Transitions of Leadership: A ‘How to’ Guide from Parashat Pinchas

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

D'Var Torah By: Beth Ellen Young

Global news seems to be filled with stories related to the transition of power and very different models of what that can look like. In the last month alone, we read that the Israeli coalition government was dissolved, the prime minister of the United Kingdom resigned, and the president of Sri Lanka fled the country.

This week's Torah portion, Pinchas, also includes the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua in preparation for Moses' death. The conversation between God and Moses, and the subsequent ordination of Joshua, offer five important guidelines for leaders who are stepping down. Following these guidelines allows a leader to transition in a way that shows integrity and supports the community's ability to continue moving forward, just like the Israelites.

  1. Take stock of your accomplishments and where your community is going. Moses knows that he will not enter the Promised Land with the people that he has led since the exodus from Egypt. God reminds him of this and yet God also makes it clear that Moses will get the chance to see the land given to the Israelite people. "When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was." (Numbers 27:13) This allows Moses the solace of knowing both how far he brought the Israelites and how their story will continue beyond him.
  2. Speak up. After being reminded of his mortality, Moses speaks to God. Numbers 27:15 is the only place in the Torah where we read, "Moses spoke to God, saying..." a reversal of the common phrasing "God spoke to Moses, saying…" Here, it is Moses who is initiating the conversation about who will lead the people after his death, something that is clearly a concern to him. As Rashi comments on this verse, "He spoke about finding a successor for himself. This lets you know that one of the most praiseworthy things about the righteous is that, when they leave this world, they set their own needs aside and deal with the needs of the public."
  3. Facilitate the naming of a successor. It is difficult to imagine that God did not have a plan for what would happen to the people after Moses' death, but it had not been made explicit to Moses or the Israelites. Joshua is a natural choice as he has already demonstrated military success in the battle against Amalek in the book of Exodus and has shown his confidence in the ability of the Israelites to settle in the Promised Land. In addition to these external qualifications for leadership, God indicates that Joshua is an "ish asher ruach bo," literally "a man who has spirit in him." (Numbers 27:18) A similar expression is used by Pharoah to describe Joseph as a "man who has the spirit of God in him," (Genesis 41:38) further indicating that it is important to consider the person's internal morals and values in addition to their accomplishments. In most modern transitions of power, we don't have the benefit of a divinely selected successor, yet we can still emulate God's considerations in prioritizing spirit and lived experience.
  4. Publicly endorse your successor. God instructs Moses to bring Joshua before the priest Elazar and the whole community to appoint him as the Israelites' leader "in their sight" (Numbers 27:19-20). For Ibn Ezra, the importance of this step is clear. By investing Joshua with some of Moses' authority, Moses will honor Joshua in front of the Israelites. Because the community believes in Moses, and observes him honoring Joshua, they will honor him as well.
  5. Acknowledge that things will change with your successor. In the transition from Moses to Joshua, the chain of communication is altered. Joshua will not have the same direct line of contact with God. Rather, when it is time to make decisions about going into battle, Joshua will need to go to Elazar, the priest, to use the Urim (a divination tool that is part of the priest's breastplate) to consult with Adonai. Joshua and Elazar will therefore need to work together in making decisions. That shouldn't reflect negatively on Joshua's leadership; it will just be different.

In Parashat Pinchas, God and Moses are preparing for a national transition, but the five guidelines offered here are applicable in any congregation or organization, school or group. Transitions are hard, yet there are ways to navigate them so that the community moves forward in strength.

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