With the Parshat Zot Ha'bracha, the Torah reaches its conclusion.

While the vast majority of this week's Torah portion contains the blessing which Moses uttered prior to his death, it also records the death of Moses.

Surely the death of such an unparalleled leader created a vacuum which is hard for us to imagine. Moses wore many hats he was teacher, warrior, and perhaps king.1 Moses was a spiritual, and religious leader par excellence. He was also the visionary who helped facilitate the transfer of an enormous population from servitude in Egypt to within the distance of a shadow of the Promised Land.

The man who ascended to Sinai and brought down the Torah is called Moshe Rabbenu, "Moses Our Teacher."

Of all the facets of Moses' multifaceted personality the one which is recorded for posterity as his appellation, is Moshe Rabbenu, "Moses Our Teacher."

He is the man who ascended to Sinai and brought down the Torah. Any person who would take his place would do so with the knowledge that in any comparison they would fall short. Others could learn Torah – but who else could wrest it from the hands of angels and bring a piece of divinity to earth?2

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The task of following Moses fell upon Joshua ben Nun. The leaders of that generation indeed lamented their plight:

And you shalt put of your honor upon him, but not all your honor. The elders of that generation said: "The countenance of Moses was like that of the sun; the countenance of Joshua was like that of the moon." Alas, for such shame! Alas for such reproach! (Baba Batra 75a)

Joshua glowed – but his glow was dim in comparison to Moses. When Moses died the people stopped learning.

Our Rabbis taught: "When a Hacham dies, his Beth Hamidrash is idle; when the Av Bet Din dies all the colleges in his city are idle and [the people of the synagogue] enter the synagogue[s] and change their [usual] places: those that [usually] sit in the north sit in the south and those that [usually] sit in the south sit in the north. When a Nasi dies, all the colleges are idle and the people of the synagogue enter the synagogue." (Moed Kattan 22b)

How much more so when Moses died. Tosfot (Menichot 30a) report that the custom to say Tziduk Hadin on Shabbat at Mincha emanates from the death of Moses. There is still a custom not to be involved in the study of Torah after Mincha time on Shabbat to commemorate the death of Moses.3

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The rabbis articulate the loss of Moses also in quantitative terms. With Moses's death learning and knowledge were severely effected.

It has been taught: "A thousand and seven hundred lessons and specifications of the scribes were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moses. Said Rabbi Abbuha: "Nevertheless Otniel the son of Kenaz restored [these forgotten teachings] as a result of his dialectics, as it says: And Otniel the son of Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, took it." (T'murah 16a)

With the demise of Moses, Torah was forgotten, it is interesting that it was not Joshua who restored the learning, rather Otniel. Perhaps Joshua took the death of Moses in a harsher manner than others did.4 Nonetheless the people lamented Moses's demise and therefore Joshua's ascension.

What was it about Joshua that merited his filling Moses's enormous shoes? When it comes to scholarship arguably Otniel was superior.

Rashi in his commentary to Avot implies that in scholarship Pinchas was the superior to Joshua.5 Rashi cites a verse in Malachi and applies the verse to Pinchas:

The Torah of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips; he walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many away from iniquity. For the priest's lips should guard knowledge, and they should seek the Torah from his mouth; for he is a messenger/angel of the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 2:6-7)

The priest in question who had the true Torah in his mouth was Pinchas. The verse is associated in the following passage where an additional aspect is revealed.

No other people sent to perform a religious duty and who risked their lives in order to succeed in their mission can compare with the two men whom Joshua the son of Nun sent; as it says, And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two spies (Joshua 2:1).

Who were they? Our Rabbis taught: "They were Pinchas and Caleb ... When they came to seek them, what did Rahab do? She took them away to hide them. Pinchas said to her: 'I am a priest and priests are compared to angels' as it says, For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the angel of the Lord hosts, and an angel, if he wishes, can be visible, and if he wishes he can be invisible. How can we infer that prophets are compared to angels?

