Strong and effective leadership is a monumental challenge. But I sometimes wonder whether the greatest test of a successful leader comes not in the duration of his or her office, but rather as the moment of the leadership’s conclusion draws near. History teaches us that many a talented leader failed to preserve a legacy for future generations simply because of the lack of a well-thought out transition process.
It is the fortieth year of the sojourn of the nation of Israel in the wilderness – the era of the second generation following the exodus from Egypt. Miriam has died, Aaron the high priest is gone and has handed over responsibility to Elazar and Pinhas. The mood is anticipatory – victories have been achieved and the people, as most clearly reflected in the requests of the daughters of Tzelofchad for a land inheritance, clearly have the future in the Promised Land on their minds.
It is in this very context that God raises with Moses the issue of his personal future. In Bemidbar 27:12-14, God tells Moses to ascend Mount Avarim and look at the land from a distance, but reminds him that he himself – like his brother Aaron – will never actually enter because of their failure to sanctify G-d’s name at the waters of Merivah in the sight of the people.
Moses’ response to God and the conversation that follows is poignant; but more importantly it reads like a discussion of how, in light of Israel’s history in the wilderness, to best continue Moses’ legacy as God’s messenger and as political leader of the people:
“Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd” (Bemidbar 27:16-17)
Moses’ precise articulation has numerous messages. First, his emphasis on the need for a man or human being to be appointed as a leader evokes the pandemonium at the sin of the golden calf. In that instance, Moses’ brief delay on Mount Sinai led to revelry and idolatry as the people declared, “…make us a god who will go before us as Moses – this man who brought us out of Egypt – we do not know what became of him!” Immediate continuity of human leadership is essential to proceed with inheritance of the land.
Second, Moses calls on God with an epithet that appears only on one other occasion in the Torah. The title, “God of the spirits of all flesh,” reminds us that only God knows the inner workings of the human persona and who truly is fit to lead. But it also reminds us of the anarchy and detriment to an entire nation that can result when the office of leadership is in question and challenged by the populace. This was Moses’ and Aaron’s fear in the uprising of Korah, “Oh God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and You be angry at the entire nation?” A vacuum in leadership at this moment in history would indeed be devastating to all of Israel!
But Moses’ request of God clearly evinces his personal disappointment as well. He begs God to appoint a leader who will take them out and also bring them in, reminding us that Moshe – true to his name – could draw Israel out of Egypt but would not have the opportunity to finish the job. And Moses had the training and idealism of the paradigmatic biblical leader, the selfless shepherd who leads his flock.
God’s response to Moses is a recipe for effectively passing the baton to the next in line. Indeed, God points to Joshua as the successor with the proper spirit, divinely acknowledged. But strikingly, the emphasis is not on the choice of successor but rather on the process:
“And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay thy hand upon him; and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And thou shalt put of thy honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken…'” (Bemidbar 27:18-20)
It is essential that Moses invest the authority of leadership in Joshua in a public ceremony that is both seen and heard by the people. He must command Joshua in his new role in the sight of the people, reminding us that at Mei Merivah Moses did not sanctify God’s authority in the sight of the people. Furthermore, this process can only be accomplished if Moses places his hand upon Joshua, recalling that Moses’ hand which brandished the staff of God was the source of numerous miracles and represented his divine calling. It was also the hand which wielded a staff that struck the rock at Merivah, signifying the inevitable conclusion of the era of Moses as leader of Israel.
If God commands a precise process of investiture of Joshua, does Moses follow God’s instructions? A careful reading of the Torah text might suggest otherwise. As a number of medieval commentators notice, Moses modifies God’s plan in at least two ways:
“And Moses did as the Lord commanded him; and he took Joshua, and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation. And he laid his hands upon him, and gave him a charge, as the Lord spoke by the hand of Moses.” (Bemidbar 27:22-23)
First, Moses changes the order of God’s command in the execution. He places Joshua before the people before he lays his hands upon him. And second, Moses places two hands on Joshua rather than one. Why so? These two modifications are telling of Moses’ heroism and philosophy of leadership. Placing Joshua before the nation before the investiture begins is a demonstration to the people that they are included in the process. Consensual leadership engages a populace as it clearly lays down the guidelines and boundaries.
Finally, placing two hands on Joshua, rather than the one that God commanded, was a show of Moses’ generosity of spirit. As Rashi comments quoting the Sifre, Moses gave much more than was asked of him. Moses is the epitome of the selfless leader who rises above personal pain and anguish to address the best interests of the people. I would further suggest that the additional hand placed upon Joshua is Moses’ repentance for the mishap of Moses’ hand at the Waters of Merivah. Indeed, God acknowledges and approves of Moses’ conduct of redress as the text concludes: And he laid his hands upon him, and gave him a charge, as the Lord spoke by the hand of Moses.
Being a charismatic and effective leader is a monumental challenge in the present. But creating a positive and harmonious transition to the next leader is the true mark of the visionary who understands how best to bring one’s legacy into the future. Human psychology makes it difficult for us to separate from things we are close to and especially things we have a part in creating -whether it is our children, our vocations, or in Moses’ case, the nation of Israel.
To succeed as a leader is meritorious; to hand over the reins to one’s successor with charity and realism is truly heroic.