On Adaptive Jewish Leadership and Embracing Change

Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D.

The word, change, in wooden blocksThe central leaders throughout the Bible share some important characteristics. While each one is appointed or finds him- or herself in positions of significant leadership in very different ancient contexts, each example models core elements of the complexity, potential, and importance of Jewish selecting and supporting of leaders today. A prime example of the multifaceted nature of selecting a new leader is best exhibited by the appointment of Joshua as head of the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Land of Israel. The selection of Joshua, however, is unique even by biblical standards because, in fact, he is appointed three different times. The third and ultimate appointment is relayed in this week’s Torah Portion, Vayeilech (Deut. 31).

Each of the biblical texts that tells of the significance of the appointment of Joshua seems unaware of the other two. There are several explanations for this repetition. The most common is that the repetition occurs because of the multiple authors and editors of the text with different agendas in different periods of time. The Deuteronomic text, as some scholars argue according to the Documentary Hypothesis (one of several methods used to explain the creation and composition of the Torah) is replete with signs of multiple editors, each emphasizing its unique ideology and political objectives. (See, for example, Zev Farber, Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception.)

The selection of contemporary Jewish leaders, naturally, often shares similar characteristics. The transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua is not only necessary, but also reflects the historical and sociological reality that different contexts demand different kinds of leadership. Yet each appointment of Joshua is essential for the whole because each case represents a different source of authority that will be necessary as the people encounter overwhelming challenges and must embrace change.

Each appointment reveals different and essential sources of the authority Joshua must have: Moses, the Israelites, and God. Without each of these Joshua’s authority will not be powerful enough to inspire the people to embrace the many challenges and changes that lie ahead. And we shouldn’t forget that all effective leaders must not only perform their roles well, but also have their leadership confirmed, reaffirmed, and renewed regularly.

The first appointment takes place in the Book of Numbers when Joshua is appointed at Moses’ request (Num. 27). The context is the impending disappearance of Moses from a leadership role. God tells Moses that he will die because of the sin of the bitter waters. It is Moses’ failures and approaching death or disappearance that necessitate the appointment of a new leader. In a telling moment of understanding both his own legacy and the very different reality that lies ahead, Moses himself requests that a new and qualified leader be appointed (Num. 27:15-17).

The second appointment is when Moses presents Joshua to the people in his final speech. Moses publicly declares to the people his faith in Joshua as a leader and the knowledge that God’s presence with Joshua will help ensure their survival and success. It is a profound moment in the transition of leadership, and the inspiration that both the new leader and the people will draw from the previous leader who says: “And it is indeed the Eternal who will go before you. [God] will be with you; [God] will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed!” (Deut. 31:7-8). As the people prepare for major challenges it is essential that they also accept the new leader, validate the appointment, feel inspired by his leadership vision, and demonstrate their trust in him. Moses makes a unique declaration that as Joshua becomes their leader the people should be able to trust him because God is with him. The religious and spiritual power of the appointment is crucial.  

Finally, in the third appointment it is God who selects Joshua directly. After inviting Moses and Joshua to approach the Tent of Meeting, the text describes God appearing in a pillar of cloud while Joshua stands before the Tent of Meeting. “And [God] charged Joshua son of Nun: ‘Be strong and resolute: for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you'” (Deut. 31:23).

As the moment of this major leadership transition nears, the need for even greater knowledge of God’s role in the appointment and a greater sense of spiritual inspiration become necessary. Not only does a new leader need the authority of his or predecessor, as well as the acceptance and trust of the people, but a new leader also needs a deep sense of spiritual strength and optimism in order to fully take on the mantel of such leadership at such a profound moment.

The appointment and relatively successful leadership of Joshua is an excellent example of what Ron Heifetz of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and his colleagues, call “adaptive leadership.” Joshua, in his ancient context, was capable of demonstrating some of the five major leadership capacities of adaptive leadership. He was able to diagnose the immediate needs of the system or moment in which he was leading, mobilize the people, and “orchestrate conflict.” Because the biblical texts rarely give the reader a window into the internal processes of a leader we cannot be certain as to whether or not Joshua was able to reflect and recognize his own limitations and the limits of his authority. But we do have some evidence that he was able to connect with his leadership purpose and most crucially able to “speak from the heart to inspire people” (Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World).

Finally, Joshua was apparently able to embrace change and grow as a leader thereby enabling the people of Israel to flourish even—or especially—in new and challenging circumstances. This is the most essential element of leadership that must be consistently supported: leaders must be encouraged to learn and grow constantly. Static leadership will only lead to stagnation of the community and its institutions. When new leadership is affirmed by multiple constituencies, and new leaders are well-trained and understand clearly the opportunities and challenges of the immediate situation without losing sight of a collective vision and their leadership purpose, they can practice adaptive leadership. If they do, the potential for a community—or even a people or a nation—to fulfill the best vision of itself is enormous.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions, and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President's Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel, and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.

Be Strong and Resolute: Believe that You Can Change

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Emily E. Segal

A hiker at sunrise raises his fist in victory

This brief and beautiful Torah portion, Vayeilech, is read this year on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return that falls between the High Holidays. Three times within this brief portion we find the words “Be strong and resolute,” as follows: Moses, standing on the cusp of his death, on the brink of ending his service to God and to the Israelites, lays the groundwork for his disciple and successor Joshua to lead the people into the Promised Land. Moses will not get to enter the Land but will only view it from the mountaintop; like so many, Moses feels the pull of the task undone and the uncertainty of bequeathing it to those who follow him. Moses prepares the people for his absence and Joshua’s leadership, reassuring them, Chizku v’imtzu, “Be strong and resolute” (Deut. 31:6). Moses repeats this exact charge to Joshua in the sight of the entire people, “Chazak v’ematz, “Be strong and resolute” (Deut. 31:7). Even a third time within this same short parashah, Moses repeats this exact phrase, this time commanding Joshua, “Chazak v’ematz, “Be strong and resolute” (Deut. 31:23).

One could also translate this repeated phrase as “Be strong and courageous” or “Be strong and of good courage” or “Be strong and brave.” Bolstering the people and Joshua before Moses’ death, building them up before they must enter the Promised Land and engage in battle to possess it, it seems that either “be strong” or “be courageous” would do. Yet we know that nothing, no single word or even letter, is superfluous or without meaning of its own.

Our sacred task of t’shuvah, “repentance,” during these High Holidays, during these 10 days that stand between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, requires a certain strength and a certain courage as well. Through Moses in our Torah portion God calls out to us, Chizku, “Be strong.” Be strong says God as you hold up a spiritual mirror to yourself in this moment. Who was I this past year? Who did I strive to be? Did I meet the mark? Who do I want to be? V’imtzu, “be courageous.” Be courageous, says God, as you imagine who you can become in the year ahead. Be courageous enough to believe that you can change; be courageous enough to try to be different. Be courageous enough to move past old habits and strive to live up to a vision of your ideal self. To engage in t’shuvah, the spiritual process of repentance, we need both strength and courage; not simply one or the other.

The voice of doubt within worries, What if I really can’t change? What if I am just not good enough? Here, too, our Torah portion answers, lifting us up, “I will be with you,” (Deut. 31:23) God says. God made us and knows who we are: always striving, always developing, always becoming. Be strong and courageous; [God] will be with you.

Rabbi Emily E. Segal is the rabbi of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, serving the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado.

Reference Materials

Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,546−1,554; Revised Edition, pp. 1,386−1,394
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,235–1,250
Haftarat Shabbat Shuvah, Hosea 14:2–10, Micah 7:18–20, Joel 2:15–27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,634–1,638
Revised Edition, pp. 1,436–1,440

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