I am leaving.
Wait a minute. What did you say?
Yes, you heard me correctly. The synagogue has hired a new rabbi, my family and I are leaving New Jersey to return to Australia, and this d’var Torah will be my last one printed in the Jewish Standard as rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom.
In my own congregation, my exit, my “leaving” has been a bittersweet process. But for many people reading this article, the impact of my departure will be minimal to non-existent. Rabbis come and go. People get promoted, change jobs, and sadly, lose and search for employment every single day. Some readers have never and will never meet me.
Nevertheless, just the usage of the word “leaving” can cause a surge of emotions and memories. According to William Bridges in his book “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change,” “When endings take place, people get angry, sad, frightened, depressed, and confused. These emotional states can be mistaken for bad morale, but they aren’t. They are the signs of grieving, the natural sequence of emotions people go through when they lose something that matters to them” (Kindle Locations 644-46). Moses struggles with these very emotions — his own, those of the Israelites, and God’s — in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Beha’alotcha.
Continuing their quest from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Israelites appear to turn against God and Moses. Yet in chapter 11 of the book of Numbers, the Torah provides signals that the Israelites are not engaged in any evil or vindictive behaviour. Rather, they are exceptionally sad. First, the Torah explains va-yitzak ha-am, the people “were distressed” or “cried out” (Numbers 11:2). By verse 4, the Israelites are sitting and crying, by verse 5 they are lamenting their memories of the food that they used to eat in Egypt, and in verse 6 they confess v’ata nafsheinu y’veisha, “and now our souls have dried up.” Each of these statements is an expression of grief, longing, and nostalgia for what they once had and do not possess in the present moment in the wilderness.
Separate to the Israelites’ sadness, Moses expresses his grief through anger. He accuses God directly of laying the burden of the people upon him. He doesn’t understand why he alone must carry this people, “as a nursing-father carries the sucking child” and why leadership is his responsibility and his responsibility alone. He is infuriated by the weight of his obligations (11:11-14).
Neither Moses nor God seem to show any compassion for the Israelites in their emotional outburst. Moses wishes that he could be relieved of his duties and God goes into “solve-it fix-it” mode, by providing more than enough food for the Israelites to eat, as a means of chastising them for even suggesting that they did not possess sufficient rations (11:18-20). Apparently, the people’s outpouring of grief is wholly problematic for both Moses and God!
But it needn’t be. The people want Moses to listen to them. Moses wants God to listen to him. And God, well, maybe God wants someone to listen to God. Not react. Not solve. Not fix. Not change. Not meet with an overabundance of food. And certainly not meet with anger or punishment. Just listen. Just accept. Meet with empathy. Meet without judgment and let it be.
Leaving Egypt and leading the people out of Egypt provide their own moments of transition and present their own challenges that must be met effectively. As Bridges writes, “The single biggest reason organizational changes fail is that no one has thought about endings or planned to manage their impact on people. Naturally concerned about the future, planners and implementers all too often forget that people have to let go of the present first. They forget that while the first task of change management is to understand the desired outcome and how to get there, the first task of transition management is to convince people to leave home” (Kindle Locations 835-39). It would appear that Moses and God needed to help the Israelites leave Egypt emotionally before the people would ever be ready to wander in the wilderness or even arrive into the Promised Land.
Grieving is a natural part of leaving. People have stopped to ask me, “What are you going to do next?” And I have responded with a few of my career goals, my acknowledgment that life in Australia will be different than it is here in New Jersey, and that as I begin to put feelers out for further employment, that I plan to sit with my feelings too and grieve that I am no longer a rabbi in this community, which I can only do when I no longer hold the identity of “a rabbi in this community.”
It is not just the people whom we leave who are impacted. We are affected as well and we need to meet our emotions too, rather than leave them behind.