In this past week’s Torah reading, Parshas Pinchas, we read about the appointing of Yehoshua to be Moshe’s successor. G-d declares that Yehoshua will be the next leader in front of the entire nation, as the verse tells us,” G-d spoke to Moshe to appoint Yehoshua the son of Nun ish Asher ruach bo (who was a man with a spirit within him..”)
The Talmud tells us in Bava Basra that the elders of the generation declared that the “face of Moshe was like the face of the sun, whereas the face of Joshua was like the face of the moon. Woe for this embarrassment, woe for this humiliation.”
At first glance, it appears that the Jewish people view the transition from Moshe to Yehoshua as a disgrace– to go from the leadership of Moshe to Yehoshua. But the question remains: What was so bad about Yehoshua? Can the Jewish people expect a leader the quality of Moshe in every generation? After all, he was not a once in a generation kind of leader, but rather, a once in a history-of-humanity kind of leader! So, what exactly was their issue? Furthermore, Rashi describes Yehoshua as being the type of leader who fully grasped all of the people that were in front of him– he truly understood individuals, on whatever level they were on. The Seforno describes Yehoshua as a “man of valor,” and describes that he was suited to receive the Divine presence– something that would be very important as the Jewish people entered the land of Israel. Furthermore, the Haamek Davar describes Yehoshua as the type of person who was able to think for himself– not swayed by political pressure for his own selfish or communal gains. These are all very admirable traits in a leader. So, what was the problem?
Rabbi Yisroel Reisman quotes the Chofetz Chaim who answers this question with an interesting metaphor: There was once a village in Europe in which the majority of the residents were poor merchants. There was one wealthy man who happened to be a diamond dealer. One time, he needed to take a trip to Africa to where they mined the diamonds, and he needed someone to accompany him on his six-week journey. He asked around for volunteers, and sure enough, one of the merchants volunteered himself to go help the wealthy man on his journey. Inevitably, while on the road, the two became friendly, and the merchant learned a lot about the diamond business: How to mine the diamonds, how to import them, how to price them and sell them for a profit, and about how to ascertain the quality of the diamonds. When they returned to their village six weeks later, he opened up his own business, and within a short time, became very successful, and wealthy in his own right.
To his dismay, his fellow merchants were not too pleased with this development– they were jealous of his social ascension. The man asked them, “why are you jealous of my recent success? Be jealous of the wealthy diamond dealer!” They responded, “We are jealous of you, because you are one of us. We all had the opportunity to travel with the wealthy man to Africa– but only you stepped forward and capitalized on that opportunity. That is why we are jealous of you.” Says Rabbi Reisman, Yehoshua was the student, who never left Moshe’s side. And the Jewish people realized, that any of them could have acted in a similar fashion– following Moshe, learning from him, and being his student. Yet it was only Yehoshua who actually followed through with that precious opportunity.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto quotes a passage from the Talmud Bava Basra 75, in his classic work on Mussar, Mesilas Yesharim which describes how, after a person dies, “each person is burned from the canopy of his fellow.” This burn, says the Ramchal, does not result from jealousy of other people’s overall good fortune, but rather, it is comes as a result of seeing oneself as having failed in realizing his potential. Unlike my friend, who fully realized his potential, I have not– and that is what I am jealous of. I am not jealous of their lot in the world to come– but in the fact that they optimized their opportunities and realized their full potential– something I woefully did not.
Therefore when the elders of Yehoshua’s generation complained about the shame and humiliation they felt from transitioning from Moshe to Yehoshua, it was not as a result of any problem they had with Yehoshua– but rather, a problem they had with themselves for failing to be like Yehoshua, who took advantage of his opportunities and potential.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos says, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be the man.” When there is an opportunity, we should strongly consider jumping at the opportunity to help fully realized our potential. When I was in 9th grade, during one of the first baseball practices, the coach asked who could play catcher. Having had some catching experience, I raised my hand. The coach understood my admission to being a catcher as an indication that this was my primary position. Unfortunately, there was a better catcher on the team, and I was relegated to being the backup catcher and I rode the bench. Two weeks later, the second basemen had an issue with the coach, and he quit the team. The coach called us together, and asked if any of us could play second base. Understanding this might be my opportunity to carve out a role for myself on the team, I stepped forward and declared that I could play second base. And with that declaration, I found myself having a meaningful role on the team. In life we need to discern when opportunities for growth and development are available to us, and we must be ready to fully embrace the opportunities with alacrity.
But not only do we need to live our lives mindful of emerging opportunities for growth, but we must have clearly etched in our brains, that LIFE ITSELF is the ultimate opportunity to be seized. As a wise poet once said, “If you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted, would you capture it, or let it slip, yo.” The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos tells us, “Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, and there is a lot of work…” We are not here forever; there is a lot to do, and not much time. Right now, we have the unique finite opportunity in which our souls and bodies work in tandem in this thing we call life, to enable us to grow, and to proactively elevate our souls for eternity.
Along these lines, this past week my son was in the 12-year -old little league baseball playoffs. In the semi-finals, his team made a miraculous comeback, down 7-2 in the bottom of the last inning, when, with two outs, they scored 6 runs to win 8-7. After this incredible game, I turned to my boy and told him, “You are not going to camp tomorrow, and I am not going to work. We need to practice, and relax. Sonny, it is not every day you are twelve, and able to compete in the 12 year old championship. I remember when I was 12, and we lost the championship game in heartbreaking fashion, in a game, that, until today, causes me to wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweats. You will be ready for this precious opportunity, and you will savor it.”
We are all twelve year olds playing for the championship. This is what we call life. We can choose to spend this limited opportunity chilling in a hammock, or we can make the most of this time, and intensely focus to ensure that it is a period of growth, and a time in which our full potential is being realized.
Hopefully we can learn this timeless lesson from Yehoshua– that our lives are filled with immense potential and opportunities– but it truly is up to us if we will embrace them like Yehoshua did, or G-d forbid, let them pass us by, like the other individuals of Yehoshua’s generation.
That choice is ours alone.