Part of me wants to go around the room and ask you all what kind of ritual you engaged in when you retired. Who got a watch? Who had a special lunch or dinner? Who hired and oriented their replacement? Who left quietly and took a nice, longer than usual vacation? Who just left? Who got sick soon after the retirement? Who was forced to retire because of age or health? Maybe we’ll tell these stories later. And, if you’re like me and are still working, or hope to be working, maybe we’ll learn something from our experienced retirees.
In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, towards the end of Bemidbar, In the Wilderness, the fourth of the five books of Moses, so much of what happens is worth discussion. Pinchas is awarded a brit shalom, a covenant of peace, for stabbing two sinners at the opening of the Mishkan (wait, what?); the daughters of Zeloph’had convince God to change the laws of inheritance, before they can even take effect (you go, girls!), and immediately after that, God and Moses begin a discussion about retirement, succession planning and death. This chapter, 27, is short: 11 verses for the story of the daughters, and 12 for the transition of leadership. And it is these last 12 verses I want to look at.
God tells the 120-year-old Moses to ascend to the top of Mt. Aviram (the highest part of which was Mt. Nebo, where part of his farewell speeches would take place), and look out at the land that God promised the Israelites. It’s the land you are never going to enter, God tells Moses, because of the rock-striking incident a while back, while you were mourning your sister’s death and the people were kvetching again.
Let’s pause there a moment—Rashi, the great medieval French commentator—noted that the Torah emphasizes that this rock striking incident, and this incident alone, was the cause of God’s decision about Moses. Rashi posits that Moses requested that this be put into the Torah, so we would know it wasn’t because he was part of the slave generation, or one of the people who doubted our ability to conquer the land, or any of the other reasons people died in the wilderness. It was this one moment of failure of faith, or succumbing to grief. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.
Even while being reminded of this terrible moment, Moses remains composed—well, maybe a little less than composed. The Torah reads, וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֔ה —Moses spoke. Usually it says וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשה—and Moses said. When we see the use of the verb אמר/amar—say, we hear softness, but דבר/davar almost always means harshness about what is being said…Can you blame Moses for having some feeling here?
So Moses, now also grieving the death of his brother, as well as his sister, speaks to God about a successor. But instead of bemoaning his losses, he’s thinking—as always, of us: “Appoint someone over the people, who will go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in, so that they—Your community—shall not be without a shepherd.”
Moses wanted, even in his grief, even in his disappointment about his fate and his own behavior and momentary lack of faith, wants to make sure we, the children of Israel, have good leadership. Someone who will lead us, but not be too far ahead of us so as to be able to come in before us, someone who will shepherd us in our journey into the Promised Land. Someone who will be our military leader, who will lead the troops, our political leader making good decisions, delegating as appropriate, and our prophet. Moses wanted to be sure that we would be taken care of. Less concerned with himself, more concerned with his responsibility to us. A true leader.
And God answered him with softness, “וַיֹּ֨אמֶר/Vayomer”… “Take for yourself Joshua ben Nun, a man in whom is spirit—ruah. And lay your hand on him”—samahta”—the same word for ordaining a rabbi today—smiha. “And then stand him before Eleazar the Kohen/the priest, and the entire kehillah/community, and commission him in their eyes.”
This is the first inaugural ceremony of our people. In this ritual we see that the military and legal ruler and prophet needs to share power or be invested with power by the Kohen/the priest. Before everyone—hopefully with a large crowd of folks. So everyone buys into the peaceful transfer of leadership.
God continues, “Give him from your hodeha—your majesty,” or as Rashi says, give him part of your radiance. Ibn Ezra, a Spanish contemporary of Rashi, notes this is to honor Joshua before the people. Make sure everyone knows he’s the real deal, with not only your stamp of approval, but even some of your radiance—but not too much: one midrash describes the difference as Moses shines like the sun, and Joshua like the moon. Let us know you expect us to respect him as much as we have respected you.
Moses did as God asked. And he did it with zerizut/alacrity, enthusiasm to do God’s will. He lay not just one hand on Joshua, as God instructed, but both hands. Moses seemed at peace with this, feeling as though he had done right by us, and like the right person had been given the job, a person with the right spirit, one of the two scouts who had come back from the land and had faith we could win it, who had been Moses’ aide-de-camp all these years.
Moses, I think, could rest easy with this decision, when the time came for transition. He had some time before the power transfer would occur, to train Joshua in anything left to learn. He had time to put his affairs in order, as well as the affairs of state. They would have an orderly succession.
Please note that the successor was not one of Moses’ own children—nepotism was not okay in the role of leader and prophet. It was okay—even mandatory—for the priesthood, but the military and political leadership and, most important, the contact with God, was given to a person of spirit, of ruah. The study of torah, the ability to connect with God, was not to be an inheritance of the elite, but of the people with ruah.
The Torah, it seems to me, is teaching us what we should expect as a leader: a person of spirit—someone with humility, concerned for others, who feels responsibility for the community. And Joshua had been training for this job, it seems, his whole life. This is what I think we all want from a leader, yes?
I have always wondered what it would have been like had Moses relinquished power to Joshua in his waning years, and been allowed to come into the land. Maybe the skills needed for the next steps on the journey were not Moses’ skill set. It would have been nice to imagine Moses at a Levite retirement community, sipping his wine, eating his olives and figs. But I imagine it far more likely that the kvetchy folks would run to Moses every two minutes with their tales about Joshua’s perceived missteps, asking him to do something. And Joshua might not be able to hit his stride with his mentor/teacher there either.
I like to think God knew the punishment didn’t fit the “crime”, or lapse in faith, but that this was really a kindness for Moses, given the goal of finally moving us into the Promised Land. Maybe retirement was just not an option available to Moses, and so God concocted a plan that would allow Moses to go in peace, with God’s kiss on his lips, and his people cared for.
Whatever way we retire, whatever way we go, because we all go on that next journey, may we be surrounded in kindness and a kiss.
Judith Goleman says
Lovely, Meredith. Thank you