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A Revolution That Never Was (Vayelekh)

There is a truism in political science, borrowed from Aristotle’s Physics, which states that horror vacui—“nature abhors a vacuum.” What the phrase means in essence is that no position of power remains vacant or contested for long before would-be rulers rush to fill it. Perhaps the history of the English monarchy best bears this out. After the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, Harold II jumped at the opportunity to declare himself king. But William the Conqueror also claimed rights to the throne, and so he launched the Battle of Hastings, killing Harold and taking the crown for himself. William’s son, Henry I, was next-in-line after his father, and named his daughter Matilda as his heir. Once Henry died, though, his son Stephen seized control, casting the country into two decades of civil war. Another series of dynastic wars, known as the Wars of the Roses, erupted in the fifteenth century between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. These wars are described, in part, in Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Then, in 1688, James II was overthrown when William of Orange, his son-in-law, was invited from the Netherlands to replace him. The conspiracy against James was coordinated by Mary II, who sought to block James’ Catholic son from succeeding him. Some historians call this the War of English Succession. However, the coup is more commonly referred to as the Glorious Revolution—“glorious,” on the basis that it cost less blood than previous ones.

It is instructive to keep in mind the principle of horror vacui as we come to the second of this week’s two Torah portions, Vayelech. At the start of Vayelech, the Israelites have reached the border of Canaan and Moshe is nearing the end of his life. There are no miracles left for him to perform, no enemies left for him to subdue, and no legal cases left for him to adjudicate. It is time for him to formally name his successor:

Moshe summoned Joshua and said to him before the eyes of all of Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people to the land that Hashem swore to their forefathers to give them, and you shall apportion it to them. Hashem will go before you and He will be with you. He will not abandon you or forsake you. Do not be afraid or dismayed! (Deut. 31:7-8).

William of Orange, who usurped James II during the Glorious Revolution.

William of Orange, who usurped James II during the Glorious Revolution.

Moshe hopes to prevent any “wars of succession” from dividing the nation after his death. That is why he appoints Joshua “before the eye of all of Israel”—so that “it could not be claimed in the future that ‘Moshe never granted you the right to rule!’” (Hizkuni, Deut. 31:7). This is a wise decision on Moshe’s part, and it appears to achieve its goal: nobody questions Joshua’s credentials, either in our Torah portion or later in Tanach.

Yet there is one person who remains conspicuously absent throughout this narrative. His name is Caleb. Caleb left Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites in the days of the exodus. Nearly all the members of his generation passed away during their forty year journey in the wilderness. Two, however, survived: Joshua, and Caleb himself.

The reason that Joshua and Caleb did not die in the desert—and, consequently, that they merited to enter into the land of Canaan—is first recorded in the book of Numbers, and it has to do with the way these two men handled themselves during an episode known as the “sin of the spies.” Moshe sent the heads of each tribe, including Caleb and Joshua, on a reconnaissance mission into Canaan. The scouts were supposed to gather information that would aid the Israelites in their military campaign and relay it back to Moshe once they had returned. Instead, however, they brought their report straight to the people:

They returned from scouting the Land at the end of forty days. They went, and they came to Moshe and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel in the desert of Paran, to Kadesh. They brought them back a report, as well as to the entire congregation, [saying]…: The people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw the offspring of giants… Caleb silenced the people before Moshe, and he said, “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome them.” But the other scouts who went up with him said, “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we…”

The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept that night…  Moshe and Aaron fell on their faces before the entire congregation of the children of Israel.  Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had scouted the land, tore their clothes [in mourning]. They spoke to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, saying, “The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. But you shall not rebel against the Lord…” (Num. 13:25-14:9).

