Selfless Selfishness?

Moses’ Personal Request 

When Moses was told he was not going to lead the Jewish nation into the Promised Land, Moses asked G‑d to appoint a successor. Indeed, Moses, in his concern for the well-being of his people, requested a leader who would be capable and selfless. 

Moses’ concern for the future of his people prompted Rashi to make the following comment:

“This teaches us the praise of the righteous. When they depart from this world, they put aside their own needs and engage with the needs of the community.” According to Rashi, Moses’ instinctive reaction to the notification that he would depart from this world was not to think about himself, but instead to focus his attention on the welfare of his nation.


Yet, in the very next verse, Rashi comments that when Moses heard how G‑d gave the daughters of Tzelafchad  their father’s inheritance, he said, “The time has come for me to demand my needs; my son shall inherit my exalted position.” G‑d’s response was that Joshua, Moses’ faithful disciple, would be his successor and not his own son.

Rashi seems to be contradicting himself by first suggesting that Moses had no personal concerns and then stating that, indeed, Moses had requested a personal favor; that his son should succeed him.

Another question:

How could it be that Moses desired that his son succeed him? Would that not be an egotistical desire to have his son assume the mantle of leadership and carry on the family name and tradition? Moses, [about] whom G‑d testifies was “the most humble man on the face of the earth” could not possibly have been concerned with his own legacy. 

Furthermore, prior to Moses’ passing, he had reached the pinnacle of human development. If he ever possessed even a trace of self-interest, he certainly would have purged himself of these ambitions before his passing.  At this juncture in his life, he would not be obsessed with his own legacy. Why, then, did he focus on his son succeeding him at precisely this time?

A third question:  Didn’t Moses know that his children were not as worthy as Joshua to serve as the leader? Why, then, would he ask for his son to succeed him at the expense of the Jewish nation who needed their leader to be the most qualified?

And one final question: In the preceding parsha of Chukas—where the Torah relates the passing of Aaron and how he was succeeded by his son Elazar as High Priest—Rashi observes that Moses was informed that he would not merit having his own children succeed him in the way Aaron’s son had succeeded Aaron. Why, then, did he now revisit the matter that had already been decided?

Acceding to G‑d’s Will

The simple answer to these questions is that, in truth, Moses was not thinking of himself or his personal needs. However, when he realized that the very last words of instructions from G‑d to him concerned the inheritance of a child—the daughters of Tzelafchad—he concluded that G‑d was hinting to him that a family member should inherit the estate—and, by extension, the position—of his or her father.

Thus, Moses only thought of asking for his own son’s selection as his successor when he surmised that it was G‑d’s will to keep things in the family. Moses’ concern for his own need was actually counter intuitive for him. He only thought of his own family when it was his impression that it was G‑d’s will to have a child inherit. Moses’ “self-interest” was actually motivated by his devotion to carry out G‑d’s will even when it went counter to his own nature, which was to shun honor and selfish ambition. 

And this is the hallmark of all great Jewish leaders throughout history, from Moses to Moshiach. They shunned leadership and all of its glory. Only when they were “compelled” by G‑d’s explicit or implicit command to them to assume the mantle of leadership, or when they realized that their service was needed, did they reluctantly agree to sacrifice their own interests and accept the role of leader.

Defining a Personal Need

On another level, one may answer all of the questions raised above by reevaluating the notion of Moses’ personal needs. 

To better understand Moses’ desire that his son succeed him is rooted in the way Judaism views our responsibility for our children’s physical and spiritual welfare. We can develop a better understanding of the above by the following example:

Our most important prayer—the Shemonah Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions, also known as the Amidah-the Standing Prayer)—contains the requests we make of G‑d for our most basic needs. They include: health, livelihood, freedom, justice and the ultimate Redemption through Moshiach. Conspicuously absent among these requests is the request for children and their well-being!  This omission is even more glaring in light of the fact that the Biblical source as to how we should pray is the story of Chanah, the mother of the prophet Shmuel, who prayed fervently for a child. Yet, our most essential prayer, which is modeled after her prayer, omits any mention of our children! 

One approach to resolving this matter is to suggest that, in fact, all of what we are asking of G‑d is for our children. When we ask for health and other matters, we are thinking primarily of our children’s health, etc.  Moreover, even when we ask for ourselves we are truly asking for our children. We need health for our children’s sake. We need to make a living for our children’s sake. We need Redemption for our children’s sake. There is no need to mention our children and their needs as one of our requests because they are implicit in all of our requests. Praying for ourselves might be regarded as selfish, but praying for our children is not. Indeed, if it is selfish, then it is the ultimate “kosher” and holy form of self-interest.

We can now better appreciate Moses’ “selfish” request for his son to succeed him as leader. Moses was not interested in his children becoming the leaders for selfish reasons. Moses had no concern for his legacy.  Moreover, even if he was interested in a legacy, he was already guaranteed a place in history as the Jewish nation’s liberator, first leader, giver of the Torah, greatest prophet, etc.  Moses had only his children’s interest in mind. Surely, Moses must have known that they were not as qualified as Joshua. Nevertheless, he wanted his son to assume this position because, in doing so, he would be elevated and would grow. Surely, if G‑d appointed his son to a position of leadership, he would be endowed with the requisite power and inspiration to fulfill his mission. This premise is based on the Talmudic dictum that, when one is elevated to a position of leadership, his sins are forgiven. 

Moses was leaving us with twin lessons as to how we must view our children’s needs.  First, our children’s needs are our most important needs. And second, obsession with our children’s needs is not selfish. 

Why Did Moses Wait?

One can still wonder why Moses waited until this point to focus his attention on his children.

The answer is that Moses was compelled by the responsibilities of his position, imposed on him by G‑d, to sacrifice everything for the sake of the entire Jewish nation. However, prior to Moses’ passing, when G‑d instructed him about the laws of inheritance, he took that as a cue that he now had an obligation to focus on his children’s future as well. He thought that he had been given the license to pursue his “selfish” desires for his own children. 

Redemption for Our Children’s Sake

There are multiple reasons why we crave—and ought to crave—Redemption. First and foremost, the Redemption is for G‑d’s sake, for, as our Sages teach, He too “suffers” in exile with us. The fact that G‑d’s presence is so concealed is “painful” for G‑d and it should be painful for us, His children, as well.

However, there are also selfish reasons why we pray for Moshiach. Moshiach will bring peace, tranquility, prosperity, good health and all the other material blessings we are so lacking in the period of exile. To desire Moshiach for those selfish reasons is not bad, but it is not the ideal motivation for Redemption. However, when we ask for those very blessings for our children’s sake, it changes the entire dynamic. Our concern for our children is a reflection of G‑d’s care for His children. Caring for our children is no less a spiritual and G‑dly endeavor than praying and learning Torah. It is our way of emulating G‑d and incorporating His attribute of love and attachment to His children in our own lives. 

By all means, desire Moshiach for selfish reasons! But by focusing on Redemption for the benefit of our children, we transform our selfish interests into selfless and G‑dly interests. That attitude, in and of itself, is what hastens the process of Redemption and makes us more receptive to the G‑dly energies that will be revealed at that time—when the most powerful bond between G‑d, our Father, and Israel, His children, will be cemented.