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Leaders, Leadership, and Legacy

09/11/2020 01:40:41 PM


            Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, a double portion. Nitzavim tells us of the nearness of Torah and the need for each person and their descendants to choose it for themselves. Vayeilech tells us of Moses’s preparations to die, his conferring leadership once and for all fully to Joshua, and preparing his final farewell speech that he will teach to the whole Israelite people. 

            In some contemplative reading I’ve been doing for the month of Elul, the lead up to our High Holy Days, I came across a drash by Rabbi Elaine Rose Glickman on the second to last line of this parasha: “After my [Moses's] death you shall surely act corruptly” (Deut. 31:29). Rashi explains, “But for all the days of Joshua, the Israelites did not act corruptly, as Scripture says, ‘And the people served Adonai all of Joshua’s days’ (Judges 2:7). From this we learn that a teacher cherishes a student as he cherishes his own life and that all the time Joshua would live, it would appear to Moses that he himself lived.” Rabbi Glickman expands on Rashi to say that it shows how reverence for a teacher can transfer to the student who becomes the successor, and the beloved teachings can live on as long as their values continue to be taught by those who come after.

            Unspoken but relevant here is that Joshua then does not appoint a successor and the Israelites do begin to act corruptly after his death. The Book of Judges shows us the cycles of selfish behavior disrupting the unity of the Israelites, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by other nations (usually the Philistines at that point in history), then a leader arises imbued with Divine leadership and the people are saved, so everyone acts nicely again for a while, but once that leader dies, again everyone falls into doing “what was right in his own eyes”, until they are given a King to rule over them.

            In the Parashat Nitzavim section of this Torah reading we are told that the whole of the Israelite people, both those physically present and those not physically present, are receiving this sacred covenant with God. Eleventh century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra tells us that “those not present” refers to the future generations who may choose to accept this Torah. Unlike with the rabbinic interpretation of the revelation at Mt. Sinai which tells us that every Jew even born or converted was present at Mt. Sinai, Ibn Ezra is clear that here the Torah is not suggesting a mystical presence of all Israelites and Judeans and Jews. Rather he is simply letting us know that the covenant is on offer for the descendants of those standing before Moses at the border of the Holy Land and that that offer is for everyone for all time should they choose to accept it. The future is full of possibilities and great potential.

            The TaNaKh is very clear on warning us against power structures and single leaders, and sets up a lot of restrictions and parameters for leaders, creating checks and balances in the hopes of leading humanity toward establishing for themselves equitable society. However, the TaNaKh and Jewish tradition in general is also very big on educational lineages and purposeful passing of the metaphorical torches. I believe this can be done in a decentralized way, that movements and smaller communities do not need a single charismatic leader, but it is still important for certain teachings and values to be established, certain roles and orders to be passed on, even if they adapt and evolve over time to keep up with growing awareness of what true justice looks like, so that society can remain cohesive and focused on progress.

            This Patriots Shabbat, we thank the leaders who have helped us and our community stay safe and healthy and moving ever forward up to this point, and we hold in our thoughts those who taught them to be the leaders we know today, and we dream of the possibilities of justice and progress that leaders to come may continue to brings us toward. May we all accept the responsibilities to uphold our community, may we all teach those who come after how to continue to do the same, and may we all live up to the great potential of equity and righteousness that the Divine light guides us toward. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781