The spies who return from Canaan insinuate that the land is unconquerable: “its inhabitants are mighty and its cities are extremely huge and fortified” (Num. 13:28). Caleb is quick to contest their account, but he is rebuffed, and the nation descends into mass hysteria. That is when Joshua joins Caleb in his efforts to calm the Israelites. Yet Joshua’s response is late in coming, and Hashem takes note: “This people shall not see the land that I swore to their forefathers,” He proclaims at the end of the passage. “As for My servant Caleb, however—since he was possessed by another spirit and he followed Me, I will bring him into the land (Num. 14:23:24). Significantly, there is no mention of Joshua in this verse. Not until the next reading, in fact, does Hashem ultimately inform Moshe that Joshua will also be spared punishment (see Num. 14:30).

All of this background renders the events in our Torah portion quite difficult to comprehend. During the sin of the spies, it was Caleb who distinguished himself as a natural leader. Even Hashem singled him out for praise. Yet for some reason, Joshua is the one chosen to lead the Israelites after Moshe’s death. That seems terribly unfair. Imagine it from Caleb’s perspective: how must he have felt?

In our Torah portion, Caleb remains silent, keeping his thoughts to himself. He does not completely disappear from Tanach, however. Years later, in the middle of the book of Joshua, the chieftain of Judah suddenly returns:

Then the men of Judah approached Joshua in Gilgal. Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, “You know what Lord spoke to Moshe the man of God concerning me and concerning you in Kadesh Barnea.  I was forty years old when Moshe the servant of the Lord, sent me from Kadesh Barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him back word as it was in my heart. And my brothers that went up with me, made the heart of the people melt [with fear]; but I fulfilled the will of the Lord my God. And Moshe swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land upon which your foot has trodden shall be your inheritance, and your children’s forever, because you have fulfilled the will of the Lord my God.’ And now, behold, the Lord has kept me alive, as He spoke, these forty-five years, from the time the Lord spoke this word to Moshe, while Israel walked in the wilderness; and now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong this day as I was on the day that Moshe sent me; as my strength was then, even so is my strength now, for war, both to go out, and to come back. And now, give me this mountain, of which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the giants were there, and that the cities were big and fortified. It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall disinherit them, as the Lord spoke” (Joshua 14:6-12).

Caleb and Joshua return from scouting the land of Canaan carrying a bunch of grapes on their backs. The statue stands outside the National Library in Jerusalem.

Caleb and Joshua return from scouting the land of Canaan carrying a bunch of grapes on their backs. The statue stands outside the National Library in Jerusalem.

This is the first interaction between Caleb and Joshua since the sin of the spies. It is a highly dramatic encounter. Shortly after he took over for Moshe, “Joshua’s fame spread throughout the land” (Josh. 6:27); Caleb, meanwhile, faded into relative obscurity. But now, as Joshua’s career enters its peak, Caleb finally speaks up. “You know what the Lord spoke concerning me and concerning you in Kadesh Barnea,” he reminds his former colleague. “My brothers that went up with me made the hearts of the people melt, but I—I fulfilled the will of the Lord my God” (Josh. 14:6-8).

It seems that Caleb never overcame the disappointment of seeing the office he thought he rightly deserved awarded to a man of lesser merit. In fact, we can actually hear Caleb giving voice to some his suppressed memories through his conversation with Joshua; when we listen closely, we detect in his speech faint echoes of a speech delivered half a decade earlier. That speech was Moshe’s speech, and he delivered it at the beginning of our Torah portion, as he declared his intentions to step down from public service:

And Moshe went, and he spoke the following words to all Israel. He said to them, “Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come, and the Lord said to me, “You shall not cross this Jordan.” The Lord, your God He will cross before you; He will destroy these nations from before you so that you will disinherit them… Be strong and courageous! Neither fear, nor be dismayed of them, for the Lord, your God He is the One who goes with you. He will neither fail you, nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:1-6).

