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Parshat Shlach – Elevating the Physical World

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

One of the main characters in the Torah portion is Yehoshua. Yehoshua was most significantly influenced by two great people – his righteous ancestor, Yosef, and his great teacher, Moshe.

Yehoshua emulated Yosef in a number of ways. In particular they shared the ability to be involved with and elevate the physical world. In this article, we will examine some of the sources that focus on this aspect of Yosef and Yehoshua and contrast them to Moshe Rabbeinu.1

One of the main facets of Yosef’s greatness was his ability to be involved in the physical world and maintain his lofty spiritual levels despite great challenges. Likewise, his role was clearly very much related to the physical realm. As he himself told his brothers, the whole reason that he was brought down to Egypt was to provide food in the midst of the devastating famine that struck the world. Moreover, he made the Egyptian people undergo circumcision. One of the reasons given for why he did this is that circumcision represents the elevation of the physical aspect of the body. Thus, his goal in doing this was to elevate the spiritual level of the Egyptian nation.

Moshe, in contrast, was so spiritual that he resembled an angel in many aspects: He attained the highest level of prophecy possible and spent 40 days on Mount Sinai without food or drink. When he came down, his face shone so brightly that no one could even look at him. Moreover, he was on such a level of prophecy that he was forbidden from engaging in regular physical activities.

Yehoshua, the loyal student of Moshe, resembled his ancestor Yosef more than his teacher. We see this both in the Torah and the Prophets. In Beshalach, Amalek attacks the Jewish nation. Moshe tells Yehoshua to go out and lead the physical battle, whilst Moshe stays behind praying for the nation’s success. Thus, Moshe engaged in the spiritual realm of the battle, whilst Yehoshua’s role was more in the physical sphere.

In the Book of the Prophets, this theme continued: The nation suffers its first defeat in the battle of Ai.2 When Yehoshua hears about what had happened, he falls to the ground and supplicates in prayer to God over the tragedy. However, God reacts sharply, telling him, “Yehoshua, get up, why do you fall on your face?!”3 He then instructs Yehoshua to take an active role in finding out the cause of the disaster. Upon Yehoshua’s taking a more physically active role, God’s anger is abated.

The Shem MiShmuel takes the contrast between Moshe and Yehoshua further, saying that God’s way of relating to the nation altered drastically with the change of leadership. He brings out this idea in answering a difficult problem. In this week’s portion, the nation demonstrates its fear of entering the land of Israel and the people therefore ask Moshe to send spies to the land. The Shem MiShmuel asks why they were so fearful – they had experienced numerous open miracles and seen how God could destroy Egypt, the most powerful empire in the world.

He explains that the key event which triggered their fears was the prophecy of Eldad and Medad in the desert. They prophesied that Moshe would die and Yehoshua would lead the nation into Eretz Yisrael. The people knew that the open miracles they were experiencing were in the merit of Moshe. They also realized that despite his greatness, Yehoshua could not guide the nation to this level of open Divine Providence. Rather they would be largely restricted to hidden miracles.4 This is why they were so fearful of entering the land – they felt that only open miracles would enable them to conquer the mighty nations living there.5

Thus, we see that Yehoshua was more grounded in the physical world than Moshe. His greatness was that he could attain great spiritual heights for himself and the nation through his physical efforts. Like Yosef he also led a mass circumcision, thereby elevating the physical nature of the people.6 And he led the nation on its difficult transition from living above the laws of nature to living within them and yet maintaining high levels of holiness.

There is a remarkable Midrash which reveals how great Yehoshua’s mastery was over the physical world, and how he inherited this power form Yosef: In his war against the Emorites, Yehoshua needed more daylight in order to complete the victory. He commanded the sun and moon to stand still to give him that extra time, and the sun complied.7 The Midrash elaborates on how Yehoshua was able to bring about this remarkable miracle. “Rebbe Yitzchak says, he [Yehoshua] said to it [the sun], ‘bad servant, aren’t you a servant of my father [Yosef] – didn’t he see you in a dream: “And behold, the sun and the moon were bowing.” Immediately the sun and moon stood still.”8

This Midrash teaches us that when Yosef saw the sun and moon bow down to him it was not merely that they represented his father and mother subjugating themselves to him. On a deeper level it meant that the mightiest physical entities were subjugated to Yosef. This power was inherited by Yehoshua and he was also able to make them break their nature.

It is important to note that despite his natural connection to Yosef, Yehoshua had to earn this exalted level of controlling the physical world. How did he do this? In the Torah portion of Pinchas, God instructs Moshe to appoint Yehoshua as his successor. The Midrash explains His choice: “He would come early to, and leave late from, your study hally and would arrange the benches and cover the tables.”9

This teaches us that Yehoshua had an incredible dedication to Torah; he learnt it with great diligence and he even ‘lowered’ himself to facilitate the Torah of others. Through this dedication, he was able to take his inheritance from Yosef and apply it to guiding the Jewish people in both the spiritual and physical realms.

Obviously, both Moshe and Yehoshua achieved unfathomable levels of greatness, but in some ways, it seems that Yehoshua’s strengths are more possible to emulate on some level than those of Moshe, given Yehoshua’s greater involvement in the physical world. We learn from him that we can be involved in physicality and yet strive to elevate it to bring us and others closer to God.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen


  1. There are other areas of comparison between the two, including their shared ability to defeat Esav and his descendants, the Amalekites. This was discussed in the essay ‘Beacons of Light’.
  2. Yehoshua, 7.
  3. Yehoshua, 7:10.
  4. He points out that there were some open miracles in Sefer Yehoshua and explains that they were in the merit of Moshe, not Yehoshua.
  5. Shem MiShmuel, Bamidbar, p.201.
  6. Yehoshua, Ch.5.
  7. Yehoshua, 10:12.
  8. Bereishit Rabbah, 6:9.
  9. Bamidbar Rabbah, 21:14.

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