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The Weekly Commentary of JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning

Parashat Pinhas 5763
Numbers 25:10 - 30:1
July 19, 2003    19 Tammuz 5763

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun, JTS Rabbinic Fellow

Who is worthy of assuming Moses' mantle and carrying the Children of Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land? We learn this week that it shall be Joshua son of Nun. The description of the immanent transfer of power from Moses to Joshua provides a fascinating commentary on the nature of leadership.

Once Moses realizes with certainty that he will not guide the Israelites into the Holy Land, he asks God for a new leader:

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, "Let the Lord, Source of the spirit/breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd." And the Lord answered Moses, "Single out Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit/breath, and lay your hand upon him ... (Numbers 27:15-18).

This passage is puzzling. Why does Moses refer to God with the lengthy appellation, "Source-of-the-Ruach (spirit/breath)-of-All-Flesh?" Furthermore, why is Joshua described as a "man in whom there is ruach?" The term "ruach" is employed many times in the Torah. It is a term which often describes inspired leaders. For example, after his interpretation of Pharaoh's dream, Joseph is described as "a man in whom there is a ruach Elohim (spirit of God)" (Genesis 41:38). Therefore, Pharaoh appoints Joseph as viceroy of Egypt. Bezalel is also described as a man endowed with a "ruach Elohim" (Exodus 31:3). Therefore, he serves as the master craftsman for the construction of the Tabernacle. The pagan prophet Balaam, filled with "ruach Elohim," pronounces one of the most famous blessings upon the People of Israel: How lovely are your tents, O Jacob; Your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5). In each of these cases, the "spirit" within the biblical character is described as a "spirit of God." In each of these cases, the "spirit of God" indicates a specific God-given talent, wisdom or insight.

However, Joshua is described merely as a man in whom there is "ruach." Ironically, Moses just finished calling upon "God, the Source of the ruach in every being" to designate a leader. God, in response, assigns Joshua "in whom there was ruach." But is there not ruach in every single living creature? (See, for example, Genesis 7:16.) What kind of distinguishing characteristic is this? Joshua has spirit/breath in him, and this makes him worthy to shepherd the Israelites into Israel?!

I believe there is a profound teaching behind the unadorned description of Joshua's nature. Yes, each and every living being has the spirit/breath of God within. So too, each and every person has the potential to be a leader, a shepherd, an inspiration. We do not need special prophecy or magical powers to make a significant contribution in our community. Moses is a daunting role model. How could anyone assume his position of authority? However, in these simple verses about Joshua, we learn that each one of us possesses the source within for exceptional leadership, each in our own way. Perhaps Joshua's strength was his awareness of that spirit. Perhaps if we each embraced the spirit within, we too could cross rivers, fight important battles, and protect the people we love. May God help us all to experience and celebrate our ruach so that we, like Joshua, can carry on the sacred work of Moses our Teacher.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.