Pinchas 5778: Transitioning Well
Pinchas 2018 7/7/2018
Shabbat shalom! What an honor it is to finally be here. Today marks a significant transition in both my life and the life of this community, as I take my place as this congregation’s rabbi. I approach this transition with a mixture of emotions, as I imagine many of you do. On the one hand, there is excitement about something new and hope that the future will hold many good things. But on the other hand, this also an anxious moment for both you and me. We are each ending one chapter in our stories and beginning another, with much uncertainty about the course of the story.
We find a similar moment in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Pinchas. God reminds Moses that, like his brother Aaron, soon Moses will die in the wilderness. He will not lead the people as they enter the Promised Land. While there is plenty more in the Torah before Moses actually dies, we already have the sense that his life and his leadership of the people are coming to an end.
How might have Moses felt upon hearing this? He might have engaged in self-pity, or been disappointed at his fate. Or maybe he might have felt sadness at having to leave behind the people he had led for 40 years.
But at least here, Moses doesn’t seem to dwell in whatever emotions he might have experienced. Rather, he seems to accept the fact that this transition in his own life and the life of the people is coming up soon. He focuses his energy in making sure that the people will be taken care of without him.
Using stunningly poetic language, Moses replies to God, “Let the LORD Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like a sheep that have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-7).
So, God tells Moses to invest his disciple Joshua with some of his authority in the presence of the entire community, to commission him as the next leader. Moses lays his hands on Joshua, symbolically transferring leadership onto him. Both Moses and the people can take comfort in knowing that the future is in good hands.
So, as we begin this transition together, I wondered what we might learn from this moment in the Torah about how to transition well. I’d like to share three lessons for transitioning leadership well that emerge from this story.
The first lesson is that transitioning well requires knowing each individual. Rashi, the great medieval French commentator, notices the beautiful name for God that Moses uses in this story, “Source of the breath/spirit of all flesh,” which appears only one other time in the whole Torah. Rashi explains that Moses used this specific name for God in order to emphasize that God knows the spirit of each individual. That is, God knows each individual’s particular personality or mindset or temperament. And because God knows what makes each individual person tick, God knows who is best suited to be their leader. God knows what kind of leader can best meet their specific needs.
Now, I don’t presume to claim that I was specifically sent here by God in order to lead this community. Although, to be honest, I do not entirely reject the idea that there might have been some Divine providence that brought us together. But what I do know for sure is that leadership starts with individual relationships. It starts with understanding each person in his or her particularity, hearing their stories and figuring out what each person needs. Already in this first week I’ve gotten to know many of you, and I hope this continues in the weeks and months ahead. If Joshua was able to relate individually to the entire people Israel, I certainly can do the same for this congregation.
The second lesson from this story is that leadership is not a solitary activity. Rather, all good leadership occurs in partnership with others. Even at this moment when Joshua begins to assume leadership of the people, the Torah makes it clear that he will not lead alone. In particular, Aaron’s son Elazar, who succeeded his father as high priest, will join Joshua in leadership.
God instructs that Joshua is to consult with Elazar for religious guidance when it comes to matters of war and peace. As high priest, Elazar kept the urim, the magic oracles that helped the people determine God’s will. When Joshua had important military decisions to make—Shall we attack now or wait?—Joshua was to consult with Elazar to make sure his actions accorded with God’s will. Each in his own way, but acting together, Elazar and Joshua were to lead the people through the difficult process of settling in the Promised Land.
Already this week, I’ve met some incredible partners, people who can be the Elazars to my Joshua. I’ve enjoyed beginning to work with Cantor Sklar, Suli Fassler, Robin Goldberg and the rest of the professional team. I’ve also met and begun to work with Margot and Joanie and the many other lay leaders whose dedication is palpable. I don’t want to do this alone, and I know that don’t have to.
Finally, our third lesson: the importance of staying focused on the big picture. According to Rashi, Moses told Joshua just how difficult his task would be (Rashi on 27:19). Moses warns Joshua that the people are defiant and troublesome, which is certainly how we’ve seen them act throughout the whole journey through the desert.
Now, this is certainly not what I would want to hear about the people I was about to lead. So Moses also tells Joshua something else. According to Rashi, Moses also tells Joshua about the rewards that the leaders of the people Israel receive in the next world, and, by extension, in this world as well (Rashi on Numb. 28:22). Taken together, Moses seems to be saying: this will be extraordinarily difficult. And it will also be worth it.
This is also the message you and I need to hear as we begin this transition together. Surely, there will be challenges and frustrations as we grow together. Things may even get harder before they get easier. In these moments, we all have to keep our eyes on the bigger picture. We are all here for a sacred task: to create and sustain a holy community in deep relationship with God, each other and the bigger world around us. We’re here to pass our heritage on to the next generation and stand in solidarity with the Jewish people locally, nationally, in the State of Israel and around the world. When things get difficult, we all need to remember why we are here and the great rewards that await us for our efforts. This is difficult. And it is also worthwhile.
The transition from Moses to Joshua is instructive as you and I transition together. But if we know each other individually and deeply, work in strong partnership, and never lose sight of the big picture, we can be confident that, like Joshua, we will reach our own Promised Land.