Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Tending The Flock

By Rabbi Joshua (sheepishly known as The Hoffer) Hoffman [z"l]

After God informs Moshe that he will die and not lead the people into the Holy Land, he asks (Bamidbar, 27:16-17) God to appoint a leader over them, so that they will not be like a flock of sheep that does not have a shepherd. Rabbi Avraham Binyamin Sofer, the Kesav Sofer, asks why Moshe felt a need to use this image of sheep, and not simply ask God to appoint a leader? What message did this image of the people as sheep have that motivated Moshe to use it in his request?

Rabbi Sofer answers that sheep, as all other animals, reach their maximum level of intellectual maturity the moment they are born. The midrash in parshas Emor, in fact, remarks on the verse, "An ox or sheep when it is born," that a one day old ox is called an ox. This is because animals do not go through a process of intellectual and spiritual development the way that human beings do. In a flock of sheep, no one sheep in the flock is more developed, in this sense, than another, and so it is not a sheep that leads them, but a human being, who is in a completely different league. Moshe's request was that God appoint someone from among the people, rather than an angel, to lead them, so that, under their new leader, they would be able to grow and strive to reach his level. Based on this teaching of the Kesav Sofer, we can better understand a passage in the Talmud (Bava Basra, 75a) which describes the reaction of the elders to the appointment of Yehoshua as the new leader.

The Talmud tells us that the appearance of Moshe was like the appearance of the sun, while the appearance of Yehoshua was like the appearance of the moon. The elders of that generation seeing this contrast lamented and said, "Woe for this shame!" What was the meaning of this lament? Rav Dovid Feinstein explained that each generation is given the kind of leader which it needs, and which can relate to the level on which the nation finds itself. The new generation was not on the level that was needed for it to be led by Moshe and so Yehoshua was appointed as their leader. The lesser stature of Yehoshua thus reflected the lower level that the new generation was on and, therefore, the elders felt embarrassed that they had not educated them to reach a higher level than they were now on.

The Chofetz Chaim, however, explained the lament of the elders differently. He said that the moon does not have its own light, but is merely a reflection of the light of the sun. The rabbis tell us that Yehoshua merited becoming the new leader because he was Moshe's most devoted student, never leaving his teacher's tent, as the Torah testifies. The elders realized that no human being could ever again reach the level of Moshe. However, they felt that others could have reached Yehoshua's level, had they been as diligent as he had been in their studies and devotion to Moshe. Thus, the elders now understood the importance of striving to emulate the nation's leader in order to grow. This was what Moshe was asking for when he requested that God appoint a new leader from among the people, so that they not be like a flock of sheep, who never grow in maturity, but like vital human beings who are constantly growing.

The rabbis tell us that Yehoshua not only studied Moshe's Torah teachings diligently, but also served as a kind of helper to Moshe, as well, cleaning up the study hall and arranging the benches. The service of Torah, the rabbis explain, is even greater than its study. Rav Dovid Feinstein has explained that by serving a torah scholar, one gets to see more of his deportment and, as a result learns more from him than he would by merely attending his classes. Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, however, in his introduction to the Mesilas Yesharim of Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, says that shimusha shel Torah, the service of Torah scholars, helps one understand the personality and spiritual essence of the man, and thereby reach a deeper understanding of his teachings as well. This was a further aspect of Yehoshua's growth as a student of Moshe, and, again, one which the elders now understood. In this respect, as well, Moshe wanted the newly appointed leader of the people to be a person who understood the importance of personal contact with his charges, so that they would be able to grow even further under his leadership.