continuation of the book of Deuteronomy, representing continuity both in storyline and in leadership. Joshua\’s job is to perpetuate both Moses\’ leadership and his teachings: \”After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses\’ attendant: \’My servant Moses is dead. Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to the Israelites.\’\” (1:1-2) Moses is designated as God\’s servant and Joshua is Moses\’ attendant. Still, transitions are never simple.
The Babylonian rabbinic tradition records two discussions of just how difficult the transmission of a tradition can be, using the relationship between Moses and Joshua as a model. In the first example, the Talmud records a tradition which reports that in the commotion caused by mourning over their fallen leader, a sizable chunk of the tradition was lost, never to be retrieved because the rules of how the tradition would be maintained had changed: \”Rav Judah reported in the name of Samuel: Three thousand laws were forgotten during the mourning period for Moses. They said to Joshua: \’Ask\’; he replied: \’It is not in heaven.\’ (Num. 36:13) (Temurah 16a) After Moses\’ departure, the tradition could no longer be retrieved directly from God. It now had to be determined through interpretation and majority rule. In other words, these sages felt that Moses\’ demise changed the rules of the game.
The second example records how the lack of humility on the part of its leaders could also impair the proper transmission of the tradition: \”Rav Judah reported in the name of Rav: When Moses departed [this world] for the Garden of Eden he said to Joshua: \’Ask me concerning all the doubts you have\’. He replied to him: \’My Master, have I ever left you for one hour and gone elsewhere? Did you not write concerning me in the Torah: But his servant Joshua the son of Nun departed not out of the tabernacle? (See Ex. 33:11) Immediately Moses\’ strength weakened [being hurt by Joshua\’s arrogance] and [Joshua] forgot three hundred laws and there arose [in his mind] seven hundred doubts [concerning laws]. (This response was meant as punishment for his improper reply to Moses.) Then all the Israelites rose up to kill him [because he could not accurately represent the tradition]. The Holy One blessed be He, then said to him [Joshua]: \’It is not possible to tell you. Go and occupy their attention\’ in war, as it says: \’Now after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, it came to pass that the Lord spoke\’ (Joshua 1:1); and it further says; [\’Prepare you victuals for within three days, etc.\’] (Ibid. 1:11). (adapted from Temurah 16a) [This anecdote has a frightening side to it. One can see here that prompting a war to divert the attention of the people was not reserved just for modern political leaders.]
The biblical tradition records the smooth transfer of power from Moses to Joshua. These two rabbinic stories want us to know that life is not always so simple. It often takes enormous care and consideration to preserve and transmit that which is precious to us. We must use the best of our skills, our utmost tenacity and our best human capacities to carry out the mission. This was not just a responsibility of past generations. It is our generation\’s imperative as well.
*This drasha is dedicated to the memory of my beloved student, Rafi Lehmann, z\”l.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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