Community Blog Moses and Joshua Halfway up the Mountain
Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)
It was as a teenager in a dingy hotel conference room in Queens that I first learned the text, “Joshua ben Perachiah would say, ‘Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably’” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Around me were twenty-five other fresh-faced seventeen-year-olds, four wise faculty, two caring counselors, and two brilliant directors. Sharing interpretations, opinions, and personal narratives, we began to unpack this text and became each other’s teachers. The words of Pirkei Avot became our constant companion and inspiration throughout our summer together.
In the years since that summer and that initial encounter with Joshua ben Perachiah’s words, I still wonder what it means to be a teacher’s student—to make for oneself a mentor. A mentor-mentee relationship is no ordinary connection. In our Torah portion, Mishpatim, we get a small window into such a relationship through the example of Joshua ben Nun and Moses.
After leaving Egypt, a few parshiyot ago, we first met Joshua when he guided the Israelites to victory against the Amalekites, thereby achieving glory and the gratitude of both Moses and God. This is enough to win Joshua the coveted position of Moses’ attendant, his valet. The next time we encounter Joshua is in Mishpatim. He alone accompanies Moses up Mount Sinai, “So Moses rose, and Joshua, his attendant, and Moses went up the mountain of God,” (Exodus 24:13). The trust between the two is so great that Moses brings Joshua up to keep watch before his meeting with God at the top of Mount Sinai. Rashi comments, “As a disciple, Joshua accompanied his teacher as far as the boundaries would allow and, from there on, Moses ascended to the mountain of God while Joshua pitched his tent and stayed for the whole forty days that Moses spent on the mountain,” (Rashi on Exodus 24:13). Joshua is willing to wait alone for forty days while Moses witnesses the glory of God. The key words in Rashi’s comment are, ‘as a disciple.’ In this moment, Joshua is able to wait as long as he does because he is eager to glean the wisdom of Moses’ leadership. In spite of the difficulty inherent to the task of staying high up on the mountain alone for forty days, Joshua is prepared to wait for Moses. Meanwhile, Moses’ responsibility towards Joshua increases commensurate with his authority. Mentors have a profound power over their mentees, a power that can be transformative when wielded with both care and sensitivity. Moses was worth waiting for.
In the Talmud (Sotah 46b) there is sugya (section) that picks up where Rashi left off. In it, we learn the various mutual responsibilities between teachers and students:
“The Sages taught: A teacher accompanies a student until the outskirts of the city, a friend accompanies a friend until the permissible boundary on Shabbat, and for a student accompanying his teacher, there is no limit. ‘And how far is that?’ asks the Gemara. Rav Sheshet says, ‘Up to a parsa (four kilometers).’ The Gemara adds: But this is only for one who is not his most distinguished teacher. For his most distinguished teacher, who taught him most of his knowledge, he follows him up to three parsa’ot.”
The quote in Sotah surfaces the tension between what a student may want to do and what is appropriate for him to do; the limits of devotion and how each party has a responsibility for maintaining boundaries. It would seem that Joshua’s accompaniment of Moses is wholly appropriate. After all, Moses is the distinguished teacher par excellence! (It’s even in his commonly-used epithet: Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses, our teacher.) It would then follow that Joshua could follow Moses to any ends that Moses wishes.
However, there is a condition in the Gemara—there is, in fact, a limit to a mentor’s power. The Gemara responds with incredulity that we would allow for a student to follow their teacher without end and places an upward maximum of three parsa’ot. This implies a natural limit to a mentor’s power and an encouragement for teachers to not abuse their power over their students. Joshua is asked to stay below Moses on Mt. Sinai; of his own volition he elects to stay there.
But why else would Joshua wait for Moses? This is what is meant by, “make for yourself a teacher.” The process of making a teacher is an ongoing one. We have to imagine Joshua finding this trial a pleasant one, or at least one replete with personal meaning. He trusts Moses, perhaps on account of Moses’ trust in him at the battle with the Amalekites or Moses’ trust in him to stay with him most of the way up Mt. Sinai. When Joshua pitches his tent, he makes an assertion that just as Moses has committed himself to staying by Joshua’s side, so too does Joshua commit to stay by Moses’.
This is what made that summer with twenty-five other fresh-faced seventeen-year-olds, four wise faculty, two caring counselors, and two brilliant directors so special. The ones who were taking care of us, our mentors, took their responsibilities seriously and were careful to bring us along—and even push us forward—for those three parsa’ot, but not beyond our comfort. We, in turn, reciprocated their trust by listening to them—and to the others in our group—with care and intent. They followed the example of Moses, who led with integrity by bringing Joshua up part of the way and allowing Joshua to assert his own boundary, and we followed the example of Joshua, who was resolute and steadfast to his own mentor while keeping his integrity and not becoming lost in the shadow of a leader. May we all merit such relationships—mentors who care for us and bring us up as far as we are willing to go, as well as mentees who listen with autonomy and strong senses of self.
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Rafi Ellenson is a literary translator and a student in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He works as the Assistant Director of the Dignity Project at Hebrew College’s Miller Center for Interreligious Learning and Leadership. An alumnus of Goddard College, he is a past recipient of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel. He is currently translating “the little book of e,” a collection of the poet E. Ethelbert Miller’s haiku, due out for publication in 2024.