Zach Beer: Greatness, Above and Below

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Zachary Beer is a Senior at the City College of New York studying History. He is a CMTL Summer Beit Midrash Fellow and a Nachshon Project Fellow.

There are many famous quotes, attributed to our greatest writers, speakers, scholars, and thinkers. Many are often stated but not fully understood. One phrase, originating in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, stated by the steward Malvolio goes “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” (Act 2, Scene 5). To truly understand this quote one must look at three important figures: Pinchas, Joshua, and Jeremiah, all of whom appear in this week’s Torah and Prophetic readings.

Pinchas has greatness thrust upon him. He sees a great evil spread throughout his people- a venereal and spiritual sin which has not merely poisoned the spirits of the people but led to an actual plague. He knows he has to do something big, and he has one chance to do it, so as the Torah describes, he does:

וַיַּ֗רְא פִּֽינְחָס֙ בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֔ר בֶּֽן־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַכֹּהֵ֑ן וַיָּ֙קָם֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָֽעֵדָ֔ה וַיִּקַּ֥ח רֹ֖מַח בְּיָדֽוֹ׃ וַ֠יָּבֹא אַחַ֨ר אִֽישׁ־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־הַקֻּבָּ֗ה וַיִּדְקֹר֙ אֶת־שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם אֵ֚ת אִ֣ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶת־הָאִשָּׁ֖ה אֶל־קֳבָתָ֑הּ וַתֵּֽעָצַר֙ הַמַּגֵּפָ֔ה מֵעַ֖ל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

When Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked.

(Bamidbar 25:7-8)

Pinchas ends the plague and even becomes a Kohen. However, his model, an extreme reaction to social failure, ultimately does not end up being effective. In the model of Elijah, who Pinchas is midrashically identified with, and in the Pilegesh BeGivah story, one of the only places outside of the Torah that Pinchas is mentioned, the situations don’t end positively at all. The end is either violent or ineffective.

On the opposite end, there is Jeremiah, who, as told in the Haftarah, is chosen from birth to be God’s representative:

בְּטֶ֨רֶם אצורך [אֶצָּרְךָ֤] בַבֶּ֙טֶן֙ יְדַעְתִּ֔יךָ וּבְטֶ֛רֶם תֵּצֵ֥א מֵרֶ֖חֶם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּ֑יךָ נָבִ֥יא לַגּוֹיִ֖ם נְתַתִּֽיךָ׃

Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.

(Jeremiah 1:5)

Jeremiah, from birth, is set to speak not only to the Jewish people but to the world as a whole, to proclaim God’s word. Jeremiah repeats again and again that people must repent and serve God, trust in God alone, or else devastation is imminent. Nonetheless, Jeremiah is unfortunately unsuccessful. Despite an entire prophetic career hoping to save the Judah and Jerusalem, he is not heeded, and he witnesses the destruction of his beloved Jerusalem, uttering:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃

Alas! Lonely sits the city Once great with people! She that was great among nations Is become like a widow; The princess among states has become a thrall.

(Eicha 1:1)

However, the model of Jeremiah does leave some hope. While he fails in his mission in the short-term, ultimately he will be heeded, and he provides hope to the future, as one of his most famous prophecies states:

וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁ֥בוּ בָנִ֖ים לִגְבוּלָֽם׃

And there is hope for your future —declares the LORD: Your children shall return to their country.

(Jeremiah 31:17)

Third of all is Joshua, who in the words of Shakespeare “achieves greatness.” After proving himself over the course of many years in the war against the Amalek, the episode of the spies, and on other occasions, God tells Moses that it is Joshua who will ultimately take over for him, as God commands:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה קַח־לְךָ֙ אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ בִּן־נ֔וּן אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־ר֣וּחַ בּ֑וֹ וְסָמַכְתָּ֥ אֶת־יָדְךָ֖ עָלָֽיו׃

And the LORD answered Moses, “Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him.

(Bamidbar 27:18)

However, it is not leadership alone that Joshua receives, but something else as well.

וְנָתַתָּ֥ה מֵהֽוֹדְךָ֖ עָלָ֑יו לְמַ֣עַן יִשְׁמְע֔וּ כָּל־עֲדַ֖ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey.

(Bamidbar 27:20)

Joshua does not merely receive God’s haskamah or approbation, but rather he also receives the “authority” of Moses, something that clearly becomes part of his character all the way through his own book. This makes him clearly distinct from the people, but also from Pinchas and Jeremiah as well. They were given a special godly mission or gift but did not necessarily have their leadership recognized in a practical leadership context. Joshua, on the other hand, is clearly recognized as a leader, not only by God but by his own people, even until the era of the Mishna, as the opening of Pirkei Avot states:

משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה…

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly…

(Avot 1:1)

What is distinct about Joshua? Judaism is not necessarily a meritocracy, and it seems that Joshua’s entire justification towards leadership (even in the eyes of Chazal) comes from his previous performance. Additionally, at the beginning of his eponymous book, he must shore up power as well! Jeremiah and Pinchas, however, are both chosen directly from God and have no reason to justify their leadership (or given leadership) other than God’s authority. This may actually make sense, however, even from a Biblical perspective. Does it not say in Tehillim that:

הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם שָׁ֭מַיִם לַה’ וְ֝הָאָ֗רֶץ נָתַ֥ן לִבְנֵי־אָדָֽם׃

The heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth He gave over to man

(Tehillim 115:16)

But I would go further than that, it is not merely that the heavens are God’s and the earth is the realm of man, but it is our job to join, together with God, to unite heaven and earth. It is said about Adam that his feet stood on the ground and his height was all the way up until Heaven. We should strive to reflect our common ancestor. This was a goal that Joshua achieved. In his leadership, he reflected characteristics of both Pinchas and Jeremiah; he had his feet on the ground and his height in Heaven. Pinchas, while God-approved, showed only the value of human action, which while effective in the short-term, may have long term negative ramifications. Jeremiah, on the other hand, is purely a God-given leader. While he tries to speak to the people, in a way he will always be working on a different plane than everyone else. He may even fail in the short term, but can the truth in God’s plan.

Joshua has both of these qualities. He encapsulates both, in the words of Rav Soloveitchik, majestic and faithful man. He is practical, based in reality, but also has a clear sense of his God-given nature and mission. It is only him to can bridge heaven and earth, the desert and the land of Israel, Moses and the rest of Jewish history.

I remember hearing two justifications for Joshua’s rise to leadership when I was in grade school: Firstly, that he was the first one in and the last one out of the Beit Midrash, that he sook to soak in Torah and godliness as much as possible. The other justification was that Joshua rose because he stayed behind to clean up the chairs after Moses finished teaching. I think both are true. Joshua was a godly man, one who knew the Almighty intensely, however, he knew that one also has earthly responsibility. It is only through the combination of both that one truly achieves greatness.

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