July 7, 2023
Time flies, eh? This week marks the start of the 5th year of my rabbinate, and one year of service to the Temple Ohabei Shalom community. Hooray!
Much like the Israelites’ journey up to this point, the past year has been filled with challenges and opportunities, so much to learn, and incredible blessings, even and especially when I’ve least expected them. And as I see friends and colleagues’ posts on social media, celebrating similar early-career milestones or embarking on new ventures, I was particularly struck by this op-ed by Rabbi David Wolpe, a prolific writer and a longtime public voice of contemporary Jewish wisdom. Rabbi Wolpe’s piece contains some truly beautiful and poignant reflections at the other end of his professional journey, preparing for his retirement after over 25 years in the rabbinate. His words, as they often do, resonate deeply, and the focus is not on the many articles he’s written and public attention he’s received and success he’s had in is role, but on the privileges and challenges of being the person to accompanying others at their highest highs and lowest lows or, per the articles’ title, bearing witness to the human condition, and how Torah, Jewish wisdom, can act “as a spur and a salve” for our joys and our sorrows, our uncertainties and our passions.
And as I read Rabbi Wolpe’s words, I can’t help but think about Moses in this week’s Torah portion. In the middle of Parshat Pinchas, in Numbers chapter 27, standing on a mountaintop, Moses overlooks the Promised Land as he is told by God that his journey, his position of leadership, and ultimately his life, will end here. Moses asks God to appoint his successor, who will lead the people over the finish line and into the land, saying,
“Let יהוה, 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 יהוה’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
Jewish tradition looks at Moses as the consummate leader, one whose example lives on and is pointed to often. The Rabbis give myriad reasons as to why Moses was chosen to lead, but regardless of the “why”, they agree that his leadership helped shape the trajectory of the Jewish people, and that good leadership is of the utmost importance.
According to Maimonides, aka The Rambam, 12th Century Jewish philosopher and legal scholar, in The Guide for the Perplexed, “…the well-being of society demands that there should be a leader able to regulate the actions of each person; they must complete every shortcoming, remove every excess, and prescribe for the conduct of all[…]”(Book 2, Chapter 40). Now, that’s a very high bar, and great as he was, I would not say Moses (or any rabbi, politician or leader) was able to meet the needs and regulate the actions of every single person. However, even with his personal insecurities and short temper, he tried and on many counts, came pretty darn close, especially given the circumstances.
But it’s in this moment, on the mountaintop, that his exemplary leadership is brought to bear: Moses – after all he’s done, after years of answering to the people’s every complaint, fending off doubters and haters along the way, from outside and among the Israelites – does not argue, rather Moses acknowledges that his time is up and that the role he assumed for so many years is just the beginning of something much greater than himself. Here, he knows that he must, in the words of Hamilton’s George Washington, another great leader, “teach them how to say goodbye,” and pass the torch so that the Israelites might live on to claim their promise, so that their story does not end with him. This moment is exemplary of why Moses is regarded as such a great leader, and as “Moshe Rabbeinu,” Moses our teacher: Moses, as with other great leaders, provides us with a model of leadership in all its human-ness; not only at the peak of his career, but in how he steps away from it.
From where I’m sitting, still at the beginning of my career journey, I am grateful for Moses, for Rabbi Wolpe, and for the great many perfectly imperfect, perfectly human leaders, Jewish and otherwise, whose moments of grace and humility, in this week’s parsha, in the New York Times, and in everyday moments, are awe-inspiring, and from whom I learn more and more everyday about the kind of rabbi, leader and person I hope to become.
Rabbi Jenn Queen