God informs Moses that he is about to die and therefore will not enter the Land of Israel. It is a measure of Moses’s greatness that his immediate concern on hearing these tidings is for the welfare of the people and their future leadership. God immediately responds to Moses’s request with an instruction to appoint Joshua.
But how do you follow an act like Moses? What sort of leader could succeed the greatest Jewish prophet in history? What were Joshua’s unique qualities that meant that he was the man to take the Children of Israel into the Promised Land?
The Yalkut Shimoni, a medieval midrash, suggests that God selects Joshua because he represents continuity and stability. The midrash applies a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “He who safeguards the fig tree will eat its fruit and he who watches his master will be honoured.” Joshua has spent the past forty years as Moses’ personal aide, student and chief of staff. He understood how Moses operated, given the many challenges of leading what was often a “stiff-necked people”.
But Joshua was not simply a man who slavishly followed in his master’s footstep. As our verse suggests he was a “man who has spirit within him”, which is understood to mean that he was his own man who could carve out a new path that was fitting for the younger generation as it entered the Land of Israel.
Change is never easy, but Joshua was able to manage the transition by being faithful to the past but at the same time flexible enough to adapt to the task of spiritual, military and political leadership as the people moved from its dependent, nomadic infancy to a proud and established nation-state.