Why God Chose Joshua

July 25, 2019

8 min read


Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1 )

On the importance of learning and teaching Torah.

Towards the end of the Torah Portion, there is the account of Moses' request that God appoint an able successor to lead the Jewish people into the land of Israel. God answered him that his faithful student, Joshua, is the appropriate choice. The Midrash elaborates on the dialogue that took place between God and Moses. They tell us that Moses asked that his own sons succeed him as leader, however God refused this request, because "your sons sat and were not osek beTorah" (1) (absorbed in Torah learning), whereas, Joshua was the rightful successor because "he would come early to, and leave late from, your beit medrash (study hall), and would arrange the benches and cover the tables." (2)

There are two difficulties with this Midrash: Firstly, if Moshe's sons were not osek b'Torah then how could Moses have had any expectation that they could lead the Jewish people? (3) Secondly, it would seem that God was comparing Moses' sons to Joshua in the same area of conduct - that of being osek b'Torah. However, when God praised Joshua he stressed the fact that he set up the beit medrash - this does not seem to have any relevance to being osek b'Torah. What exactly was the nature of comparison of Moses' sons to Joshua?

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv explains that Moshe's sons were indeed Torah scholars and they were learned enough to lead the Jewish people - that is why Moses believed that they were fitting candidates for succeeding him. However, God replied that this was not sufficient; when He said that they "sat and were not 'osek b'Torah'" He meant that they sat and learned for themselves and were not 'osek' (busy) with others in Torah. In contrast to their lack of being involved in helping other people's Torah, Joshua would set up the study hall and thereby enable others to learn Torah - that is considered being 'osek b'Torah'. (4)

There are a number of important lessons that can be derived from Rav Elyashiv's explanation,(5) however, there seems to be one specific difficulty with it - it would have seemed that being osek b'Torah only implies learning Torah for oneself, where is the allusion to enabling others to learn Torah?

In order to answer this it is necessary to understand the basic definition of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (learning Torah). The Rambam writes that there are two sources for the mitzvah: "You shall teach them to your children" and "you shall teach them sharply to your children.". From these commands to teach children the Rambam derives that a person must learn Torah - the fundamental reason given for learning Torah is so that one can teach it to his children. We see from here that the mitzvah of 'Talmud Torah' refers to teaching as much as to learning. Moreover, the Rambam quotes the Rabbinical source that 'children' also refers to students, and that a fundamental part of the mitzvah is to teach people even if they are not one's own children.(6) Thus, it is quite understandable that Rav Elyashiv can translate, being 'osek b'Torah' as meaning 'causing others to learn' Torah.

Another source for the concept that 'Torah' intrinsically involves enabling others to learn Torah is found in the Gemara in Avoda Zara.(7) The Gemara says that world history is split into three periods of two thousand years: The first is called the 'two thousand years of nothingness', the second period is known as the 'two thousand years of Torah.' The commentaries explain that the years of nothingness are so called because of the lack of Torah in the world during that time, whereas the years of Torah mark the beginning of Torah's presence in the world. The Gemara says that the years of Torah began with time that Abraham began teaching Torah to the world, as represented by the 'souls that they made in Charan'. However, there is a difficulty with saying that the years of Torah began only at this point in time. It is clear that there were great people who lived before Abraham and learned Torah,(8) and yet they lived in a time that is described as being absent of Torah, moreover Abraham himself learnt Torah long before he began teaching others - the era of 'Torah' only began with the 'souls that they(9) made in Charan' (10)- why is this the case? Rav Zev Leff explains that Abraham did something more than his illustrious predecessors - he taught Torah. The era of 'Torah" only begins when Torah is taught as well as learnt because then it has the opportunity to spread.(11)

We have seen many sources that show that learning and teaching Torah are in the same category. It still needs to be explained why teaching Torah is so fundamental in Jewish thought. The Ben Ish Chai provides with a deeper understanding of this matter. He brings the Gemara in Sanhedrin(12) that quotes the verse in Shelach saying that person who serves other gods has "degraded the word of God." (13) The Gemara then describes other modes of behavior that deserve this devastating indictment.(14) Surprisingly, the Gemara adds that the verse includes "one who learns and does not teach." The Ben Ish Chai asks why the Gemara speaks so harshly about one who learns but does not teach. He explains that the Torah is eternal and its eternal nature is preserved by passing on its teachings to the next generation. However, he writes that "a person who learns but does not burden himself to teach his fellow damages the eternal nature of the Torah because the Torah that he learns cannot move on to the next generation…therefore it is understood why the Rabbis describe this man in such a severe manner - because he prevents the chain of the passing down of Torah from generation to generation and nullifies the Torah's eternal quality." (15)

This also helps us understand why it was important that the leader of the Jewish people be one who causes others to learn Torah - his role was to preserve and continue the Transmission and thereby preserve the eternal nature of the Torah.

We have seen how intrinsic teaching Torah is to the mitzvah of learning Torah. Moroever, whilst teaching Torah is a great kindness to other people, it is also clear that there is a very significant element of self-development in teaching Torah - it helps develop our appreciation of the eternal nature of Torah and to play a role in passing it on to the next generation.



1. This is literally translated as being busy with Torah - we will discuss the ramifications of this term in the remainder of this essay.

2. Bamidbar Rabbah, 21:14.

3. This question is asked by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv Shlita, Divrei Aggada, p. 319.

4. Ibid.

5. See his continuation in Divrei Aggada, p.319-20 where he elaborates on the necessity to share one's Torah with those who are distant from the true path. We also learn from his explanation that the ability and willingness to share Torah with others is a key trait in determining an effective leader.

6. The Mishna in Avos, 1:1 tells us that we must "establish many students." The Tiferes Yisroel writes that it is not enough to merely teach one's own children but one must teach other Jews as well.

7. Avoda Zara, 9a.

8. The Rabbis say that Adam HaRishon, Noach and Shem v'Ever learnt Torah.

9. 'They' refers to Abraham and Sarah.

10. Abraham was 52 years old when the era of Torah began - see Rashi, Avoda Zara, 9a.

11. One may ask that Abraham was not the first to teach Torah - Shem and Ever had yeshivas where they taught students. The difference is that Abraham taught Torah to those who did not otherwise have any desire to learn it, whereas Shem and Ever waited for people willing to learn to come to them - see Rambam, Hilchot Avoda Zara, Ch. 1 Halacha 3, with Raavad and Kesef Misha who elaborates on the qualitative difference between Abraham's teaching and that of Shem and Ever. Also see Shut Chasam Sofer, intorduction to Yoreh Deah, and Chomat Hadat of the Chofetz Chaim who elaborate on the differences between Abraham and the great men that preceded him. Another possible difference between Abraham and Shem and Ever is that they taught already righteous people, whereas Abraham drastically changed the direction of people's lives - this is supported by the Gemara's citing of the verse that refers to the souls that Avraham made - this suggests that merely teaching a person Torah is not the end goal, rather this is a means to making people change their lives through the torah that they are taught. Rav Yaakov Emden writes that when the Mishna in Pirkei Avot ( 4:6) says that the highest level is 'lilmod al menat laasot', it means learning in order to make others do - this is considered a higher level than lilmod al menas lelamed (learning in order to teach) because the goal of teaching is to cause greater Mitzva observance.

12. Sanhedrin, 99a.

13. Shelach, 15:31.

14. Included in this list are one who is one who claims that the Torah is not from Heaven.






15. Benyahu, Sanhedrin, 99a, quoted in 'Peninei Ben Ish Chai, Shelach, p. 212.

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