"From the fact that it says in reference to Moses, And sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt (Numbers 20:16). Was it not Moses who brought them out? Certainly, but you can infer from this that prophets are compared to angels. Similarly it says, And the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said:... I made you go up out of Egypt (Judges 2:1). But was it not Pinchas who said this? Yes, but you can infer from it that the prophets are called angels. Pinchas, then, said to Rahab: 'I am a priest and do not need to be hidden. Hide Caleb, my companion. I will stand before them and they will not see me.'" (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 26:1)

Not only does Pinchas speak true Torah, he is compared to an angel of God. Moses too was angelic in his subsisting without food or drink, when he behaved as the angels during the duration of his stay on Sinai.

Rabbi Tanhuma in Rabbi Eleazar's name and Rabbi Abun in Rabbi Meir's name said: "The proverb runs, when you enter a town, follow its customs (When in Rome, do as Rome does.') Above [in the celestial sphere] there is no eating and drinking; hence when Moses ascended on high he appeared like them [the angels], as it says, Then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights; I did neither eat bread nor drink water (Deut. 9:9). (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 48:14)

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Yet Rashi stresses that Moses passed the Torah to Joshua -- specifically, exclusively Joshua. Other studied and perhaps excelled but the tradition was passed on to Joshua.

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the great assembly. (Avoth 1:1)

Surely there were others who learned at the feet of Moses, why is Joshua singled out – especially if others may have been superior?

The Talmud describes the scene of the Torah being taught in the Beit Midrash of Moses:

What was the procedure of the instruction in the oral law? Moses learned from the mouth of the Omnipotent. Then Aaron entered and Moses taught him his lesson. Aaron then moved aside and sat down on Moses' left. Thereupon Aaron's sons entered and Moses taught them their lesson. His sons then moved aside, Eleazar taking his seat on Moses' right and Ithamar on Aaron's left.

Rabbi Yehuda stated: "Aaron was always on Moses right. Thereupon the elders entered and Moses taught them their lesson, and when the elders moved aside all the people entered and Moses taught them their lesson. It thus followed that Aaron heard the lesson four times, his sons heard it three times, the elders twice and all the people once. At this stage Moses departed and Aaron taught them his lesson. Then Aaron departed and his sons taught them their lesson. His sons then departed and the elders taught them their lesson. It thus followed that everybody heard the lesson four times."

From here Rabbi Eliezer inferred: "It is a man's duty to teach his pupil [his lesson] four times. For this is arrived at a minori ad majus: Aaron who learned from Moses who had it from the Omnipotent had to learn his lesson four times how much more so an ordinary pupil who learns from an ordinary teacher." (Eruvin 54b)

Where however was Joshua during this process? He seems no where to be found.

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When Maimonides describes the process of the Torah being taught he states:

Elazar, Pinchas and Joshua all three received from Moses. To Joshua, who was Moses' student, he [i.e., Moses] transmitted the Oral Torah, and commanded him regarding it. (Introduction to Mishne Torah)

We see from Maimonides' formulation, that while Moses taught many people only Joshua was his student. And only Joshua was entrusted with the oral tradition. Evidently, this is Maimonides' understanding of the Mishna in Avot: "Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders."

In a subsequent paragraph Maimonides writes that Pinchas received the tradition from Joshua, which is remarkable considering that Pinchas too had studied directly from Moses. As we saw above Moses had one primary student, Joshua.

This formulation remains difficult in terms of the Talmudic statement which left out Joshua from the entire process. Where was Joshua when the Torah was being taught?

When the daughters of Zelophehad inherited from their father, Moses argued: "The time is opportune for me to demand my own needs. If daughters inherit, it is surely right that my sons should inherit my glory." The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: "Whoever keeps the fig-tree shall eat the fruit thereof; and he that waits on his master shall be honored (Proverbs 27:18). Your sons sat idly by and did not study the Torah. Joshua served you much and he showed you great honor. It was he who rose early in the morning and remained late at night at your House of Assembly. He used to arrange the benches, and he used to spread the mats. Seeing that he has served you with all his might, he is to serve Israel, for he shall not lose his reward." (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 21:14)

The Midrash tells us that Joshua never left Moses's presence, this based on the passage found in the Book of Exodus:

And it came to pass, as Moses entered into the Tent, the pillar of cloud descended, and stood at the door of the Tent, and the Lord talked with Moses. And all the people saw the pillar of cloud stand at the Tent door; and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door. And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he turned again into the camp; but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not from the Tent. (Exodus 33:10-11)6

