Planning for leadership succession

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, has in it a very interesting and somewhat surprising section. Specifically, God tells Moses: You really have to go up the mountain here, because the view of all Israel is a killer. For you, Moses, literally — because this is the end of your road. You’ve been leading the Jewish people for 40 years, and it hasn’t always been the easiest job in the world, you know, to lead Jews. I’ll let you see the Land of Israel, but you don’t get to finish the journey.
I want you to take a moment and think of the reaction that you would have if God said you would die just short of completing a 40-year journey. How would you feel? Disappointed? Angry? Resigned? Chagrined? Would you bargain for just a little more time? Would you beg?
Here’s what I think is so oddly interesting and surprising about this section — Moses’ reaction. “Let the Eternal, 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 the Eternal’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
Moses has just been told he’s going to die, and his first thought was: Well, I had better make sure that there’s someone to take over for me. It is a sign of good leadership to make sure there is always someone in line to take over, just in case. But, personally, I would have been a bit more concerned about the dying part.
Another aspect of this week’s Torah portion that I find oddly interesting and surprising is that the Torah doesn’t end here. God said to Moses, go up the mountain, take a peek and then, well, you know… But we’ve got two more Torah portions in the Book of Numbers and the entire Book of Deuteronomy before we get to the end of Moses’ life and the end of Torah. And Moses spends that entire time giving last-minute instructions to the Israelites: Make sure you sacrifice every day with this much flour and that much wine. Follow this rule, follow that law, etc., etc., etc. I suppose this could have been a very early form of filibuster; the longer Moses spoke, the longer he had to live. But I don’t think that’s it. I think that Moses was overwhelmed with everything that had to get done and he was worried that it wouldn’t be finished in the time that he had left. I know that’s what I worry about: There is so much work to be done, how can I ever finish it all?
What we must realize, and this is really hard to accept, is that in the time we are given for life, we cannot accomplish all that there is to do. We cannot see all that there is to see. We cannot experience everything there is to experience. Rabbi Tarfon, as quoted in Pirkei Avot, puts it best:
“Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimena.”
You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you free to leave off from it. Yes, Rabbi Tarfon is telling us, there is more to accomplish than we ever could, more to experience, more to do. So, don’t be discouraged when things get left undone, sights go unseen, experiences missed. But knowing that there will be work left undone, sights unseen and experiences missed is not an excuse to slack off. We must strive to do what we can with the time that God grants us.
We are — all of us — threads in the tapestry of history. We learn from this oddly interesting and surprising portion to make sure that when the thread of our life is broken, another thread is woven in to continue the tapestry. We learn that while we will never see the tapestry complete, we must never leave off contributing to our portion of the greater picture.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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