Parshat Maasai

Parshat Maasai
Saturday Morning
2011
  1. Shabbat Shalom
  1. As the Torah winds down to its end, as the Book of Bamidbar lists the many stops along the way for the People of Israel, we begin to see that there is a transition taking place. The leadership of Moses is ending. This Parsha is a review of all that Moses has accomplished with the understanding that there will be no new accomplishments for Moses. It will now be Joshua’s turn to lead the people. The future of Israel and all the history that is yet to be written, will be about Joshua and not Moses.
  1. While the Torah seems to indicate that Moses makes a gracious and elegant exit, appointing Joshua and giving him a charge on how to lead in the future, there are some signs that Moses will not “go quietly into that dark night”. In the Book of Devarim, Moses recounts how he begged God to change the divine mind and let him enter the promised land. It is recorded there that God replies “My mind is made up. Don’t even bring up this topic again.” This exchange between God and Moses opens the door for the Rabbis to speculate on Moses’s attitude as the end came near.
  1. The Midrash has an extensive account of the last days of Moses. It has Moses drawing a circle in the sand and refusing to move until God annuls the decree of death for Moses. God then shuts all the entrances to Heaven so the prayer of Moses cannot enter. Moses pleads with all of nature to speak out on behalf of the prophet, but each one cites a verse from the Bible as to why their plea will not be heard by God. God tells Moses that God wanted to destroy both Moses and the People of Israel but Moses convinced God to save the people of Israel and now he can’t have it both ways. He saved Israel but he will not be able to save himself.
  1. Then there is a fascinating exchange where Moses asserts that if Joshua is to be the leader, that God should let Moses go into the Promised Land as the servant of Joshua. As I read this section I almost felt as if God was humoring Moses. God allows Moses to be the servant of Joshua. The next day Moses gets up early to serve Joshua. The people come to learn from Moses but he is gone. They find him with Joshua and want Moses to teach them but he tells them that it is forbidden and they have to learn from Joshua. The people refuse until God comes and tells them to learn from Joshua. Moses sits at Joshua’s right hand as he teaches.  When the lesson is done, Moses follows behind Joshua as he goes toward the Mishkan. The cloud of God descends and Joshua has a conversation with God. When it is over, Moses asks, “What did God say to you?” Joshua tells him, “When I served you, did you tell me everything that God said to you?” At that moment Moses says, “I would prefer to die 100 times rather than have one moment of envy. Rebono Shel Olam, until now I sought life, but now my soul is surrendered to You.”
  1. God teaches Moses a valuable lesson about letting go. There are things that are worse than death. The legacy of Moses is eternal. There is no more that Moses could ask from life. It is time to let go and leave the leadership to Joshua and Aaron’s son, the High priest Eliezer. It does no good to envy their new positions. Moses has done it all and now is the time to let others lead.
  1. There is a lot of discussion among the commentators of the Torah about why Moses had to die before entering the Promised Land. Why was it so important that he die in the wilderness? God clearly states that the reason is because of the way he acted at the rock in the wilderness where he was supposed to talk to the rock but he struck the rock with his rod instead. Some say that Moses’s sin was disobeying the instruction of God. Some say it is because he belittled a miracle. Some say it is because he lost his temper. Some say that the sin of Moses was that he insulted Israel, God’s chosen people. Modern commentators take a different approach. They see the incident at the rock showing how Moses was so impatient with the people. We have seen this kind of an attitude from Moses before and we will see more of it as we read in the coming weeks from the book of Devarim. Moses does have a temper. Moses does get impatient. Moses has a long history of pointing out the flaws of the people. Moses may be a humble man but he has a short fuse and the people often take the brunt of his anger.
  1. So what makes this rock different from all the other times Moses gets angry? The problem here is that he is not talking to the same people he is used to reprimanding. Those former slaves in Egypt are now all dead. Except for Caleb and Joshua, and Moses, that entire generation has died in the desert. Moses keeps seeing them as if they were their parents. Look at last week’s parsha. He gets angry that the people bring the women back from the battle against the command of God and refuses to even hear the explanation from the soldiers as to why they spared their lives. Moses gets angry again when the tribes of Reuvan, Menashe and Gad explain that they want to stay on the east bank of the Jordan River in the newly conquered territory. They have to calm him down before they can suggest a compromise. According to the modern commentators, the reason Moses has to die in the wilderness is because he is a wilderness leader. When the people will enter the Promised Land, they will need a new leader who will lead them as a general, who will lead them in battle and not an old leader who does not have the skills needed for the battles ahead.
