Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Transitions of Power

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech

Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

25 Elul 5771 / September 23-24

“Moses commanded Joshua son of Nun, and said to him: be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the Children of Israel to the Land that I have sworn to them, and I shall be with you.” -- Deuteronomy 31:23

At the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, we see Moses transfer leadership of the Children of Israel over to Joshua. Moses, who was initially a reluctant leader, led the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, saw them to the foot of Mt. Sinai where they received the Torah, and then served as the leader of the community through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. This same Moses, whom the Torah specifically refers to as our ultimate prophet (Deuteronomy 34:10), would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land, and would have to relinquish his position of stature just as the community was about to achieve its long-anticipated goal.

Talk about a tough time to lose your job.

Despite losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land, and despite having the ability to rally the Children of Israel to his cause in order to defy God’s instructions (the Children of Israel haven’t known any primary leaders other than Moses after all, and the Torah makes it pretty clear they don’t have a problem going off of God’s preferred path on a pretty regular basis), Moses goes along with God’s instructions, and passes the proverbial torch to Joshua.

The peaceful transition of power is something Americans often take for granted. When a Democrat wins an election, the Democrat takes office. When a Republican wins an election, the Republican takes office. When a third party candidate or an independent wins an election, he or she takes office. Is this relinquishment of power by the incumbents a reasonable expectation? Take a quick look around the world. The Arab Spring, the stolen election and squelched uprising in Iran in 2009, dictatorships in Africa, and the permanent governing regimes in many Asian countries all serve as prime examples of how much of the world handles leadership transitions, and how different those transitions are from those we’ve come to expect at home.

Moses serves as an incredible example of how a leader (and a long-term one at that) can and should gracefully relinquish his or her power. By empowering his successor and letting him know that he would be there for him (in this case, in a spiritual sense, as Moses was preparing to die), Moses once again showed his complete humility, which we first encountered when he was initially asked to lead the people (“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” Exodus 3:11).

The Jewish community needs leaders, and it needs leaders who are like Moses. Should you be tempted to say “Who am I that I should lead these people” as a result of your youth, hearken to the words of JFK, who as a Senator in 1960 said: “[T]he Jewish people - ever since David slew Goliath - have never considered youth as a barrier to leadership, or measured experience and maturity by mere length of days.”

With Rosh Hashanah almost upon us, this is a perfect time to make some New Year resolutions. I encourage you to resolve to find a meaningful way to serve as a leader in your local Jewish community. I further encourage you to resolve to constantly keep the following questions in mind as you lead, and to do everything in your power to make sure your answer to each question is “yes”:

· When in a leadership role, can I be selfless for the benefit of the community?

· Can I recognize the proper time to step aside and allow new leadership to take over, and have the humility to do so?

· Can I be willing to say to my successor, as Moses did to Joshua, “I shall be with you,” and mean it?

As we move into the New Year, may we all be blessed to have the opportunity to lead, to empower others to lead, to support those in leadership roles, and to have complete humility.

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