Moses, Elijah and how to pass on the mantle of leadership

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the experience of Moses and Elijah in choosing their successors, and what lessons this can teach us for our present times.

We have just learned the names of the two contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and thus of this country at present. At the same time, we read the last two Books from Numbers, known in Hebrew as BaMidbar (In The Desert) during the 'Three Weeks' period between the Fast of 17th of Tammuz and the Fast of 9th of Av, which this year falls on the evening of Shabbat on 6 August.

Both these fast days commemorate the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. The Fast of Tammuz fell on Sunday 17 July, and for the first time that I can remember, the Bet Din stated that, given the unseasonal heat, certain groups were exempt from fasting. These included people with underlying health conditions, as well as people over 70, pregnant women and also women in the first two years after childbirth.

During the really hot days of 18 to 20 July, all synagogues in this country were open to anyone seeking a cool place out of the heat. Because, let's face it, this country isn't very good in extremes of weather.

But other extremes are facing us just now, and not just those to do with our climate: put bluntly, this country no longer seems to know what it is or who it is for. An initially successful but flawed Prime Minister has just been removed from office by his own party and, during the summer, the two remaining candidates in the race to succeed him are trying their utmost to persuade 160,000 Tory voters, based mainly in one wealthy enclave of the country, that they are worthy of the mantle of the highest office.

Ironically, this is the very choice facing Moshe Rabbeinu in our upcoming Sedra of Pinchas (Numbers25:10-30) Moses too has to pass his mantle on to a successor. And he knows in his heart that the successor would have to be very different from him. The successor is no longer to lead an Exodus out of slavery but, after 40 years in the wilderness, will face the unknown in the 'Promised Land'. Quite a tall order!

So, given this situation, does Moses choose Pinchas, the zealot, or does Moses go for a total newcomer, who has nevertheless, proved himself more than once. After all, Joshua has already demonstrated that he shares the vision of what the future must hold. He has already carried out his apprenticeship under Moses, including taking the initiative when necessary.

Joshua has shown himself to be committed, dedicated, in control of all the details, and most of all, not reckless. And, as we mentioned in an earlier article, What can Christianity and Judaism teach us about good leadership?, Joshua also knows how to delegate.

Joshua is not Pinchas, Moses' great-nephew from the priestly Levite family, but Joshua, son of Nun, from the Joseph tribe of Ephraim, known for their learning. Thus the Levite, priestly tribe, epitomized by Moses and Aaron, is joined by Joseph, and later by Judah, which will take on the kingship through David and Solomon (via Ruth of Moab).

The choice of Joshua from the fairly obscure tribe of Ephraim, demonstrates the Biblical teaching that when choosing leaders, we should not go by what Martin Luther King called 'the color of their skin', but always opt for 'the content of their character.'

Not only does Moses have to choose a successor, but the parallel Haftorah reading for the day (I Kings 18:46-19:21), describes how the prophet Elijah passes on his own mantle (literally, in his case) to Elisha. The passage starts just as the prophet Elijah has overcome the 'priests' of Baal by proving G-d's strength against the weakness of their own gods; and has also caused much-needed rain to fall. After this, far from learning their lesson, the wicked monarchs, Ahab and Jezebel, and especially the latter, throw down the gauntlet towards both Elijah and G-d Himself.

Elijah is close to giving up altogether, but then G-d comes to him in a dream, and when Elijah wakes, there is enough food and drink for the 40-days journey to Mount Horeb. And Elijah uses the same words as Pinchas, that he had been 'very zealous' to do what G-d expected of him (I Kings 19:10). With the children of Israel having forsaken their covenant with G-d and gone their own way, taking on the customs of Baal, Elijah cries out to G-d: 'and I, only I am left, and they seek my life to take it away.'

But G-d instructs Elijah to stand on the mountain, and there Elijah perceives that G-d is not in the noise of the elements, but is simply 'a still small voice' (verse 12). Elijah repeats the words of verse 10, and this time G-d responds that Elijah's prophetic mantle should pass to the cow-herd, Elisha.

Elisha was from the Tribe of Issachar. Later, the Tribe of Issachar was known as the Tribe of Scholars, who 'knew the times', i.e. they could 'intuit what was needed and what Israel needed to do' (1 Chronicles 12:33). Before that, Moses, in his last blessing before he dies (Deuteronomy 33: 18) gives Issachar the following blessing: 'Rejoice .... Issachar in your tents.' 'Tents' often signifyies religious learning, and (as I stated in my last article: Micah, Balak, Balaam and what the Lord requires of us is also an anagram for the Hebrew word for G-d.

So, Elisha, chosen by Elijah as prophet, nevertheless differs from him in many details, and represents yet another biblical tribe. Once again: at the end of the day, it is character which counts the most. And also the importance of learning and mentorship.

Given the lack of political and religious leadership in the world today, it may be apposite to consider the nature of character. To many, people with character possess courage, vision, mastery over detail, resilience, and the willingness to suffer for their beliefs.

Who among us at present can be said to possess any or all of these traits? And our next Prime Minister will, alas, not be anointed by a chosen prophet of G-d, but rather by 160,000 members of one political party (representing 0.3% of the voting population), most of whom are resident in the wealthiest and most privileged part of the country!

Whatever would Elijah have said about this?