In this week’s second torah portion (of the double portion Nitzavim and Vayelech), God tells Moses that it’s time to set the orderly transition from his leadership to Joshua’s in motion – and oh, by the way, it’s not just time for retirement, but you are about to die as well…
Moses broaches the subject with the people by reminding them – Look, I’m 120 years old, and I’m not able to do all the coming and going anymore. Please let me go. I have someone ready to take over, and you know him and he’ll be great. And three times in a space of 19 verses, Moses tells Joshua and the people to be strong and resolute – chazak v’ematz. Because strength and resolve are essential to weather the transition.
This transition itself is a model: it is transparent, orderly, public, and contains both a private and public ritual: one in front of everyone so people can see Moses willingly turning over the reins to his student, and one in private so that Joshua and Moses can be alone together with the Holy One. It involves both the laying on of hands and the transmission of the Torah itself, making sure that the collective memory and teaching are passed on.
The wisdom about transition itself is very present for me right now, for obvious reasons of a congregational nature, but also because of the time of year. Transition and change are what this holy season is about…
Transition and change: according to some theories, change is a point in time, while transition is a process—one that can be planned for, although not always, and it can be intentional, although again not always. The unintuitive aspect of transition is that it starts with an ending – a graduation, a loss of ability, moving – that we have to say good-bye to. Even when the ending is good – leaving Egypt, for example – the saying good-bye is still hard.
Often we then find ourselves in uncharted territory – somewhat akin to the Israelites spending those 40 years in the wilderness after leaving slavery before reaching the Promised Land. And what did we do in the wilderness all that time? We kvetched, we rebelled… all our fears were on the surface, visible and triggering all that behavior, as we struggled to assimilate the loss. Even in the good changes, we have to spend some time in the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before we arrive at acceptance. No wonder Moses encouraged strength and resolve.
Sometimes, in the transition, it feels like this is all there is and all there will ever be: we’ll be wandering from one unknown place to the next, with no familiar landmarks, the clothes on our backs… There might be some excitement in the exploration alongside the pain of loss and the fear of the unknown, but the wilderness is a hard place to live.
When the loss includes a change of leadership, I think the fears are exacerbated – when we particularly need to be strong and resolute. Like the fears that arise with the loss of a parent, the loss of leadership leaves everyone insecure, uncertain, off balance. Even when the change is positive, those fears are still present and they are best acknowledged and addressed. And so the public rituals, the public assurances that the chain of authority is strong – help to keep the fears at bay.
When the loss includes a loss of ability, or loss of independence, or loss of health, we experience a whole other set of issues, poignant in a different way. Acceptance might mean something completely different, and like Moses, we have to get our ducks in a row, and be prepared as best we can. It is particularly hard in those moments to be strong and resolute… and so we must turn to the lessons of our tradition: bring the community together and make everything as clear as possible.
When the loss involves the loss of a loved one – a child going off to college, or a divorce, or a death, and we must rebuild or adjust our lives… the wilderness can seem quite vast indeed. When nests empty, we know there is some celebration and some sadness, as parents and couples start to reinvent their lives and how they spend their time. When the nest falls apart, through divorce, even when they believed it was for the best, we know the pain people experience, the tears they shed before they are ready to move forward. And I don’t have to describe to you the pain of the loss to death. It is the time when we need to be strong and resolute – and when we depend on the support of our community, and we benefit from the rituals of our tradition.
But eventually, the new normal emerges, when the guideposts become familiar, and we have moved to acceptance. We are approaching the Promised Land, and we are more comfortable with our circumstances. A dear friend of mine has AIDS, and I marvel at his ability to adapt to each decrease in ability with a spirit of acceptance. I remember when he first noticed the change in his cognitive abilities: he is still more present, knowledgeable and insightful than most people on the planet, but the fears he experienced at the beginning were almost overwhelming, until he received a diagnosis and support, and he found he can, for now, still teach and write. Each new normal requires strength and resolve.
Being strong and resolute doesn’t mean being macho and tough, I don’t think. I think it refers to keeping the faith that we can survive the loss and reach a place of comfort and trust again, and that we can rely on our community to help us through. It also allows us to honor the process and each stage within it.
As we approach the High Holy Days next week, we will need to face some tough truths about ourselves. Let’s remember that we are in community, that we are not alone, and that we have been through this experience before, and that when we get to the other side, we will be better for it.
My prayer is that we lend each other strength and resolve over the next few weeks, as we open ourselves to the transition from brokenness to wholeness, as we look at our lives and accept the failures as a starting point for change. Cane yehi ratzon, may it be Your will.