Commissioning a New Leader on Inauguration Day

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

D'Var Torah By: Joseph A. Skloot

"Tomorrow." That was the final line of Aaron Sorkin's memorable television drama, "The West Wing," which came to an end in 2006.

The scene: President Jed Bartlett and First Lady Abbey Bartlett find themselves aboard Air Force One for a final flight following the inauguration of the new president. The couple look careworn and melancholy. Abbey asks Jed for his thoughts, and Jed replies with one of the most memorably-delivered and poignant lines in television history. Roll the credits.

"Tomorrow." In all its simplicity, the single word captured the immensity of the former president's uncertainty and anxiety at a moment of transition. We might imagine the fictional President Bartlett identified with Moses in this week's Torah reading, Parashat Pinchas.

At this point in the Book of Numbers, we find Moses' term of service moving toward a conclusion and God begins planning for his succession. God tells Moses, "Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired individual, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey" (Numbers 27:18-20).

Hearing these instructions could not have been anything but painful for Moses. The leader of the Israelites for so long, how could he imagine anyone else in his place? And yet, they were perhaps comforting too. There would be no power vacuum. God would not let the progress of the last forty years fade away. The political transition would be a smooth one, free of upheaval and discord.

Like so many verses in the Torah, God's instructions are more than they seem, of course. Our commentators puzzle over the meaning of the phrase "commission him in their sight" (v. 19). What does this entail?

According to Rashi and the midrash, Sifrei, Joshua's "commissioning" involved Moses giving his young successor a public charge. Joshua should know, the midrash explains, that the people are "troublesome and insubordinate" and despite the fine trappings of his office, leading them into the Promised Land will be no picnic.

Nachmanides, however, takes issue with this interpretation. A gifted Jewish communal leader himself, he suggests that it is improbable Moses would have spoken so harshly about the people in a public address, that is, "in the sight" of all the Israelites. Such advice would be more appropriate for a private chat.

Rather, Nachmanides teaches, Moses instructed Joshua in the proper administration of Israelite government and justice. Such words would instill popular confidence in Joshua's leadership, for he is Moses' disciple. "They will know that Joshua will walk before them along the paths of truth, since his master commanded him to do so," Nachmanides writes.

In a few months' time, the United States will inaugurate a new (nonfictional) president. Over the last two centuries, various traditions have emerged commemorating this event. On January 20th, there will be a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue; ceremonies on the Capitol steps; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will administer the presidential oath of office; prayers will be uttered, poetry recited, and speeches intoned; all followed by lavish festivities. In perhaps the most intimate and unheralded of inauguration rituals, President Obama will write a private letter to his successor and leave it in the Oval Office.

None of these events, except for the oath, is prescribed by the United States Constitution. The Constitution stipulates only that the new president, "Before he enter on the Execution of his Office . . . shall take the . . . Oath or Affirmation" and that he [or she] should be inaugurated on the "20th day of January." Yet, we — our leaders and the people they lead — need these rituals. We need them for the same reason that the Children of Israel needed to see Moses "commissioning" Joshua with their own eyes.

We need to see, see with our own eyes, that our leaders respect the basic institutions of government. We need to observe the transfer of power and know that one generation's leadership has given way to another peacefully. All tomorrows are filled with anxiety. And we need to be able to imagine, even in cynical times like ours, a tomorrow full of the possibility for renewal, change, and hope.

Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot is assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation and a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University. He is chair of the CCAR's Worship and Practice committee.

Transitioning to New Leadership with Full and Honest Disclosure

Daver Acher By: Michael E. Harvey

There is, indeed, great comfort in Nachmanides' interpretation of Moses' commissioning of Joshua. Certainly, as Rabbi Skloot explains, when we "see with our own eyes, that our leaders respect the basic institutions of government," tomorrow doesn't seem so scary. But in times like ours, times Rabbi Skloot acknowledges are, at the very least, "cynical," there may in fact be greater comfort found in Rashi's interpretation of Parashat Pinchas.

Yes, pomp and celebration does have its place in life, and in politics. But in turbulent times like these, what we need is an honest assessment of where the world and its people truly stand. As Jews, we are charged with the daunting task of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. This is a familiar and core concept in Reform Judaism, but we must remember that before we can improve our world, we must acknowledge that it needs improving. While there is little comfort in this, we can draw significant comfort from leaders who recognize the difficult paths before us and who articulate an unwavering commitment to walk those paths with us.

Thus, in an election season as critical as this one, being willing to call out the insubordinate, the bigot, or the racist, has never been more necessary or important. Moses gave Joshua his sincere view of the people because, as Rashi explains, Moses understood that transitions of power are not just parades, speeches, and formalities to keep everyone smiling. Rather, transitions of power require the difficult task of outlining what has been done, and what remains to be accomplished. In this way, true comfort during these transitions is found not in ritual, but in those strong, determined leaders who demonstrate, without fear, their willingness to embrace the trials that lay ahead.

Rabbi Michael E. Harvey is the rabbi at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

Reference Materials

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568
First Haftarah of Affliction, Jeremiah 1:1−2:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,278−1,281; Revised Edition, pp. 1,113–1,115

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