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Leadership, Legacies, and Lifelong Learning

09/10/2021 10:47:22 AM


          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayeilech, or Deuteronomy chapter 31. Jews all over the world will read this segment of our holy scripture this Shabbat: some out of the sacred scroll, some from books, and some may not literally read it in its totality but learn about it in Torah studies and sermons. We welcome our distinguished guests to share in this experience and hear about our Torah tonight.

          In Parashat Vayelech, Moses confers authority over the Israelites to Joshua. He knows his end is near, and he is preparing for his final address to the people, the song that we will hear beautifully chanted next week by our Bat Mitzvah. For this week, he warns the Israelites that they will sin when he is gone, but Joshua will nonetheless lead them with steadfast courage into the Holy Land, and that even when God hides God’s face from them due to their idolatry, the opportunity to return to Judaism and have God’s face returned to them is always available. The Haftarah, the reading from the Prophets, that we read on this special Shabbat that falls between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, comes from Hosea chapter 14. It opens with the word, shuva, which some here may hear the similarity to our buzz word of the season: teshuvah. While teshuvah refers to the general act of returning, Shuvah is the imperative, the command to return to God. This concept of returning comes up a lot in the prophets, but this chapter is one of the few times in the Torah that Moses is so clear with the Israelites that he and God both know they will go astray without him and they will need to return to the commandments.

          Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of ancient and medieval rabbinic stories explaining and expounding on Torah, offers the following scene:

G‑d said to Moses: “Such is the way of the world: each generation has its teachers. Until now was your portion to serve Me; now has come the portion of Joshua your disciple.”

Said Moses to G‑d: “Master of the Universe! If it is because of Joshua that I must die, let me become his disciple.”

Said G‑d to him: “If that is your wish, you may do so.”

So Moses arose early in the morning to Joshua’s door, and Joshua was sitting and teaching. Moses bent his frame and covered his mouth, and Joshua did not see him. ... All of Israel came to Moses’ door, but found him at Joshua’s door.

Said the people to him: “Moses our teacher! Teach us Torah.”

A voice came forth from heaven and said to them: “Learn from Joshua!” and they accepted it.

Joshua sat at their head, and Moses did not understand his teaching.

After they stood up, the people of Israel said to Moses: “Moses our teacher, explain the teaching to us.”

Said he to them: “I do not know it.” And Moses was stumbling and failing.

At that moment, he said to G‑d: “Master of the Universe! Until now, I asked for life. Now, my soul is placed in Your hand.”

There are many lessons in the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua that appear in different ways throughout their scenes together in both Torah and midrash, but this is perhaps the most important: to know when it is time to step aside. Norms change and rules change and society changes, and it is essential for leadership to keep up with those changes. When the teacher no longer understands their students, when the representative no longer understands their constituents, when law no longer reflects the morality of the people, it is time for those leaders to humbly pass the torch. There are so many reasons this could be difficult. Obviously, pride is a big one. But it can also be difficult to determine when these disconnects are passing fads or youngsters just not understanding the broader stakes. It can be difficult to know how to nurture change and transition, how to prepare a new generation of leaders, without condescending or repeating the same harm that may have been passed to us. It can be difficult to even recognize that the changes are happening beneath us if we are comfortable in our own status quo.

But, when we hold on for too long, we end up like Moses, so disconnected from the next generation’s Torah that we cannot even follow along anymore. It is necessary for the health of the community, for the ability of those pushed away to return, that leadership changes and new voices be heard.

May we lead with steadfast courage and appoint worthy successors. May we raise a new generation of leaders who succeed where we have failed. And may always find our way back to the values we set out to lead by in the first place. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782