In Numbers 27:12-14 of this week's portion, Parashat Pinchas, Moses climbs the heights of Abarim and experiences the greatest disappointment of his life. For almost his entire adult life, Moses has led the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. But now he learns that he will not participate in the ultimate implementation of all the plans he has labored so hard to set into motion. God tells Moses that once he has viewed the Promised Land, he will be gathered to his kin, like Aaron, his brother.
This is reality: Like Moses, we will not enjoy all the fruits of our labors. We dedicate ourselves to lofty goals that few, if any, ever fully realize. How should we respond when we are denied one or more of the prizes we have worked so hard to obtain? Should we fight the verdict? Deny its finality? Rail against the messenger who bears the news? Lash out at those around us? Withdraw into ourselves? Pretend that nothing has changed or happened?
In describing Moses' response, our text provides us with a revealing picture of this unique leader. In Numbers 27:16-17, Moses replies to God's decree. He is shaken-maybe even angry. He knows that his relationship with God will never be the same. Until now, Moses often spoke intimately with God, but here he addresses God in the third person: "Let Adonai, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community ... so that the community of Adonai may not be like sheep that have no shepherd." The days of their creative partnership have come to an end.
Questions arise: How do we speak to those who convey difficult news to us? How do we redefine our relationships with those who know the truth about us? Can those relationships ever be the same again? Can we ever again feel free and easy in our conversations with those people? Or do we choose to distance ourselves from those to whom we were once close?
The true measure of Moses' greatness lies in how he moves on from this point. Because he loves the people Israel and knows just how dependent on him they have become, his first reaction is to plan for his own succession. He fears that they may become like "sheep that have no shepherd" (Numbers 27:17), lost and wandering without direction. He begs God to appoint a new leader "who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in." (Numbers 27:17) What commendable characteristics of leadership does Moses describe to God, the Chair of the Search Committee! The ideal leader as personified by Moses leads by example, plans for the community, and participates in the implementation of those plans.
When our terms of office expire, what kind of people do we want to succeed us? What characteristics do we hope that they will possess? Have we consciously worked to identify qualified successors?
In Numbers 27:18-20, God responds to Moses' heartfelt request in the following manner: "Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man.... Invest him with some of your authority so that the whole Israelite community may obey." God wants Moses to show the people that Joshua is also Moses' choice to lead the community. The orderly and enthusiastic passing on of authority is a great gift to Joshua, endowing him with credibility in the eyes of the people, who probably dread the death of Moses even more than Moses himself does.
May we learn from Moses to surmount our disappointments and hurts and bestow upon our successors every benefit that we can. We know how difficult such endeavors can be. But if we truly love our people and if our legacy is to endure, we must make every effort to ensure that those who come after us succeed.