Friday, 03 Sep 2010

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh

Surely one of the most difficult challenges for a successful person is to know when to step down from a position of leadership for which there are no legally mandated term limits or retirement age. The President of Zimbabwe, or — lehavdil — the CEO of a family business, an  academic with tenure, a rabbi with a “life contract” all face this decision, especially if they are in good health, if (unlike the first example) they are respected and admired, and if the group they lead is poised for a dramatic albeit risky new achievement.

Perhaps even more difficult than knowing when to step down is knowing how to step down. Retirement is a time when most people think of their own needs: their economic security, their future housing needs, the way they will fill their unstructured hours. Few consider it a major priority at this juncture to shore up their constituency and their successor.

The narrative that begins the second component of this week’s double parashah, Va-Yelekh, recounts a stunningly poignant transfer of authority. We might suppose that Moses would be full of resentment and bitterness. After his years of devotion, his successful challenging Pharaoh in Egypt, his enduring of the people’s constant complaints in the wilderness, he is deprived of the opportunity to lead the Israelites across the Jordan into the land of their destiny. Someone else will take the credit for that, someone perhaps not as talented, nor as wise.

But the biblical account of what Moses says and does (Deut. 31:1-13)   contains not a hint of such feelings. He first announces his imminent retirement to the people. Realizing that he is the only leader they have known and that they will find it difficult to envision any future without him, he begins by disparaging himself, emphasizing his advanced age and his present inability to fulfil a successful leader’s responsibilities (Deut. 31:2). Since the final verses of the Torah describe Moses’ unabated vigour at the time of his death (Deut. 34:7), his protestation appears to be a conscious self-deprecation, intended to comfort the people for his loss by exaggerating his incapacities.

Moses then reassures the people that his presence is not necessary to provide them with access to God’s continued help. No individual not even Moses, is indispensable for God’s purpose to be accomplished. He enjoins the people to rely not on him but on themselves and on God: “Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them; for it is indeed the Eternal your God who marches with you” (Deut. 31:6). He reiterates that they do not need him, Moses, to succeed.

Having minimized his own importance, Moses turns to his successor. Again in the sight of ”all Israel”, he ratifies the legitimacy of Joshua, defines Joshua’s role — to lead the people into the land of Canaan and apportion it to them — and insists that God will not forsake this new and untried replacement (Deut. 31:7–8).

Finally, Moses sees to the continuity of the Teaching, the Torah, by  giving the written text to the priests and the elders, and enjoining the future practice of periodic public reading of it for the entire people, including the generations that will be born in the new land (Deut. 31:9–13). Through a Law, a doctrine, a constitution that is accessible to everyone, “Jewish continuity” transcends the careers of both Moses and Joshua.

In all of this, there is no hint of Moses’ preoccupation with his own needs, psychological or physical. The narrative is about what lies beyond one person in the form of a future for a people, for a Teaching, and for a land. In this context, even Moses fades into relative insignificance.     

Among so many other lessons, we learn from Moses that no matter how successful and distinguished a career we may have, the world and the causes we cherish will go on without us. Therefore, we should not allow our personal issues to blind us to the larger picture. In preparing someday to pass the baton to another as our own lap nears its end, we have no model more illuminating and inspiring than the one we encounter in this week’s verses.  

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
September 2010

(This d’var torah is based on my contribution to Living Torah: Selections from the Seven Years of Torat Chayim, ed. Elaine Rose Glickman [New York; URJ Press, 2005], pp. 483 – 85.)

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.