Rabbi Jeff Salkin is curating The Modern Men’s Commentary on the Torah, and asked me to write an entry on Parashat Vayelekh — my bar mitzvah portion. Here it is.
The Lord said to Moses: “The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, that I may instruct him” (DEUTERONOMY 31:14)
Looking over the assembly, a cold shudder must have swept Moses as he said these words: “One hundred and twenty years am I today, and I will not be allowed to come and go any longer, since the boss told me that I am not allowed to keep going with you.” Promoted into retirement just before the project he worked his entire adult life for came to fruition, the courage to stand before others and say these words is unfathomable. No, this time Moses did not choose to argue, as he did in the past. No, Moses did not decide to lash out and take the ship down with him. He understood the first rule of Jewish leadership: It’s not all about you.
Many who aspire to become leaders do so out of the belief of entitlement; feeling smarter, stronger, faster than others, these candidates seek to garner the trust of others by proving that they are the ones who can solve the challenge ahead. They accept applause with smiles and self-congratulations, and stand tall when someone mentions their name in praise.
Moses, on the other hand, understood that Jewish leadership is a burden to carry and not a prize that goes to the victor. God doesn’t choose the strongest, or the fastest. God doesn’t choose Abraham for his riches in Haran; God doesn’t confer the new name “Israel” upon Jacob until he has sent all his goods to Esau, and humbles himself before him; God doesn’t choose Joseph until he is in the depths of the dungeon. Jewish leadership, therefore, is the acceptance that in this world of hevel hevelim (“vanity of vanities,” Ecclesiastes 1:1) we might be asked to choose the collective over ourselves, even when it means giving up our own chance at contented happiness.
The task of the Jewish leader, therefore, is not to finalize the project, and not to accomplish the mission – but rather to build the platform and create the structure that will enable other leaders to arise and continue to better the Jewish people. Moses learns this important lesson twice: First from Jethro, and now directly from God. Moses is not to lead the people to the Promised Land; his role is to build the people and provide them with the infrastructure to lead themselves.
“You might not complete the task,” we read in Pirke Avot (the “Ethics of the Fathers”) “but neither are you free to avoid it.” On that day, looking over the land of Israel, Moses saw that his obligation was complete. “Joshua will go before you,” he told his people – and then he left the scene and disappeared, alone.