The haftarah for Simchat Torah, the day on which we finish reading the Torah, is a natural sequel to the ending of the Five Books of Moses. The Torah ends with the passing of Moses and the ascent of Joshua to the role of leadership. This next link of the Jewish story is recorded in the book of Joshua. In its first chapter we read how Joshua quickly takes the reins of command into his hands and begins preparing the Jewish people for their entry into the promised land.

The opening verses of Joshua capture what may be described as a mixture of emotions. The Jewish people have just been dealt a mighty blow, the loss of Moses. The people owed everything they had to their revered leader, and the void left by his passing was massive. On the other hand, the Jews were now at the threshold of a major historic milestone. The entry into and inheritance of the promised land had been awaited for over four hundred years. It had been promised in the covenant to Abraham, and repeated multiple times thereafter. Now, after over two centuries of endurance in Egypt and a turbulent forty years of wandering in the desert, the long-awaited moment had finally arrived.

The verses reflect this mood in the first words of G‑d to Joshua: “Moses My servant has died.” This statement of obvious fact is understood by the commentaries as the communication of G‑d’s feeling of loss, so to speak, with the passing of his beloved Moses. The overtone was, in effect, that had Moses still been living, it would be in Him that G‑d would confide, not Joshua…1 If there was anyone who felt this most acutely, it was Joshua himself. The ensuing words of G‑d to Joshua are therefore charged with security, strength and reassurance to the new leader.

The first instruction to Joshua was to pass over the Jordan River and enter the Land of Israel. G‑d reassured Joshua that it would be under his leadership that the land would be conquered and divided among the people. G‑d would be with him just as He was with Moses, and he had nothing to fear. The one condition to all this was a total commitment to the Torah and its commandments, just as he had received them from Moses, his teacher.

After these reassuring words, Joshua issued his first set of commands to the people. They were to prepare themselves for travel, for in three days they were going to enter the land.

Joshua then addressed the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh. These were the tribes who had requested of Moses to settle in Transjordan, citing the better pasture for their livestock there. Moses had granted them this on condition that the able-bodied men of these tribes would enter the land with their brethren, heading the fighting forces, and not leave until the various battles were won and the people were settled. Now, when the Jews were ready to enter the land, the members of these tribes were called upon by Joshua to remember and fully fulfill their pledge.

The people responded to Joshua’s instructions with a commitment of total allegiance. If G‑d would be with Joshua as He was with Moses, they would be faithful to him right to the end. Echoing the same words that G‑d had just communicated to him, the people begged of Joshua to “be strong and courageous.” The people were united, resolute and ready to go.

Why Joshua?

The first verse of the haftarah introduces Joshua as the mesharet of Moses. Mesharet can be translated as “minister,” “aide,” “servitor” and other similar terms. This same term is used more than once by the Torah when it describes the relationship of Joshua to Moses.

In his commentary to this verse, Ralbag points out that the verse here chose to repeat this description of Joshua in order to emphasize that it was primarily this virtue that brought him a level of prophecy superior to all others: “It was because [Joshua] was always with him [Moses], and learned from his wisdom and conduct in all his doings, things that a regular student who was not an aide would not have learned.”

Not only would this virtue gain Joshua spiritual superiority, but according to the Midrash it was this virtue that displayed Joshua’s worthiness to lead the Jewish people in the first place:

We read in the Torah2 how Moses approached G‑d to request the appointment of his successor. The immediately preceding story in the Torah is that of the daughters of Tzelafchad, who had come to Moses and achieved their objective of inheriting their father’s share in the Land of Israel. “‘Now,’” says the Midrash, “Moses thought, ‘is the time for me to request my own needs: if daughters can inherit, it is rightful that my sons inherit my honor!’” However, G‑d told Moses that this would not be the case: “‘He who guards a fig tree shall eat its fruit’.3 Your sons sat by themselves and did not engage in Torah study. Joshua, by contrast, served you much and honored you considerably. He would come early and stay late in your place of meeting; he would organize the benches and lay out the mats. Since he served you with all his might, he is worthy of serving Israel, for he will not forfeit his reward.”4

Ralbag goes on to connect this with a similar teaching of the Talmud about the prophet Elisha. The book of Kings tells the story of the time when the Judean king Jehoshaphat joined an alliance with the king of Israel and the king of Edom to attack Moab. The armies passed through the desert of Edom, and there was a severe water shortage, threatening their very survival. Jehoshaphat, a righteous king, was adamant that they find a prophet of G‑d who would guide them in this predicament. “Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there no prophet of the L‑rd here, that we may inquire of the L‑rd through him?’ And one of the servants of the king of Israel answered, ‘Here is Elisha the son of Shaphat, who poured water on Elijah’s hands.’”5 The Talmud raises the obvious point that pouring water on the hands of a teacher does not seem to be the way to describe a student, but rather an attendant. Indeed, the Talmud says, this was the case: “From here we see that the ‘service’ of Torah is greater than the learning of Torah.”6

This idea was highly emphasized by the chassidic movement: “being around” an elder chassid could teach his younger peer a great deal more than any studying could. The study of Chassidus could give the student the intellectual capacity to understand, but it was the the “service of Torah” that made him into a chassid.

In this vein, chassidim tell a story about the saintly R. Yisrael of Ruzhin. Two authors once came to him seeking approbations for their works. The first had written a book of scholarly novellae in Torah, and the other had compiled various stories of pious and righteous Jews. In a surprising move, the rebbe summoned first the author of the storybook, and only then the Torah scholar. He later explained that this followed the order of the Torah itself: before beginning its laws, the Torah tells the stories of the righteous. This order is telling as to what the Torah views as having priority.