A rather curious exchange between God and Moshe is found after Moshe is told that he must prepare for his death (27:15-21). In it, Moshe petitions God to appoint a new leader so that the Jews not be ‘like a flock without a shepherd.’
There are many questions here, but the most powerful is asked by Ohr HaChaim, and that is why would Moshe think that God would let this to happen to the Jewish people? It is true that Moshe had advocated against some of God’s previous plans to punish the Jews. But since there is no indication that God is planning punishment here, it would seem that God would be at least as concerned as Moshe about the Jews’ welfare.
Ohr HaChaim’s answer is that right after God reminded Moshe that he would not cross the Jordan, this was really a plea that God do otherwise and keep him alive. Based on the elaborate description of the new leader that Moshe presents, Ohr HaChaim writes that Moshe thought he was describing only himself. He continues to say that this was not self-interested, but rather that he could not see the possibility of someone else stepping up to the task.
Bekhor Shor has a different answer. Most readers assume that God would have found a new leader, whether Moshe had prompted Him or not. But this can be questioned. It is true that God told Avraham who his successor would be. And if by the time we get to Yitzchak, it is less clear, from Yaakov onwards, the default is that succession is left up to man. In this vein, Bekhor Shor explains that Moshe pleads that God take over this responsibility and choose Moshe’s successor. According to this, Moshe feels daunted by his inability to see through appearances and to know the essence of the men he might tap to replace him.
According to either of the above explanations, Moshe was not able to see that Yehoshua was fit for the job. On some level, this seems strange. Moshe had seemingly known Yehoshua well for many years. What makes this even stranger is that Yehoshua would become one of Israel’s most successful leaders. As opposed to the calamities in the desert years under Moshe and the constant problems with idolatry during the time of the Judges and the kings, Yehoshua is able to do a remarkable job of keeping his nation in line.
But Moshe could not know that Yehoshua. He knew a different Yehoshua. For as Moshe’s assistant, his performance had not been stellar. The most striking example is the story of the spies in which he was one of the twelve participants. There, Yehoshua seems to have had little impact on the mission or on its aftermath. And even within the opposition to the spies’ report, it had been Kalev and not he that had shown the most leadership. But even before then – and in much less dire circumstances – Yehoshua’s panic at Eldad and Meidad prophesying in the camp (11:29) did not portend well. Well intentioned though it may have been, his suggestion to jail (or otherwise stop) them was summarily dismissed by Moshe as inappropriate (11:30).
What Moshe did not realize was that he was only seeing one aspect of Yehoshua. It was a dominant aspect at the time, and presumably what everyone else saw as well. But that did not make it who Yehoshua was. And it certainly was not who he would be under all circumstances. As Moshe’s protégé, Yehoshua had not shown the most potential. But the trick was to see who Yehoshua could become without Moshe, and in very different circumstances.
In this vein, I remember hearing about a rosh yeshiva who had a very hard time earning the respect of his peers, because they could not escape their memories of playing basketball with him when they were all younger. In that case, they were held prisoner by memories of who this rosh yeshiva had once been, rather than trying to understand who he was now.
Perhaps only God can truly know who people can be in other circumstances. If so, Moshe was right to leave it to Him. However, that is a luxury most of us do not have. Absent prophecy, we will often need to make decisions based on the potential we see in ourselves and others. Hence, we had best keep the story of Yehoshua in mind.
Indeed, we will be doing everyone a favor if we can think more creatively about the potential of others, not to mention of our own. To do so means to free ourselves of unhelpful expectations, and to understand that limits are usually a product of circumstances and rarely – though certainly not never – innate. It is only that type of thinking that will unearth the Yehoshuas amongst us. And one Yehoshua lost is surely one too many.