By the age of thirty, Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world. He was the King of Macedonia, the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Shah of Persia, and even the “Lord of Asia”—a title he created himself. The man never lost a battle; it seemed like he would rule forever. But Alexander was a heavy drinker, Plutarch recounts, and in 323 BCE, he became gravely ill. Caught by surprise, the Greeks scrambled to prepare for their future. “Who should take over from the Great Alexander after his death?” inquired the members of his inner circle. The reply they received, as recorded by Diodorus, is legendary: “tôi katistôi”—grant authority “to the strongest.” Thus began one of the worst civil wars in ancient history. For four decades, Alexander’s diadochi (“successors”) fought for control over the territory their leader had captured. None of his generals succeeded completely. When all the dust had settled, Ptolemy was left with Egypt, Seleucus was left with Persia, Lysimachus was left with Asia Minor—and Alexander’s once mighty empire was left in shambles.
The story of the diadochi teaches us an important lesson: to leave a lasting impact, leaders must be followed by capable successors. Moshe, the first leader of the Israelites, understood this well. He had taken his people out of slavery, given them God’s Torah, guided them through the wilderness for forty years and brought them to the entrance of the Promised Land. Still, he did not consider his work done yet. As we read in this week’s Torah portion:
God said to Moses, “Go up to this mountain of Abarim and see the land that I have given to the Children of Israel. You shall see it and then you shall be gathered unto your people [i.e. you shall die] because you rebelled against My word in the Wilderness of Zin—during the people’s strife—by not sanctifying Me at the water before their eyes… Moses said to God: “May Hashem, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the assembly of God shall not be like a sheep that have no shepherd” (Num. 27:12-17).
Moshe insists that a successor must be appointed before he dies. Hashem, for His part, is pleased with this request. He responds as follows:
“Take to yourself Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, and lean your hand upon him (ס.מ.ך). You shall stand him before Eleazar the priest and before the entire assembly, and command him before their eyes. You shall place some of your majesty upon, so that the entire assembly of the Children of Israel will pay heed…” (Num. 27:18-22).
In the English language, we have several idioms to describe the transfer of responsibility or of authority from one party to another. We might say, for instance, that a current leader is “passing the torch” onto his successor (a reference to the flames that are lit at the start of each Olympic Games), or we might say that a successor is “assuming the mantle of leadership” in return (a reference to the cloak which the prophet Elijah gave to his disciple, Elisha—see I Kings 19). But Hashem doesn’t use either of these expressions in this week’s Torah portion. Instead, He speaks of “leaning one’s hands.” In fact, semikha—literally, “leaning”—is the word we use until today to refer to the process of rabbinic ordination. What does it symbolize?
Perhaps the most intuitive explanation in this case is a mystical one. When detailing the procedure of the leaning ceremony, Hashem instructs Moshe to “place some of your majesty upon Joshua” (Num. 27:20). The implication seems to be that Moshe is actually transmitting his leadership abilities to Joshua, in some spiritual sense, by resting his hands upon him. This approach fits well with another verse, this one from the beginning of the book of Leviticus, which outlines the laws of ritual sacrifices: “He [who brings a sacrifice] shall lean his hands upon the head of the elevation-offering, and it shall become an acceptable form of atonement for him” (Lev. 1:4). Here, too, the “leaning of the hands” appears to effect a sort of metaphysical transduction: the sins of the leaner are interred with the animal and the sinner gains atonement as a result.
