In Parashat Va’etchanan, Moses has begun recounting their story to the Israelites, which he does throughout Deuteronomy. I’m hearing his words in a new way this year. One of Clal’s projects right now is helping Jewish institutions that are reaching their end or in dire financial straits to think about what comes next. Resistance sometimes crops up, even when facing undeniable math. There’s a congregation I know of that may simply run out of money and shutter, likely sold to developers. The rabbi (the sole leader and board member) refuses any change to the congregation, which currently averages 8-10 congregants on Shabbat morning and is in dire need of safety renovations.
Sometimes leaders, when faced with new realities, redouble their efforts to maintain everything exactly as it has always been. This can never work, of course. When they could be preparing for transition or maximizing their legacy, instead, they are refusing every open door toward a new future for the institution – especially because it’s not clear that the new future will closely resemble its past.
But not Moses. In last week’s Torah portion, Moses recalls:
“Because of you, the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either. Joshua, son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it. Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel.” (Deut. 1:37-38)
Moses learns that his job now is to prepare Joshua for leadership.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses talks about it again:
“Now the Lord was angry with me on your account and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land that the Lord your God is assigning you as a heritage. For I must die in this land; I shall not cross the Jordan. But you will cross and take possession of that good land. Take care, then, not to forget the covenant that the Lord your God concluded with you…” (Deut. 4:21-23)
The emotional resonance of these speeches is what I’m hearing differently. Moses’ life has been defined by his encounters with God and being enlisted to lead the Israelites out of enslavement and into the Promised Land. He’s seen a lot of changes, too – he’s been an Egyptian prince, a Midianite shepherd, an Israelite revolutionary, and a persevering leader of a wandering people.
Yet this final transformation he won’t see. He knows he won’t see the final chapter of this story he’s devoted his life to. Does he throw the whole project down the drain in response? No. He spends chapter after chapter preparing his successors for what happens after he is gone. He trains Joshua to take over. He tries to share the lessons he’s learned with the Israelites to strengthen them on the road ahead, where he knows he won’t be.
This week we observed Tisha B’Av, our day of mourning over the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and many other of our people’s destructions. The Talmud, in Gittin 56b, tells the story of how Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai ended up saving the Jewish people but losing the Temple to the Romans. Smuggled out of the besieged Jerusalem in a coffin, Rabbi Yochanan meets the Roman general Vespasian and predicts that he will become Emperor, which immediately comes true. In exchange, Vespasian asks Rabbi Yochanan what he would like granted. Instead of ending the siege against Jerusalem or restoring the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai controversially asks for Yavne and its sages. Clal’s founder Rabbi Yitz Greenberg spoke about this in 1974 in his address “Crossroads of Destiny.”
“[To Rabbi Yochanan,] the destruction of the Temple could only mean one thing: a call to serve in a new way with a new understanding… He taught Jews that there is no need to turn their backs on the past and the tradition. The past can come along and give strength and deepest continuity in the moments that are most radical and fresh. The past is once and future redemption if Jews overcome the despair and destruction of the present.”
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai saw that the future would be very different from the past, but he asked for the pieces needed for that new future. This week, prompted by Moses and Rabbi Yochanan, we must ask: What does it mean to face a future we know we won’t inhabit? How might we set up our successors to achieve what we couldn’t – even though they will do things differently and face a new reality?
Rabbi Julia Appel is Clal’s Senior Director of Innovation, helping Jewish professionals and lay leaders revitalize their communities by serving their people better. She is passionate about creating Jewish community that meets the challenges of the 21st century – in which Jewish identity is a choice, not an obligation. Her writing has been featured in such publications as The Forward, The Globe and Mail, and The Canadian Jewish News, among others.