Two-Line Torah: Chukkat 5777–The retirement of a leader



June 23, 2017

Anyone who, like me, has recently been on a Birthright trip, can relate to Moses in this week’s parshah, Chukkat. After Moses’s sister Miriam died, the Israelites no longer had access to water and, as usual, they kvetched until Moses stepped in to help. Moses struck a rock twice with his staff and yelled, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Even the most mature and calm person has felt like screaming “Listen you rebels!” (Or something worse) by day 9 of a trip, and here Moses was well into year 40! Due to his outburst, God decided Moses wouldn’t enter the Promised Land with the community he has advocated for and guided for decades.

When I first learned that Moses wouldn’t enter the Land, I was outraged. What is the point of stepping up to lead if you don’t receive your well-deserved reward in the end?  Later I realized that God’s decision was not a punishment, but a signal that this generation of leadership was ending. Moses’s display of anger was a sign for God that it was time for a well-deserved retirement. A new generation would enter the Land and lead the Israelites into battle. 

Each year we face the exhilarating challenge of leadership transition. It’s hard to let go of those we invested in, but their work paves the way for new, dynamic leadership. Our job is to build trust that the efforts of each “generation” make our work even more relevant and accessible to those who come next. Every day we have to remember that it’s not about us, but about the students’ connection to Jewish life. Moses was so invested that, unless God laid down the law, he would have struggled to let go of his life’s work and let the next generation lead the way. As we plan for another exciting year on our campuses, we make room for the next voices, for the next generation. 

Rabbi Rose Durbin is the campus rabbi for Hillel of Broward and Palm Beach.