This week’s parasha features the beginning of a process that will not end until the final words of the Torah—or perhaps, it is better to say, until the opening words of the book of Joshua. That process is the elevation of Joshua to the leadership of the people of Israel. We have known for some time that Moses would die in the wilderness—that is his (perhaps somewhat extreme) punishment for striking the water-rock instead of asking it nicely—and there have been hints of Joshua’s importance as well. But here, for the first time, the people learn explicitly that God has selected Joshua to take over for Moses when the time comes.
For the people of Israel, this will be the second major transfer of authority in the wilderness: Aaron’s death brought his son Eleazar into the leadership of the priesthood. Indeed, the case of Aaron and Eleazar is interesting when juxtaposed to that of Moses and Joshua. In the case of Aaron, there is no announcement to the people. Aaron, Eleazar and Moses go up Mount Hor, and when only Moses and Eleazar return, the latter wearing the priestly vestments that had been his father’s, the people understand what has happened. There is no process of leadership transition.
In the case of Moses and Joshua, we get the announcement and the ritual ordination of Joshua (Moses places his hands on Joshua’s head) well before Moses’ death actually brings the transfer of power to fruition. In addition, this happens in full view of all the people, a fact the Torah makes certain to stress, which differs markedly from the mountaintop death of Aaron and subsequent elevation of Eleazar, both of which occur without the people present.
Two momentous transitions then, but handled quite different. One possible reason for the difference is that there was no question, really, about who would succeed Aaron when he died. The priesthood is hereditary and Aaron’s position would naturally pass to his eldest surviving son. (Eleazar’s two older brothers famously die on their first day of work back in Leviticus 10.) There was no need for process and no need for public affirmation: Aaron’s successor was never in doubt. Moses’ position on the other hand, is not a hereditary one. (And, indeed, the political leadership of the people of the Israel would not became a dynastic position until David’s son Solomon became the first king of Israel to inherit the title from his father. If we’re being really technical, Saul’s son Ishboshet was also proclaimed king over part of Israel after his father’s death.) Moses does have sons (Gershon and Eliezer) but they have little role to play in the narrative, and none at all in the leadership of Israel. Moses’ successor, therefore, is not a foregone conclusion. A very public announcement of Joshua’s elevation would make sense, as does the decision to make such an announcement long before the actual moment of transition occurs. (This is similar to what Roman Emperors who were childless would often do; they would adopt a prominent person as their son as a means by which to signal whom they thought should inherit the purple.) The people would have needed time to accept the ascension of Joshua, and Moses’ ongoing presence and continual support for Joshua would have helped immeasurably in making that transition as smooth as possible.
And smooth it turns out to be. When Moses finally does die—outside the Promised Land, as God had promised—Joshua takes up the mantle of leadership with not a hint of dissent or disturbance. No latter-day Korach arises to challenge his position; there is no hint of the revolts that had punctuated the years of wandering in the wilderness. The process that begins in our parasha with the public elevation and ordination of Joshua ends exactly as intended: with Joshua as the undisputed leader of the people of Israel. The peaceful transition does not solve all of Israel’s problems, but the fraught moment of Moses’ passing is far more peaceful than the narrative of the rebellious Israelites up until that point would have led us to imagine.
Transition, of course, is always difficult, even when it is easy. Every summer at Camp brings with it some transitions for campers and staff, and this summer is no exception—though perhaps this summer has more sense of transition than most. But I hope that the transition from one director to the next has felt smooth, if not seamless. For my part, I can only marvel at Rabbi Paul Resnick, who, beginning last summer, let me hang around Camp as much as I wanted, anywhere I wanted to be. Throughout this year, Paul has been willing to answer every odd question, every inane query I could muster. I am immensely grateful for his help and example.
But transition occurs not just in the passage from one director to the next; the success of a transition is dependent on far more than two people. Camp Ramah in the Berkshires is blessed with excellent veteran staff members at all levels, all of whom have been critical in this time of evolution for Camp. New staff too, whether they were campers or are brand new to Camp, have allowed me to find my way, to try new things and to mess up their names half a dozen times or so. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the campers, who have greeted me with warmth and enthusiasm, told me what they would like Camp to be, and even showed me how to get from one place or another on more than one occasion. Truly, a moment of transition is a community event—an event that exposes the strengths (or weakness) of that community. The people of Israel who accepted Joshua without complaint showed themselves to be far stronger than the generation of their parents, who had fought Moses every step of the way from slavery to freedom. Camp Ramah in the Berkshires is a strong community built over many years under the leadership of Rabbi Resnick, and nothing shows that strength more profoundly than the moment of transition this summer represents. As a new director, I am grateful for that strength, and I hope only that I can be worthy of the community I have been given the honor to lead.