The illustrious "career" of Moshe Rabbeinu is coming to an end. G-d has told him that he will not be the one to lead the Jewish people into the land of Israel. His co-leaders, Miriam and Aharon have already passed away. The Jews are "encamped on the bank of the Jordan, opposite Jericho" waiting for the order to march forward. While Moshe is still alive and well, his influence appears to be fading. Jewish people are "committing harlotry with the daughters of Moab... and the people ate and prostrated themselves to their gods" (Bamidbar 25:1-2). Yet Moshe, who time and time again defended the Jewish people even in the midst of grievous sin, is nowhere to be found. Rather it is Pinchas who zealously avenges the honour of G-d. While his zealotry cannot serve as a model for others, perhaps it was the lack of a response and reaction from others that led him to act so brazenly. Extremism can only succeed in a vacuum.
The relegating of Moshe Rabbeinu to the background continues throughout the parsha. The Torah spends sixty-five verses detailing the census of the Jewish people as they prepared to enter the land of Israel. "To these shall the land be divided as an inheritance" (Bamidbar 26:53) an inheritance in which Moshe had no share. When the daughters of Zelophehad approached Moshe asking him if they would be entitled to a share of the land he had no answer as the details of the law escaped him. The parsha concludes with the details of the sacrifices, sacrifices which would be brought by the descendants of Aharon in the land of Israel. And it is parshat Pinchas which details the choosing of Moshe's successor.
Human nature is such that people on their "way out", especially if it is against their will, as it was with Moshe, tend not to concern themselves with the affairs of their soon to be former organization. After all why should one work hard if one will not be able to see the fruits of one's labour? In reality there is often a hidden desire for failure to occur which helps make the predecessor look even better. Let them learn by trial and error as I did, they muse. As such, "lame ducks" often take extended vacations, or do the bare minimum to keep the place running. It is the rare person who will invest much time in helping their successor settle in and excel.
Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest leader the world has seen, was such a person. He did his utmost in order that the Jewish people would be prepared to enter Israel without him, advising them, warning them of potential mistakes, cajoling them to be faithful to G-d and to be good foot soldiers in following Yehoshua. In fact Moshe, despite his extreme disappointment at being unable to complete his mission, actually approached G-d so that his successor could be appointed. "And Moshe spoke to Hashem saying, may Hashem G-d of spirits of all flesh appoint a man over the assembly who shall go out before them who shall take them out and bring them in and let the assembly of Hashem not be like sheep that have no shepherd" (Bamidbar 27:15-17). Moshe put the needs of the Jewish people before his own feelings; simple in theory but very difficult in practice.
We have just begun the period of the "three weeks" which marks the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people during this time. The greatest tragedy is that the disease of sina'at chinam, needless animosity between Jews, which was at the root of our loss of Israel, still afflicts us. A disunited people cannot be a strong people. By focusing on communal interests and not on personal feelings sinaa’t chinam can be greatly minimized. Moshe was happy to let Yehoshua and Pinchas be in the limelight so long as strong leadership was provided for the Jewish people. Moshe the person may be in the background but Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher, continues to set the standards of leadership to which we must all aspire. Shabbat Shalom!