It’s never easy to let go. Whether it’s letting go of a bad relationship, getting fired from a job or walking away from a lifetime of meaningful work to retire. Letting go is difficult. So imagine how Moses must have felt in this week’s Torah portion.
He had led the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt to the very borders of the Promised Land. With the land stretching out right in front of him he is told by God that his time is up, he can go no further and he must turn the reigns of leadership over to someone else to finish the task of taking the people across the Jordan river to the land of milk and honey. How frustrating that must have been for such a powerful, assertive, unique leader as Moses.
Think about it for a moment. No one else in history had every accomplished what he had done. He had literally walked out right under the nose of the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time, the Pharaoh of Egypt and taken with him 600 workers – slaves of the Egyptian ruler that had been forced to do his every bidding for hundreds of years.
The Hebrew slaves had built the great cities of Pithom and Ramses, toiled day and night in the service of the pharaoh, and suddenly Moses the son of a slave had risen up and snatched them out of the very jaws of death to lead them in the first known non-violent slave rebellion in history.
And it was Moses alone who stood at the top of Mt. Sinai according to the drama of the Torah, face to face with the Creator of the universe and brought down to the people the word of God written by God’s own hand. Who in history had ever accomplished such remarkable, inspiring feats of spiritual power? No one.
And it was Moses who, when challenged for leadership by the rebel Korach called upon the divine power of God to split open the very earth itself and swallow Korach and thousands of his supporters with him, grinding them into oblivion. Who would dare stand up against the awesome power that Moses commanded after that? No one.
And it was Moses who gave the Children of Israel the very foundation of their new society, the 613 mitzvot by which they were to live – to create a society based on justice and compassion, the rule of law and not despots, in an ever-growing passion for spiritual meaning and purpose in life. Moses who created the exalted moral laws of the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 19 that declared we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors and pursue justice with eternal vigilance and love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our might.
And it is that same Moses who this week must take off the mantle of leadership and hand it on to his successor, Joshua. And not only that, but he is commanded to do so in front of the entire community – to physically place his hands and his blessing and the power of his position on the head of Joshua so that his ascendance to leadership over all the Jewish people would be undeniable and irrefutable. For Moses there would be no turning back.
It’s never easy to let go. It’s never easy for a powerful leader to retire without a fight – witness the bloody experiences of nearly every European King in history. And yet that is exactly what the Torah teaches and what Moses demonstrates this week – the true grace of power. He teaches us what real power actually looks like – it is found in the ability of Moses to declare “Hazak ve’amatz – be strong and of courage” to Joshua and to give him the strength and the inspiration to lead the people to their destiny ahead.
Moses demonstrates his true greatness this week perhaps more than in any other portion of the Torah. He teaches by his example what it truly means to be a leader – to put the welfare of those you lead above your own feelings, above your own ego, above your own need for personal power and acknowledgment and accolades. It is the Moses of this week I admire most – the man who lets go. Who tells Joshua in front of the entire community that from now on God will be with him, will walk beside him on his way just as God has always been with Moses so that both he and the people he leads will have no fear of the future but will face it with resolve, strength and faith.
As we move together into this Jewish New Year, may we have the courage of our convictions as Moses had, and the strength to give of ourselves to those we serve so that they too will have the courage, strength and faith to cross their own Jordan rivers and embrace the promises that only the future can hold.