וידבר משה אל ה’ לאמר. יפקד ה’ אלהי הרוחת לכל בשר איש על העדה
(במדבר, כ”ז, ט”ו-ט”ז)
Moshe is told by God he is about to die. He is also told (according to the Midrash) that his sons will not inherit his leadership. This is what Moshe says in reply:
And Moshe spoke to the Lord, saying: Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation.
(BaMidbar 27, 15-16)
This is the only instance in the Torah where Moshe is the the one “speaking to the Lord, saying”. It is usually the other way round. The form “saying” (לאמר) is considered a harsh form of speech. Why is Moshe using harsh words to ask God to appoint his substitute? The Midrash (BaMidbar Raba) says that when it comes to matters concerning the community, one should not mince words. And Moshe indeed puts away his personal feelings – the decree he will not enter Israel, the fact he’s about to die, and the inadequateness of his progeny to be leaders – in order to voice concerns about the potential leadership vacuum after he’s gone.
Moshe also uses a unique description of God: “the God of all flesh”. Rashi explains that he uses this expression to point out that God knows that the People of Israel are each different from each other, each with his own opinion, each with his own temperament, indeed each with his own “spirit”. God’s response to this is:
And the Lord said to Moshe: Take Yehoshua, the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him.
(BaMidbar 27, 18)
In response to “spirits” in plural, God says Yehoshua has a “spirit”. He is able to stand against the differing wills and “spirits” and to lead the people into Israel. This is a new kind of leadership, different from the one of Moshe in the desert. Now what the people need most is a leader that can lead them as one, so that they may conquer the land.
But this is not the only leadership change. God continues:
And set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight.
(BaMidbar 27, 18)
Elazar the priest joing Yehoshua in leadership, much like his father Aharon joined Moshe in his. We are reading the parasha of Pinchas, who was praised by God for his act of killing a prince, the head of a tribe, for his abominable act. Surely Pinchas, son of Elazar, would have made a better companion to Yehushua as a “strong leader”, as one who proved himself worthy of committing acts of vengeance?
The non-appointment of Pinchas as a leader is telling. What the “different spirited” people need is a leader that has unifying qualities. A leader that is determined but cool-headed. Not a leader that acts upon impulse and has no patience for transgressions. Pinchas would have made a good general in Yehoshua’s army, but what Yehoshua needed was someone to complement him, to be a unifying force. Elazar, the son of Aharon who “loved peace”, was more suitable than his impulsive son Pinchas.