These were the words that Moshe spoke to the Israelites immediately before announcing who would lead them into the land of Israel. Caleb never forgot these words; indeed, he carried them with him constantly. Consider:

  • Moshe begins his speech by mentioning his age: “I am one hundred and twenty years old today” (בן מאה ועשרים שנה אנכי). Caleb begins his speech by mentioning his age at the time of Moshe’s death—“I was forty years old” (בן ארבעים שנה אנכי)—and begins his actual request by mentioning his age once more: “I am eighty-five years old today” (אנכי היום בן חמש ושמונים שנה).
  • Moshe emphasizes that he is no longer capable of leading the people in war: “I cannot still go or come” (לא אוכל עוד לצאת ולבוא). For his part, Caleb emphasizes: “I am still able… to go out to war and to come back” (עודני היום חזק… למלחמה ולצאת ולבוא).
  • Moshe recalls that Hashem had forbidden him from entering into the land of Canaan: “The Lord said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.’” For his part, Caleb recalls that Hashem had promised him that he would enter into the land of Canaan: “The Lord has kept me alive, as He spoke… And now, give me the mountain of which the Lord spoke… and I shall drive them out, as the Lord spoke.”
  • Moshe foresees that the Israelites will “disinherit” the nations of the land (וירישתם). Caleb seeks permission to do just that: “and I will disinherit them” (והורשתים).
  • Moshe promises that “God will be with you” (ה’… הולך עמך). Caleb hopes that “God will be with me” (ה’ אותי).

Everything about Caleb’s speech suggests that the pain of being snubbed by Moshe (and by Hashem) has not subsided. Five years have passed, but Caleb is still hurting; the moment of his rejection continues to replay itself in his mind, over and over again. He is wistful, wounded, and perhaps even bitter.

For Joshua, this must be very unsettling. Joshua, after all, is not a man of supreme self-confidence: no less than seven times throughout Tanach, Hashem, Moshe and even Joshua’s own generals charge him to “be strong and resolute!” (Num. 3:28; Deut. 31:7, 31:23; Josh. 1:6, 1:7, 1,9, 1:18). The sense we get is that Joshua is not particularly secure in his role. Caleb’s confrontation, then, would only serve to exacerbate Joshua’s insecurity—in some sense, Caleb’s very presence poses challenges to Joshua’s authority. As readers we wonder: How will Joshua react?

We know how others would have reacted if placed in Joshua’s predicament. When King Saul perceived that his son-in-law, David, was threatening his rule, the king tried to execute him (I Sam. 18-26). King Solomon dealt the same way with his brother, Adonijah (I Kings 2), as did Queen Athalia with her sons and nephews, in order to clear her own path to power (II Kings 11) This was simply how the game was played in the ancient world: either you eliminated your political rivals, or they eliminated you.

Saul Attacking David

Saul Attacking David, Guercino

What complicates the situation further for Joshua is the fact that he and Caleb are separated by a legacy of ethnic enmity. Before Joshua stands Caleb the Judite, backed by “all the men of Judah.” Behind Joshua stand his loyal soldiers, who long ago had assured him that “any man that shall rebel against you shall be put to death” (Josh. 1:18). It is no coincidence that many of these soldiers belong to the clan of Manasseh (Josh. 1:12), nor is it any coincidence that Joshua himself belongs to the clan of Ephraim (Num. 13:16). Both Ephraim and Manasseh were sons of Joseph, and the conflict between Joseph/Benjamin (the two sons of Rachel) and Judah (the primary son of Leah) is one of the longest standing conflicts in Tanach.

The feud begins when Rachel and her sister Leah compete over the same husband, Jacob (Gen. 29-30). From there, tensions escalate quickly. Joseph slanders his brothers and intimates that he is destined to rule over them (Gen. 37); Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery (ibid.); some Benjaminites rape a woman from Judah, and the tribe of Judah plots genocide against the tribe of Benjamin (Jud. 19-21); King Saul, a Benjaminite, attempts to murder David, a Judite (I Sam. 18-26); David claims the throne, but continues to battle the House of Saul for many years (II Sam. 1-4); Jeroboam, from the tribe of Ephraim, launches a rebellion against the Davidic dynasty (I Kings 12); and ultimately, the nation separates into two kingdoms—the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah—which remain at war with each other for the majority of Biblical history (see Kings I-II). Viewed from this perspective, the rift between Caleb and Joshua assumes much larger proportions than we initially appreciate. Not only is their struggle political, and not only is it profoundly personal—it is also tribal. The potential for this episode to end in bloodshed is real indeed.

