Question: As we now read the book of Devarim, the Torah tells us that Moses was instructed by Hashem to appoint a successor. Moses wanted His sons to succeed him, but Hashem tells him to appoint Yehoshua as the next leader. Why was this request of the greatest and most righteous of men denied? Also, were Yehoshua and Caleb the only named leaders or personalities to enter the land of Canaan?
Answer: Your first question was asked many years ago and it engendered much interest. We refer back to that discussion and we shall see numerous explanations – in fact, three of them, by readers of The Jewish Press. But first let us turn to the Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:1) who states as follows: “The Jewish people were adorned with three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. Aaron merited the crown of priesthood, as stated (Numbers 25:13), “Vehayta lo ulezar’o acharav brit kehunat olam… – It shall be for him and his offspring after him an eternal covenant of priesthood…” [Rambam arrives at this conclusion even though this verse actually refers to Pinchas.]
David merited the crown of royalty, as stated (Psalms 89:37), “His seed shall endure for ever, and his throne shall be like the sun before Me.” The crown of Torah, however, remains and is available to all of Israel, as stated (Deuteronomy 33:4), “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the Congregation of Israel.” Should you say that those crowns are greater than the crown of Torah, it is written (Proverbs 8:15-16), “By me [the Torah] kings reign and nobles decree justice. By me princes rule….” We thus see that the crown of Torah is greater than the other two.
My uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, was asked a similar question many years ago. We have adapted part of his reply (Responsa of Modern Judaism Vol. 3 p. 120) for our discussion.
“The Yalkut Shimoni (169) explains that when Jethro gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moses in marriage, he made him promise that the firstborn son would adopt Jethro’s belief of idolatry (see also the Ba’al HaTurim to Exodus 18:3). Moses agreed, and his punishment was that his sons would not achieve his greatness and glory.
“Further on (776), however, the Yalkut Shimoni offers another reason: Joshua had studied constantly alongside Moses. He had earned the mantle of leadership and therefore he was rewarded with that position.
“Midrash Tanchuma (Pinchas) explains it in this fashion: When Moses saw that the daughters of Tzelophechad were recognized as heirs to their father’s estate, he decided to ask the same for his sons. But G-d replied, ‘He who guards the fig tree is entitled to enjoy its fruit’ (Proverbs 27:18). Your sons did not study the Torah and did not serve you as did Joshua, who waited upon you diligently. It is therefore Joshua who shall inherit your position of leadership. Yet Moses took from the law that was promulgated regarding the daughters of Tzelophechad, and it became an important part of the laws of inheritance that there was yet a possibility that his sons could succeed him. And of course, we know Hashem’s reply.
“The commentary Zayit Ra’anan (Yalkut Shimoni 787) explains that Moses’ two sons died while their father was still alive and that is why they are not mentioned again. This actually must be because we find that Moses himself is very clear when he singles out Joshua and Caleb of that generation as the only ones who will merit to enter the land.”
Now as to your second question, we do find or know of certain figures who by name were the exception to that rule. The first we might consider is Serach bat Asher, who was promised by her grandfather, Jacob, an eternal life – that she would not die a normal human death, rather that she would ascend heaven alive, all due to the manner in which she conveyed the good news that Joseph was alive and in fact the ruler of all Egypt. Tradition has it that she lived on this earth into the times of the prophets.
Similarly, Elazar the High Priest, whose passing is noted at the very end of the book of Yehoshua, and his son Pinchas are exceptions. Pinchas, not only earned the priesthood for himself but also for all generations to follow due to his having been given special recognition by Hashem for his zeal on behalf of the Heavenly honor. Thus, according to our Sages, he lives on as Elijah (Bava Metzia 114b, see Rashi s.v. “lav Kohen mar,” and numerous other Midrashic sources) and Pinchas did serve as High Priest in the land of Israel (see end of Yehoshua chap. 22). However, our Sages (Bereishis Rabbah 60:3) were critical of both him and Yiftach, the leader at the time, over the matter of Yiftach’s vow (Shoftim 11:31) – “ ‘The first to come out my door will I offer up as a sacrifice,’ and lo and behold it was his daughter.” Each would not go to the other; had one of them made the approach it would have saved Yiftach’s daughter from the great tragedy that befell her and her father, as it was in the hands of Pinchas to annul the vow and save the daughter from the monastic life that she was to live to the end of her days.
To be continued…