But maybe there’s another way to interpret Moshe’s act of semikha. Both in English and in Hebrew, to “lean on somebody” (“לסמוך על מישהוא”) means to depend on them for support or assistance. In fact, the Hebrew words for “lean” and for “support” are semantically related: סמיכה means “leaning” and תמיכה means “supporting. This connection is particularly interesting in light of a passage that we find earlier in the Torah—the one in which we are introduced to Joshua for the first time:
The entire assembly of the Children of Israel journeyed from the Wilderness of Si’n… and there was no water for the people to drink… Moses called the place “Trial and Strife,” because of the contention of Israel and because they tested God, saying: “Is God among us or not?” Amalek came [ב.ו.א.] and battled Israel in Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose people for us and go out [י.צ.א] to do battle with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand. Joshua did as Moses said to him, to do battle with Amalek. And Moses, Aaron and Hur ascended to the top of the hill. It happened that when Moses raised his hand, Israel was stronger, and he lowered his hand, Amalek was stronger. Moses’ hands grew heavy… so Aaron and Hur supported his hands [תמכו בידיו], one on this side and one that side, and his hands remained steady until sunset. Joshua weakened Amalek and its people with the sword (Exod. 17:1-13).
The parallels between this passage and the passage in our Torah portion are striking:
- The passage in Exodus begins with a water crisis that the people face after leaving the Wilderness of Si’n (סין). The passage in our Torah portion begins with God telling Moshe that he will die because he mishandled the water crisis that took place in the Wilderness of Zin (צין).
- In both passages the people feel leaderless. In Exodus, Moshe is troubled because the people wonder “Is God among us or not?” In our Torah portion, Moshe is worried that “the assembly of God shall be like a flock of sheep that has no shepherd.”
- In both passages we find the relatively rare expression of “coming/going” (י.צ.א/ב.ו.א). In Exodus, the expression is used to describe the military activity of the Amalekites and of the Israelites. In our Torah portion, it is used by Moshe when he asks God to provide the Israelites with a leader “who will go out before them and come in before them.” Here, too—as, indeed, throughout Tanakh—the expression is used in a military sense (c.f. Rashi ad. loc.).
- In both passages, Moshe is (or should be) on a mountain. In Exodus, he is on the mountain during the war with Amalek. In our Torah portion, he was told to ascend the mountain before he dies.
- In fact, Joshua is responsible for sending Moshe up the mountain in Exodus, just as Joshua is responsible for bringing Moshe down the mountain in our Torah portion. In Exodus, Moshe is able to go up the mountain only because Joshua is taking care of the war on the ground. In our Torah portion, it is because Moshe must appoint Joshua as his successor that he is allowed to stay on the ground, instead of climbing up the mountain to die as God had initially commanded.
- In both passages, Moshe rests his hands on somebody. In Exodus, Aaron and Hur support (ת.מ.ך) the hands of Moshe. In our Torah portion, Moshe leans (ס.מ.ך) his hands on Joshua.
When we think carefully about these two passages, we discover that Joshua’s role is actually the same in both. At the start of the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness, Joshua is a תומך of Moshe’s—though he’s not one of the people who is physically supporting Moshe’s “heavy hands,” he is lightening Moshe’s burden by leading in a context that Moshe is less equipped for: on the battlefield. Forty years later, in this week’s Torah portion, the people are ready to cross into the land of Israel. But here, too, Moshe will be unable to help them—he is about to die. So he turns to Joshua and leans on him, both literally and figuratively. As he prepares to step away from public office, Moshe is סומך on Joshua once again: he relies upon his successor to take care of that which he himself cannot.
“No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it,” warned steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Alexander the Great did not realize this, but Moshe did. He accepted the fact that both his talents and his time were limited.He recognized, in the words of Bill Gates, that “as we look ahead into the [future], leaders will be those who empower others.” That’s why he instituted semikha. Through this act, generations of leaders have communicated to their disciples: I can’t do it alone. I need you. I’m counting on you to contribute to our people in a way that you uniquely can.
Semikha encourages us to develop humility while welcoming responsibility. It reminds us that we cannot make the world a better place through our leadership alone. To achieve that goal, we must also practice sound “leanership.” R. Tarfon, in the Mishna, put it well: לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין להיבטל ממנה—“The work is not yours alone to complete, yet neither are you exempt from contributing your share” (Avot 2:19).