  1. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Howard Siegel of Santa Clara, California recently wrote, “Among the most difficult tasks in life is “letting go” Whether it is sending children into the world as young adults or retiring from a job that defined one’s existence for so many years, we all have to eventually “let go”. Everyone says how wonderful it will be to move on in life, begin anew, face new challenges, set out for new horizons. Unfortunately, these are only words. Too often our actions, like those of the biblical giant, Moses …. betray our words.
  1. If there were a modern example of this fear of letting go, we need only think of the Green Bay Packer football team and their famous quarterback, Brett Favre. He was one of the most successful quarterbacks in team history. Several seasons ago he announced his intention to retire from football. It was time to let younger quarterbacks take the field. Then, suddenly, Brett Favre changed his mind; he did not want to retire. But the team did not want him back. They had decided to move on without him. Brett had such a hard time letting go that he went on to play for Green Bay’s rivals and he would retire twice more before he “really meant it”. Bret Favre had real problems letting go.
  1. I am told that the hardest transition in the world is going from President of the United States to being the Past President. It is the custom that past presidents of this country do not comment on the politics or the policies of their successor, no matter which party may win the White House. It is not that George Bush does not care about what is happening today, nor that he is unconcerned about his legacy. George Bush understands that he needs to let go of his former job, as commander in chief of the greatest army in the world, as leader of the free world and the man with his finger on the nuclear button, in whose hand is the fate of the entire world. It is not that George Bush was a failure nor has his political skills faded. He has accepted his place in the world, and someday they may even ask him to serve this country again, as his father and Bill Clinton have done. But all three of these past presidents understand that the world has now moved on and that they need to move on as well.
  1. Yes, it is hard to step out of the lives of our children. It is hard to let them make the mistakes and suffer the consequences of their choices. I cried all day after I left my daughter on her college campus. She asked me, “Why are you sad? Did you not prepare me to live my own life?” I answered her, “Of course I know that you are not only capable of living your own life; I know that you are more prepared than many other young adults to make the difficult decisions about life. I am just sad that you will no longer have the same presence in my life.”
  1. It is hard to let go of our parents as well. No matter how sick or feeble they may become, we always want just one more day with them. We want them to be present in our lives. But we all have to let go of our parents as well. We have to internalize their lessons and continue to grow without them.
  1. It is hard to retire and let others take on the responsibilities of our work. We know all the tricks of the trade. We know all the quirks of the customers and how to get them what they want. How could someone else ever fill in for all the experience we have in our work? But now we have computers and smart phones. Now we market on social media and on websites. Customers are not just in town but all over the globe. We need to let go and let others tackle this new world in which we live.
  1. If our congregation wishes to have a place in the Jewish world of tomorrow, we also will need to tackle the realities of the Jewish world. A world in which a young retiree is in his mid 70’s and not his mid 60’s. A world where retirement is extreme sports and exotic travel destinations. A world in which families stay in touch on Skype and Google chat. Who are the leaders who will see this congregation into the years ahead? The answer depends on our ability to let go and let new leaders take us into the future. This does not mean that our past presidents are no longer useful. It only means that their role in synagogue life will change. Everyone needs the wisdom of experience. But, like Moses, we have to admit that a new world needs a new generation of leadership. If we don’t let go, the young leaders will go elsewhere, to a place where others have made room for them, and we will be forever stuck in the past.
  1. I understand very well the difficulties of moving on. For Moses, it was the green monster of envy that convinced him to let go. For Brett Favre, he had to tarnish his extraordinarily reputation with several losing seasons before he understood it was time to retire. It is not easy for the man who was once President of the United States to go back to being just another citizen, but if they love this country, they learn to step aside. We can only teach our children so much before they have to learn to walk for themselves, and we have to bite our lips and say nothing as they learn the hard lessons of experience. It is very hard to give up a seat on the bima, our name on the stationary, and our seat on the board. Who else could lead this congregation into the future? But just as Joshua followed Moses, so too will we find new leadership to guide us into the future.
  1. Letting go is one of the great gifts that we can give to the future. Not because we are useless, but we need to continue to grow with new challenges and learn to leave the old ones to the generation just behind us. I have often said that it is better to leave and have people wish we would stay than to stay and have people wish we would leave. How else will future leaders know of our extensive wisdom in life, if we can’t show them we are wise enough to move on?
May God help us serve our community wisely and may God give us the wisdom to graciously make way for others to serve when our time to let go arrives. As we say, Amen and Shabbat Shalom.
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