Fighting by the Light of the Moon
by Braha Bender
Yehoshua (Joshua) was a quiet, unpretentious man. He was about the furthest thing from a politician that you can imagine. They say that he would hang around Moshe’s beis medrash (study hall) all day cleaning up the floors, the books. He just wanted to be around the gadol hador (the greatest rabbi of the generation). He just wanted to be around Moshe.
When Yehoshua was appointed Moshe’s successor, many were aghast. “The elders of that generation bemoaned the fact that the face of Moshe resembled the sun [in its radiance], while the face of Yeshoshua [only] resembled the moon: ‘Woe to us for the embarrassment; woe to us for the shame and disgrace.’” (Talmud Bava Basra 75a)
Yet the elders didn’t realize the praise in the words they were saying. Yehoshua was like the moon. Just as the moon reflects the light of the brilliant sun for a darkened world, so did Yehoshua convey the glorious clarity of his mentor to a nation leaving a womb-like spiritual environment.
The Jewish People’s forty years in the desert had been a paradisiacal break between the brutish rigors of Egypt and the new earthy challenges of Canaan. All they knew was about to change.
Egypt and Canaan
Egypt had been a fierce furnace of suffering and need. Just as a furnace burns away all the dross in molten gold, the agonies of Egypt cut away our longing for anything superficial. We saw exactly what superficiality was worth: Egypt was the greatest metropolis that had yet existed on Earth. All the pleasures of the world were at their fingertips. It was a luxurious, sophisticated society. Scholars are intrigued by ancient Egyptian culture to this day.
The Jews even participated in the debauchery – in Egypt we sunk to the 49th level of tumah, almost never to emerge. The beauty and genius of Egypt was a wildly seductive lie. Yet for all their tantalizing sophistication, the culture of Egypt blithely included the torture and murder of millions – Jewish millions – without blinking an eyelash. We called out to our G-d from the sordid depths and were ready to receive His Torah to the depths of our being at the culmination of our physical and spiritual redemption.
Canaan mirrored Egypt in that it encompassed some of the most ingenuitive, opulent cultures existent at that time. It was Manhattan and Hollywood and Paris. Entering and conquering Canaan didn’t just mean fighting brutes with spears and horses. It meant fighting a much more difficult battle, the battle within ourselves.
We had to be ready to take on the most cunning of enemies, our own destructive impulses. Losing here meant losing everything. By entering a land promised yet overwhelmingly dangerous, both physically and spiritually, who would we become?
Turning on the Light
When you switch on a light bulb, does it tell you what to do? Does it scream, “Hey, moron, watch out! One more false move and you’ll crash into that table! Hey! Stop it! The wall is over there, genius!”?
No, light bulbs don’t scream. Being bossy is not light. Ripping away at a person’s ability to make their own decisions is not light.
Light is unaggressive, especially moonlight. With light in a room, your free choice is enhanced. Your ability to decide your next move is strengthened. Nobody needs to tell you what to do because you can see for yourself. Turning left leads this way, turning right leads to this. There is the table. There is the window. There is the wall.
True leadership takes place not primarily during rousing speeches or in flashy photographs. Even written addresses fall short of what true leadership is meant to be. True leadership is a flame passed from one soul to the next by the power of living example. By spending time with great people, you learn how to be a great person. What makes the deepest impression is not what they say but how they say it, and even more importantly, not what they say but what they do.
It’s like turning on the light – suddenly, nobody needs to explain what it means to be pure, to be brilliant, to be kind, to be godly. You see for yourself, and it’s so obvious and beautiful you can’t help feeling your heart flutter towards it with the yearning of a moth to a flame. You want your old habits and patterns of thought to be consumed. You want to grow wings for that sweet yearning to burst out of your chest, to take you in flight, to be that person you dream of being.
That’s what we Torah observant Jews call shimush talmidey chachomim. That was what humble, unassuming Yehoshua was all about. And that was what we would need most of all upon leaving the manna-and-clouds-of-glory existence of the desert.
Now retaining G-d consciousness would have to compete with finding food by the sweat of our brows. Who would we become when we entered Canaan? Hopefully we would all become like Yehoshua.
Keeping It Real
It’s been a long, hard two-thousand-odd years. We left the Sinai Desert a long, long time ago. The world has gotten faster and louder and scarier. Then they faced agriculture and idols. Now we face i-phones and entire industries built for the singular purpose of making people sick. Addictions are rampant. Destructive, thoughtless behavior is at an all-time high. Streets scream desperation and sunken eyes everywhere tell the same story.
We need moonlight now more than ever.
When Moshe went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, Yehoshua followed close behind. He couldn’t ascend the mountain with his mentor – nobody could, figuratively or literally – but he came as close as possible. Then he waited. He waited for an hour. Two hours. Twelve hours. A day. A week…
Yehoshua stood at the foot of the mountain, as near as he possibly could come to his beloved master, waiting in electric anticipation for forty days. Forty days! That’s over a month. Yehoshua did not leave the foot of Mount Sinai for one moment. He wanted to be the first one to catch a glimpse of his teacher descending with the Torah, his clear-sighted and wondrous teacher who would now have the tools to bring the entire world along with him.
Yehoshua wanted Torah. He wanted to be close to G-d. And he knew that in order to come close to G-d, he had better stay as close as he possibly could to Moshe because Moshe had the keys.
It wasn’t brilliance or charisma or tactical ability that gave Moshe the go-ahead to select Yehoshua as the Jewish People’s next commander-in-chief. It was G-d Himself. Only G-d Himself could know exactly how pure Yehoshua’s intentions were. Only G-d Himself could testify to the authenticity that drove Yehoshua to such lengths to receive all he could from his teacher Moshe. Only G-d Himself could see quite how brightly the flame of Torah burned in Yehoshua’s heart.
The most important lesson we could take into a world of distractions from Torah was that Torah is real. It’s not a philosophy or a scholarly pursuit or a nationalistic ideal. It’s a living tradition of how to think, emotionally process, perceive, behave, be in a world of darkness and confusion. It’s a flowing electric current that must be tapped into from real people, who received it from real people, who received it from real people going all the way back to Moshe himself.
We can all do this. Go find yourself a rabbi with an authentic mesorah. To you, he will be like the sun. But your face? Soon enough your face will shine unto this dark world like the light of the moon.