Joshua never left his teacher's side therefore, even though arguably Moses may have had more talented followers, the task of replacing Moses was the lot of Joshua.7 Joshua was the one who set out the benches and tables in Moses's Beit Midrash. Before the other students arrived and after the other students left Joshua was still there at Moses's side.8 This type of dedication is institutionalized in the Talmud:

Our Rabbis taught: "Who is an ignoramus? Anyone who does not recite the Shema evening and morning." This is the view of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Joshua says: "Anyone who does not put on tefillin." Ben Azzai says: "Anyone who has not a fringe on his garment." Rabbi Nathan says: "Anyone who has not a mezuzah on his door." Rabbi Nathan ben Joseph says: "Anyone who has sons and does not bring them up to the study of the Torah." Others say: "Even if one has learnt Scripture and Mishnah, if he has not ministered to a scholar, he is an ignoramus." Rabbi Huna said: "The halachah is as laid down by 'others.'" (Berachot 47b)

To be scholarly or "book smart" in the absence of serving a sage is insufficient at least, dangerous at worst. Knowledge is not simply a process of assimilating information, it requires far more subtle skills which can only be acquired by sitting at the feet of a sage. There was never a greater sage than Moses nor a greater more dedicated student than Joshua. Therefore, when the time came to replace Moses, God chose Joshua.

And Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, "Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation. Who may go out before them, and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd." And the Lord said to Moses, "Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him." (Numbers 27:15-18)

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Joshua received the ultimate ordination at the commandment of God by the hand of Moses -- just like the Torah itself.9

The task of Joshua would not be easy. The comparison with Moses as we saw made for a difficult situation. And the fall off in Torah study with the demise of Moses compounded the problem.

The way of dealing with the problem was by biding Joshua to be strong:

And Moses called to Joshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel, "Be strong and of a good courage; for you must go with this people to the land which the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them; and you shall cause them to inherit it." (Deut. 31:7)

Moses therefore wrote this song/poem the same day, and taught it to the people of Israel. And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said, "Be strong and of a good courage; for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land which I swore to them; and I will be with you." (Deut 31:22-23)

Not only did Moses instruct Joshua to be strong, so did God:

And it was after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord that the Lord spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' minister, saying, "Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross over the Jordan, you, and all this people, to the land which I give to them, to the people of Israel... Be strong and courageous; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land, which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the Torah, which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth; but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written on it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous; be not afraid, nor be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:1-9)

We are told that Joshua never left Moses's tent, and now, with the very same language, Joshua is told that the Torah will never leave him.

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Completing any endeavor can induce mixed feelings, joy from accomplishment, yet fear from the future. As we complete the yearly Torah cycle we must pay attention to God's call for strength, and forge ahead and meet new challenges with joy and awe -- not self-satisfaction and complacency.

We will start the Torah anew. Dedicated to delve into our tradition to find more meaning, and take full advantage of the unparalleled opportunity to peek into God's mind.

Our Rabbis taught: "Four things require strength, namely, [study of] the Torah, good deeds, praying, and one's worldly occupation. Whence do we know this of Torah and good deeds? Because it says, Only be strong and very courageous to observe to do according to all the law. Be strong in Torah." (Brachot 32b)



  1. The verse And he was king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together may apply to Moses. See Ibn Ezra on the verse. Rashi opines that the verse refers to the King Kings. However see also Rashi Sanhedrin 36a S.V. Bimokom Echad. (return to text)

  2. Talmud - Shabbat 88b. (return to text)

  3. See OH 292:2 and Mishna Brerura 6-8. (return to text)

  4. From the Talmud Sanhedrin 68a we see that Rabbi Akiva took the death of his teacher Rabbi Eliezer in a harder manner than his colleagues. (return to text)

  5. This commentary has been attributed to Rashi, an attribution which has been debated. (return to text)

  6. See Bamidbar 11:28 where the term is also used. (return to text)

  7. Many of the issues discussed in this shiur were taught by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in a class given 3-5-57. (return to text)

  8. Rashi in Avot goes on to explain that Joshua displayed more dedication than the others. (return to text)

  9. In the liturgy, when the Torah is lifted two verses are combined: Deut. 4:44 And this is the Torah which Moses set before the people of Israel; and Numbers 9:23 at the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses. (return to text)