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What Moses Could’ve Learned from Starbucks

What Moses Could’ve Learned from Starbucks

Disposable coffee cup (with steam rising from it), sleeve and lid sitting in a pile of coffee beans

Knowing when to let go is one of the most difficult decisions that many of us will face as we enter old age. If we hold on to our business or clutch on to our children too long, we may do harm to them and to ourselves. 

But who among us has the moral strength to let go of what we have invested so much of ourselves into?

Consider the case of Moses, the man who defeated Pharaoh, led his people through the wilderness, and brought them to the very edge of the Promised Land – and then failed the last great test of his life.

The story has two parts. In the first, when Moses is told that he will not lead the people into the land, he does not picket, he does protest. He only asks God to pick someone to take his place who will be a faithful shepherd, who will lead them out and who will bring them in. And when he is told to put his hand on Joshua so that all the people will see that he is his successor, Moses puts both his hands upon Joshua to show that he does so with no reservations and no regrets (Pinchas 27:23).

In the second story, when it comes time to bid farewell to his people, Moses talks very differently, as if he can feel the cold hand of death upon his shoulder. He begins by recalling the great sin of the spies who came back from the land of Israel and reported that giants lived there, and that there was no way that they could possibly conquer this land. Moses then faults the people – not God or himself: “You came to me, and you said: ‘Let us send men ahead.’… “Because of you (limaanchem), God was angry with me too... and said, ‘You shall not enter the land either’” (Deuteronomy 1: 37).

Not because I am too old, not because I am too tired, but because of you I am being barred from entering the land. It is your fault---not mine.

This is the turning point in the life of Moses. Until now, he has tried to convince the people to go forward with courage in their hearts. But now he is a cranky, self-pitying, angry, frustrated, and bitter old man who blames others for what is happening to him.

And perhaps, as my friend and teacher, Rabbi Peretz Rodman of Jerusalem, suggests, the reason the Torah gives us this picture of Moses is so that we may better understand why Moses must now leave the stage and be replaced by Joshua. Once a leader forgets that it is not really all about him, it is time to let go and be replaced. If that is true of Moses, then it is surely true of many of us who have faced or who will someday face the same challenge Moses did.

I think of a man I knew who started an institution and brought it to great heights. But when it came time for him to let go, he couldn’t, so he undermined the next three people who tried to succeed him. His actions nearly destroyed the institution he had created.

In contrast, consider the story of Howard Schultz, who stepped down as executive chairman of Starbucks Coffee after having built the company from four to 28,000 stores and made it an internationally known brand.

Schultz had carefully groomed his successor for three years, but from the day he retired, Schultz has not interfered with the way the new CEO has chosen to run the company. Evidently, Schultz has learned how to let go without anger bitterness or complaint. And for that, I believe he deserves our respect and admiration.

I hope that we will learn from Howard Schultz and from the teaching in this Torah portion that there comes a time in the life of each person who grows old when it is necessary, as Rabbi Rodman puts it, “to bow out gracefully ourselves.”

May we learn how to leave the stage with class and with courtesy, and not with bitterness and with anger.

Rabbi Jack Riemer has taught rabbis at sermon seminars throughout North America. His prayers appear in the High Holy Day prayer books of the Conservative and Reform movements. He has published two collections of his favorite sermons: Finding God in Unexpected Places: Wisdom for Everyone from the Jewish Tradition and The Day I Met My Father Isaac at the Supermarket: And Other Encounters with Biblical Tales.

Rabbi Jack Riemer

Published: 7/02/2018

Categories: Jewish Life, Sacred Texts
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