I’m not sure how many of you are fans of The Simpsons, but it is my favorite show. And one of my favorite episodes is one called “Whacking Day.” In the show’s fictitious town, Springfield, Whacking Day is a day on which the townspeople find all the snakes in town and club them to death. Homer Simpson is excited about clubbing snakes, but his kids, Bart and Lisa, are less enthused about the gruesome ritual. So Lisa tries to convince Homer not to participate. She says to him, “Dad, for the last time, please don’t lower yourself to the level of the mob!” To which Homer replies, “Lisa, maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions….Now – where’s my giant foam cowboy hat and airhorn?!”
This scene argues, in a tongue-in-cheek way, that remaining part of the crowd is tantamount to agreeing with the crowd. The message is that if we want to lead people in wise directions, we must stand on the outside, posturing ourselves in opposition.
And, to be sure, there is wisdom to this mentality. Sometimes, only an outsider has the moral authority to push for change because he can show that he was not part of the problem in the first place. And sometimes, only an outsider looking in can fully see the problems and think clearly about solutions.
It is for this reason that the prophets of ancient Israel were, for the most part, loners. The prophets separated themselves so that they could observe their societies from afar, judge their transgressions, and call people to task for their moral failings.
But this approach has flaws. The outsider lacks the intimate understanding of how the group operates, the sensitivity to individuals’ needs and wants, and the knowledge about the protocols and pathways for change within the group. The outsider may know where the group needs to go, but he often does not know how to take them there.
With 20/20 hindsight, we celebrate the righteous indignation of the ancient prophets, but in their time, these outsiders looking in were almost universally failures. Jeremiah, for example, spends chapter after chapter railing against the people of Jerusalem. And what happens? The people of Jerusalem throw Jeremiah into prison and continue to act as they had been; ultimately, the city is destroyed and the people are exiled. The problem, of course, is that Jeremiah, by being an outsider, knew where the people should go, but he had no idea how to take them there.
Our parashah underscores this message in a powerful way. Moses, knowing, that he will not enter the Promised Land, implores God to appoint a successor for him to lead the people into the Land. God instructs Moses to appoint a man named Yehoshua ben Nun (Joshua, the son of Nun).
Now, the parashah does not tell us why God chooses Joshua, but in taking a look at Joshua’s resume, one might assume that it has to do with this: A few chapters back, Joshua is sent as one of twelve spies who are to scout out the land of Israel and give a report to the people about what they find. Most of the spies come back with a disastrous report – that the Israelites will never be able to conquer the Land – but Joshua opposes their account and tries to convince the Israelites that, if they trust in God, the land will be theirs. Presumably, Joshua is rewarded here for his leadership in the instance of the spies.
The only problem with this line of reasoning, though, is that Joshua was not, if you recall, the only spy to oppose the majority report. There was also Kalev ben Yefuneh, Caleb, who stood up to the other spies and tried to convince the Israelites to keep their trust in God.
And not only this, but if you read the story of the spies closely, it is Caleb, and not Joshua, who is regarded as the true hero of the story. It is Caleb – and not Joshua – who contradicts the spies’ report, quieting the people, and reassuring them of their ability to conquer the land (Num. 13:30). And God singles out only Caleb by name – and not Joshua – as the Israelite who did not break faith (Num. 14:24). If Joshua is chosen as Moses’ replacement because of his resume, why wasn’t it Caleb, who not only had the same job but also seems to have been better at it!
According to the Hofetz Hayyim, a 19th century Polish rabbi, while Joshua and Caleb had the same resume, they differed in approach:
Caleb’s approach was to separate himself from the rest of the spies when he disagreed with them so as to not be corrupted by their negativity.
Joshua’s approach, however, was to remain within the group even though he disagreed with them. In this way, Joshua tried to persuade them to his point of view not as enemies, but as potential partners who simply had yet to be persuaded to move in the right direction. In other words, Joshua’s approach was to work with people to affect change, while Caleb’s approach was to work against them.
In the Hofetz Hayyim’s view, both approaches have their place and their value. Sometimes, it is necessary to take Caleb’s approach, to say “this is where I stand and I can do no other.” But there is a difference between taking a stand and leading. And Moses and God needed a leader.
Listen to how Moses phrases his request to God for a new leader:
Yifkod Adonai Elohei ha-Ruhot l’khol basar ish al ha-edah asher yetzei lifneihem va’asher yavo lifneihem va’asher yotzi’em va’asher yevi’em v’lo t’heyeh adat Adonai ka-tzon asher ein la-hem ro’eh.
16 “Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community 17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” 18
Moses does not simply say, “Appoint someone who goes in before them and comes in before them,” for that phrase implies a person who leads from the front, someone who tries to lead from the outside. If Moses wanted this kind of successor, Caleb would have been the obvious choice. But that’s not what Moses or God wanted. And it’s not what the Israelites needed. This is why Moses also asks for a person who would “lead them out and bring them in.” A person who leads from within, someone who knows about and cares for the people, and who the people know cares for them. Someone who not only knows what is right but also who knows how to bring people with him to the right place.
Caleb, like the prophets of ancient Israel, was a great moral authority. But he was no leader. Leadership requires not only the knowledge of the right thing to do, but also the knowledge of people – who they are, what they need, what they feel. Leadership calls for the ability to work with people in actually attaining the good.
A story is told in the midrash about how God originally chose Moses to lead the Jewish people. Moses was tending to his father-in-law’s sheep in Midian. One day, a little kid strayed from the flock. Moses ran after it, until he arrived at a shady spot. When he got there, he spotted the little kid drinking at a pool of water. Moses went over and said to the kid, “I didn’t realize that you ran away because you were thirsty. You must be tired.” And with that, he lifted the kid onto his shoulders, and they returned together. At that moment, God said “Just as you have the compassion necessary to lead a flock of sheep, so too, you will be the shepherd of my flock, the People Israel.”
Similarly, when Moses calls on God to provide a new shepherd for the Israelite flock, God picks Joshua, a man who not only can show the right way, but one who takes people and walks with them until they get there safely.
There are times when we are called to be a Caleb, but we also all have the capacity to be a Joshua, to harness our inner Joshua’s. We are all able to work with people, to care for and understand the needs and wants of others – even those with whom we disagree – and to help lure them to the good. With compassion, understanding, and courageous engagement with others, we too can be shepherds, taking ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world, to greener pastures.