"The king is dead, long live the king!" - Duke of Uzes, France, 1422
The above words became famous in literature and movies and are constantly paraphrased throughout popular culture. They signify the importance of a core concept in any society: how do we continue when our leadership is gone? How do we respond when those who wielded authority and inspired us can no longer do so?
This week's parsha features a lengthy exposition on this topic, using the example of Moshe and Yehoshua. Moshe asks Hashem, a man "infused with spirit," who will lead the Children of Israel, "who will go out before them and return before them." It was imperative that the Jewish people should not be "as sheep who have no shepherd." Hashem's response is to raise Yehoshua bin Nun, Moshe's manservant, up to the task. Yehoshua has served at Moshe's side for forty years. He has seen Moshe labour in the mission of leadership, struggle with the Jews, and occasionally at a total loss. If Moshe is the sun, we are told by the Rabbis, Yehoshua is the moon. Like the moon to the sun, Yehoshua reflects Moshe's brilliance and will continue in a manner Moshe would approve. He is worthy of the job.
However, then something different happens. More is needed than for Moshe (or Hashem) to designate Yehoshua as Moshe's successor. Moshe must summon Yehoshua to a gathering of the entire nation he is to lead. There Moshe leans on Yehoshua and, in so doing, awakens the gift of prophecy in Yehoshua, similar to what Moshe himself has received. From that moment, Moshe and Yehoshua serve together for a brief period. No longer is Yehoshua Moshe's apprentice. Yehoshua is now the cohead of the Jewish people.
Continuity of government can mean that there is no break, that when one head dies, another will immediately take their place. However, the transition was completely seamless for Moshe and Yehoshua because there was no transition. The leadership was uninterrupted, as Yehoshua was already serving when Moshe's service finished, and he passed away.
The transition envisaged by the Torah requires tremendous modesty. If Moshe were more proud or jealous of his prerogatives, having a co-king serving with him would not be possible. If Yehoshua were not so self-effacing, how could he agree to serve with another in the absolute post? We often hear that the best leader doesn't want the job. We would do better to choose leaders who want to lead but not for themselves. They only should wish for the position to serve the people. In that sense, we can (and should) all be leaders.