God as a cure for nepotism

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This week’s Torah portion is Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1.

The Book of Numbers marks the transition from the elaborate preparations for the journey to the Promised Land to the death of the generation of the Exodus and the transfer of leadership to new hands.


This shift is most evident in this week’s Torah portion, with the foretold death of Moses. Moses is commanded by God in Numbers 27:13: “Climb up to the Avarim Mountain where you will be able to see the land that I am giving to the Israelites. After you see it, you will be gathered up to your people, just as your brother Aaron was.”

One might think that a leader of a nation would select his own son to succeed him. This did not happen.

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Nepotism, the appointment of family members to positions of prominence, is absent in Moses’ leadership.

Moses and Aaron work together, both as a team and separately. But when it comes to the succession of leadership, Aaron’s priestly Levitical line continues on to this day, while Moses’ position of office ceases upon his own death. His two sons, Gershom and Eliezer are but names in Scripture (Exodus 18:3-4). No effort whatsoever is put forth to raise them to positions of any consequence. The same is true of Zipporah.


Moses’ chosen successor is Joshua, the son of Nun (Numbers 13:16). Joshua, who was appointed by Moses as his assistant, came from the tribe of Ephraim, not from Moses’ tribe of Levi. If Moses desired to practice nepotism, he could have easily chosen one of his clansmen. But he did not.
In fact, Moses’ own tribe was involved in the failed Korach rebellion against Moses’ leadership.

Korach’s lineage is explicitly related by Scripture: “Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi . . . .” [Numbers 16:1]. The passage implies that the near relatives of Moses rebelled against Moses’ choice of someone other than one of his own.

Moses seems to relinquish responsibility for leadership. “Moses spoke to God, saying, ‘Let the Omnipotent God of all living souls appoint a man over the community. Let him come and go before them, and let him bring them forth and lead them. Let God’s community not be like sheep that have no shepherd.’

“God said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hands on him . . . Invest him with some of your splendor so that the entire Israelite community will obey him He (Moses) then laid his hands on him (Joshua) and commissioned him. [It was all done] as God had commanded Moses’” [Numbers 27:15-22].

Moses wanted the best person for the job, regardless of ancestry; he relied on God’s help. Society and most certainly ancient society was permeated with nepotism. The concept of dynasty ruled the day. Vestiges of this practice still remain in many lands. It is only in recent history that the concept of democracy has taken root.

Moses’ reliance on God pointed the way to true honesty and fairness in appointments to positions of power.

Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow is a retired U.S. Navy chaplain.

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