Yet here is how it actually ends:

Then Joshua blessed Caleb, and gave Hebron to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for an inheritance. Hebron, therefore, became the inheritance of Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he fulfilled the will of the Lord God of Israel… And the land had quiet from war (Josh. 14:13-15).

Joshua’s response to Caleb is remarkable. Others in his position might have interpreted Caleb’s advance as an attack on his legitimacy—and they might even have been correct. Yet Joshua is not worried about his prestige; his sole concern is to validate Caleb. With grace and humility, Joshua turns to Caleb, but does not utter a word. All he does is bless him, as if to acknowledge: Your grievance is just. I am with you, and may God be with you, too. Thus, “the land had quiet from war:” not from war with the Canaanites—that continues in the very next chapter, and throughout the rest of the book. But the “land had quiet from civil war”—that is, Joshua and Caleb found a way to make peace.

How did Joshua muster such magnanimity? He was not born with it. In fact, it was something he picked up from his mentor, Moshe:

[Moshe said]: “I cannot carry this entire people alone, for it is too hard for me…” Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people’s elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with You. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will increase the spirit that is upon you and bestow it upon them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone… So the Lord descended in a cloud and spoke to him, and He increased some of the spirit that was on him and bestowed it on the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied… But two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp. The lad ran and told Moshe, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” Joshua the son of Nun, Moshe’s servant from his youth, answered and said, Moshe, my master, imprison them!” Moshe said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:14-29).

When Joshua discovers that Eldad and Medad have defied Moshe’s orders, his instinct is to have them imprisoned. But Moshe is horrified by this idea: “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets!” he exclaims. Hazal found his nobility of character most impressive.  “At that time,” states the Midrash, “Moshe resembled a candle placed upon a candelabrum: everyone lights from it, yet its brightness is not diminished” (Tanchuma Beha’alotcha 12). The first to draw from Moshe’s light was Joshua.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” warned philosopher George Santayana, famously. Joshua’s greatness lay in part in his ability to learn from the mistakes of history—and so, ultimately, did Caleb’s. These men knew what happens when leaders allow petty differences to come between them. They had heard their colleagues cry, “Let us appoint a new head!” (Num. 14:4) at Kadesh Barnea, and they saw how that turned out: in death and disappointment. When personal honor and status become so important to us that we are willing to divide a nation in order to defend them, nothing good can come of it.

That is why R. Shimon identified “peace” as one of the three pillars upon which the world is sustained (Avot 1:18), and that is why Hillel instructed his disciples to “love peace” and to “pursue it,” too (Avot 1:12). Our sages recognized that where there is strife and discord, there can be no lasting prosperity. They understood that “revolution” is never “glorious”—only resolution is. Most of all, they appreciated that leadership is not a birthright to be squabbled over; it is a great responsibility, and it needs to be taken seriously:

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say, “Those who work for the community should do so for the sake of Heaven: for then the merit of their ancestors shall aid them, and their righteousness shall endure forever” (Avot 2:2).

Shabbat shalom!

Post-script: It is quite telling that the language used to introduce the scene in Joshua 14 is “ויגשו בני יהודה.” That of course evokes memories of “ויגש אליו יהודה” (Gen. 44)—the phrase that introduces Judah’s confrontation with Joseph at the height of the Joseph narratives. This connection is particularly interesting in light of the interpretation of Rashi / Hazal, who claim that Judah’s “approach” was not a purely peaceful one—according to these commentators, Judah was prepared to murder Joseph if he did not get his way. If we read this understanding of ויגש back into Joshua 14, then the possibility that Caleb (or at least his Judite backers) “approached” Joshua with hostile intentions gains further support.

1 Comment

  1. Shalom Carmy says:

    Very insightful.



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