In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, the title character is rewarded for killing the Israelite and the Midianite woman who cursed God (25:10–15). Israel fights a war against the Midianites (25:16-18), a second census is taken (26:1–65), the daughters of Zelophehad force a change in the laws of property inheritance (27:1–11), Joshua is chosen to be Moses’ successor (27:15–23), and the sacrificial ritual for all festival occasions is described in detail (28:1–30:1). (Summary from ReformJudaism.org). As with much of the Torah, this single portion packs a lot of punch, and I could easily dive into any of these topics. (Well, not easily!)
What stands out most to me, given the timing of the portion, is the description of the orderly transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua. Although the actual transition occurs much later, after Moses uncharacteristically disobeys orders from God at the Waters of Maribah, he is told his punishment is that he will not lead the people into Canaan.
Moses’ thoughts immediately turn to succession planning (the mark of any strong leader), and he asks God to “appoint an envoy to the community” so that they “may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” God chooses Joshua, one of the two spies who had reported favorably about the land of Canaan, and then instructs Moses to “invest him with some of your authority“. Moses, of course, obeys, and we see how a peaceful and planful transition of leadership can, and should occur. As free people, the Israelites had known only one leader and it was critical that that leader be part of the handover to ensure the people would follow his successor.
Just over a week ago, I took on leadership responsibility for the Board of Trustees from Heidi Schell, now officially PTS’ Immediate Past President. While I wasn’t chosen for this role for my spying prowess, Heidi was very thoughtful about the kind of leader that would make sense for the congregation at this time. And she was incredibly conscientious about the transition. Heidi spent countless hours educating me on the role, how she approached it, and where I should work to establish my own approach. I am very grateful for Heidi’s service and mentorship, and I can truly say her Presidency was an example that I will struggle to emulate.
As I thought about the circumstances surrounding the transition from Heidi’s term to mine (thanks, Heidi!), I couldn’t help but think of the famous Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” But in Judaism, this “curse” can more accurately be seen as a blessing:
“It is normal to question why people suffer through challenges – both large and small – but Judaism views these tests, known as nisyonot, as opportunities that God provides each individual to grow and meet his/her true potential. Judaism asserts that every individual has a purpose and a potential to meet–a goal that cannot be accomplished by sitting back and letting life take one where it will. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan discusses this point in Sanhedrin (106a), where he notes that whenever the term “vayeshev,” (“and he dwelt or settled”), is used in the Torah, trouble follows shortly thereafter.” (Source)
The last six months have been incredibly challenging for our congregation, both financially and in terms of the critical decision-making that needed to happen to address the new reality of COVID. I was lucky to be exposed to the talented and committed partnership of the clergy, senior staff, the President and Finance Committee as I prepared to take on the presidency. I feel confident that this sacred partnership and collaboration will continue, ensuring that we make prudent decisions that are always grounded in our Purpose, Mission, Vision and Values.
The scope of these decisions, incidentally, is not restricted to financial matters. There are dedicated volunteers and staff meeting regularly to discuss complex topics ranging from re-opening our preschool, bringing congregants back onto our beautiful campus for worship or social gatherings, how we conduct and celebrate b’nai mitzvah services, and more. If you know any of the congregants who have volunteered to do this critical work, please give them a virtual high five or hug and warm words of gratitude. This isn’t easy, and we appreciate their dedication to re-opening PTS safely with clear guidelines so that our campus can continue to stay open.
There’s so much to do in the year ahead. I’m looking forward to getting to work on behalf of the congregation of Peninsula Temple Sholom.